But Thursday morning, new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — himself a longtime agency critic who has made clear he intends to scale back the EPA’s reach — told a group of mayors from around the country that he intends to defend at least some pieces of the EPA.
“Superfund is an area that is absolutely essential,” Pruitt told a gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors at the Capital Hilton. “The brownfields program, as well.”
EPA’s Superfund program, which has been around since 1980, is responsible for managing the cleanup of some of the country’s most contaminated hazardous waste sites, as well as responding to significant environmental emergencies. There are more than 1,300 Superfund sites around the country, and most past cleanups have been paid for by the parties responsible for polluting. The brownfields program, which began in 1995, involves EPA grants for communities to help clean up and redevelop abandoned industrial sites.
The programs historically have been considered successes and are popular around the country among lawmakers and their constituents. The White House budget proposal this week, however, would shrink EPA grants to states by 30 percent and potentially cut the brownfields funding altogether.
“There’s a brownfields in every congressional district,” Chris Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth, N.J., told Pruitt on Thursday. “It’s a program that’s worked really well in my city and throughout the nation.”
“It’s a tremendous success,” Pruitt agreed, urging the mayors to send him details of where the program has worked best. “I want to hear from you about those successes. I want to be able to share those with the White House. … We need stories. We need illustrations about how important the brownfields program is to creating jobs and the environmental benefits that have been achieved.”
Pruitt also said Thursday that he intends to advocate for water infrastructure funding as part of a broader infrastructure push by the Trump administration.
“We know when it goes wrong, it goes wrong badly,” Pruitt said, in an apparent reference to the Flint, Mich., water crisis. “We have a water infrastructure issue right now across this country. It’s not just roads and bridges.”
He said he planned to bring up the need for water infrastructure investment at a White House meeting Thursday afternoon.
Pruitt did not address the wave of other deep cuts proposed at the agency.
The White House’s initial proposal would reduce the agency’s staff by one-fifth in the first year — from 15,000 to 12,000 — and would slash the EPA’s budget from $8.2 billion a year to $6.1 billion. Grants to states, as well as the agency’s air and water programs, would be cut by nearly a third. The massive Chesapeake Bay cleanup project would receive only $5 million in the next fiscal year, down from its current $73 million. The agency’s Office of Research and Development could lose up to 42 percent of its budget. EPA’s environmental justice program could vanish. In total, 38 separate programs would be eliminated entirely.
The blueprint preserves support for “greenhouse gas reporting, accounting and basic analytic capabilities, but substantially reduces funding for regulatory and voluntary climate change mitigation programs.” As a result, that climate program drops 70 percent, from $95.3 million to $29.2 million.
Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in an interview Thursday that Pruitt’s support for the Superfund and brownfields programs are not surprising, given their widespread support around the country. “They’re clearly some of the most popular programs that we’d fully expect Congress would want to fund,” she said.
But she remains troubled by some of the other severe cuts that the Trump administration seems intent on making at the agency.
“The budget proposal that I’ve been reading about is much more extreme than, in fact, I ever thought it would be,” she said. “It’s such a frontal attack on the people in that agency and, in particular, on the scientists.
Congress, of course, would have to approve any such cuts, some of which are deeply unpopular among lawmakers.
But there is little doubt about Trump’s disdain for much of the agency’s work. As a candidate, he vowed to eliminate the EPA “in almost every form,” leaving only “little tidbits” intact. As Oklahoma attorney general since 2010, Pruitt also has been a key EPA adversary, suing the agency more than a dozen times to challenge its legal authority to regulate such things as mercury pollution, smog and carbon emissions from power plants.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.