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EPA remains top target with Trump administration proposing 31 percent budget cut

The Trump administration is expected to introduce its 2018 budget proposal on May 23, which will likely include major cuts to programs for low-income Americans. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Candidate Donald Trump vowed to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form,” leaving only “little tidbits” intact. President Trump is making good on his promise to take a sledgehammer to the agency.

Under the White House’s latest budget proposal, released Tuesday, the EPA would fare worse than any other federal agency. The proposal would reduce the agency’s current funding by more than 31 percent, to $5.65 billion.

The plan would eliminate several major regional programs, including ones aimed at restoring the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, as well as EPA’s lead risk-reduction program. The White House also proposes nearly halving categorical grants, which support state and local efforts to address everything from pesticide exposure to air and water quality, to $597 million. It would slash funding for the Superfund cleanup program, which helps restore some of the nation’s most polluted sites, despite the fact that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt lists it as one of his priorities.

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Dozens of other programs also would be zeroed out entirely, including funding for radon detection, lead risk reduction, projects along the U.S.-Mexico border and environmental justice initiatives. The agency would have significantly less money for enforcement of environmental crimes and for research into climate change and other issues.

“The president’s budget respects the American taxpayer,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement Tuesday. “This budget supports EPA’s highest priorities with federal funding for priority work in infrastructure, air and water quality, and ensuring the safety of chemicals in the marketplace.”

The budget proposal indeed would maintain funding for “high priority” infrastructure investments such as grants and low-cost financing to states and municipalities for drinking water and wastewater projects. Another area that would receive additional funds is the increased activity stemming from reauthorization of the Toxic Substances Control Act, a bipartisan measure that passed last year and will subject chemicals already in the marketplace to greater federal scrutiny. Pruitt’s chief of staff Ryan Jackson played a key role in shepherding the bill through Congress while serving as a top aide to Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.).

But in the broadest sense, the White House wish list would undoubtedly hobble the EPA, leaving the work of safeguarding the nation’s water and air primarily up to local officials.

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S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said in an interview that he was amazed the administration had not shifted course from its first proposal in March — former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy called it a “scorched earth” budget — despite bipartisan push back in Congress and warnings from many groups that such cuts could hamper state and local work to curb pollution.

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“You would think they would have learned something from these trial balloons,” Becker said. “Instead, they’re doubling down. They just don’t care about the reaction.”

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, echoed the exasperation of many in the environmental community. “This isn’t a budget — it’s a road map for the President, EPA Administrator Pruitt and polluters to see that millions of Americans drink dirtier water, breathe more polluted air and don’t have enough nutritious food to lead healthy lives,” he said in a statement. “With each cut in EPA funding, each regulatory rollback, each special favor for polluters, it becomes more clear that for President Trump, public health protection is not a priority, but a target.”

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Trump administration officials, including Pruitt, repeatedly have made clear that they intend to return the agency to its “core responsibilities” of protecting air and water quality. Combating climate change by regulating carbon dioxide emissions, which was a key focus in the Obama administration, has essentially vanished from the EPA’s mission.

In unveiling its initial proposal, the administration acknowledged that the drastic cuts “will create many challenges” at the agency. But it suggested that, “by looking ahead and focusing on clean water, clean air and other core responsibilities rather than activities that are not required by law, EPA will be able to effectively achieve its mission.”

A deal reached recently by lawmakers to fund the government through September left the EPA largely untouched, reducing its budget $81 million below the current operating level — about a 1 percent cut.

Washington Post reporter Dennis Brady talks with Mustafa Ali, a former EPA environmental justice leader who served more than two decades with the agency, to discuss the consequences of President Trump's budget proposal. (Video: McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post, Photo: David McNew/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated. 

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