EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said Thursday that the administration’s proposed budget “supports the EPA’s highest priorities.” (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

President Trump once vowed to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form,” leaving behind only “tidbits.” On Thursday, the man he appointed to lead the EPA went to Capitol Hill to defend a budget proposal that would begin that promised dismantling.

“I believe we can fulfill the mission of our agency with a trimmed budget, with proper leadership and management,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told members of a House Appropriations subcommittee, adding in his prepared remarks that the Trump administration’s proposal “supports EPA’s highest priorities” while aiming “to reduce redundancies and inefficiencies.”

The “trimmed” budget he referenced would amount to a cut of more than 31 percent, or $2.4 billion annually — a larger percentage than at any other federal agency. The administration wants to rid the EPA of thousands of employees and sharply reduce or eliminate a variety of national and regional programs.

Pruitt encountered swift resistance Thursday from members of both parties, who described the EPA’s work in their districts as both vital to environmental protection and an economic engine in many areas.

“I’ll get straight to it. The fiscal year 2018 budget request for EPA is a disaster,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), adding that it would “surely impact EPA’s ability to fulfill its critical mission of protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink.”

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Ken Calvert (Calif.), and several other Republicans also were quick to distance themselves from many of the administration’s proposals, saying Congress is unlikely to go along with such deep — and deeply unpopular — cuts to environmental programs around the country.

“You have a tough job here today,” Calvert said. “This budget proposes to significantly reduce or terminate programs that are vitally important to each member on this subcommittee. … This is perhaps not how you personally would craft EPA’s budget, but it’s a budget you have to defend here today.”

The White House has proposed nearly halving grants that support state and local efforts to address everything from pesticide exposure to air and water quality. It would slash nearly one-third of funding for the Superfund cleanup program, which helps restore some of the nation’s most polluted sites. Dozens of other programs would be zeroed out entirely, including funding for radon detection, lead-risk reduction, environmental justice and projects along the U.S.-Mexico border. Also slated for elimination are efforts aimed at restoring the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound.

The agency also would have fewer funds for prosecuting environmental crimes or researching climate change and other issues.

At times, even Pruitt himself seemed not to strongly defend pieces of the Trump administration’s proposals.

When Lowey asked how the administration could justify eliminating a program aimed at investigating the link between chemicals and possible endocrine system problems in humans and animals, Pruitt did not try to do that. “You raise a very, very, important question,” he replied, noting that the 20-year-old program has had a “significant impact” and asking for the lawmaker’s input on how it could be “restored and/or addressed in a different way.”

Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) said the EPA’s program aimed at cleaning up the Great Lakes region, which Trump would defund entirely, had helped communities revitalize waterfront areas and created jobs. “Cleaning up the lakes isn’t about correcting mistakes from the past, but creating new opportunities and a brighter future for our shoreline communities,” he said, adding that the proposed budget “would cripple our collective efforts, halt the progress we’re making and undermine investments we have made.”

“You’ve said it well,” Pruitt responded. “We recognize the importance of the Great Lakes. We recognize the importance to the citizens in that region. And we’re going to work with Congress to ensure that those objectives are obtained.”

Pruitt did make clear Thursday that he plans to continue to shrink the EPA’s 15,000-employee workforce, though he said reductions probably can be accomplished through attrition, buyouts and an ongoing hiring freeze, rather than layoffs.

“About 20 percent of the agency is eligible for retirement today, and that’s going to increase over the next several years,” Pruitt told lawmakers. “That’s how we’re going to address the proposed cuts to personnel.”

The Trump administration’s efforts to take a sledgehammer to the EPA budget have drawn widespread criticism from environmental groups and from a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including even some Republicans who said they think the agency overstepped its regulatory authority under President Barack Obama.

This week, former EPA scientists, lawyers, economists and policy experts who have banded together as the Environmental Protection Network called the pending budget proposal an unprecedented attack on the agency. The group detailed how Trump’s sharp cuts, if enacted, could undermine virtually every core function of the agency.

“We’re people who worked at EPA over years and decades. We’ve seen lots of different policy approaches, lots of different policy viewpoints,” said George Wyeth, a former EPA lawyer who left the agency in January after nearly three decades. “[But] when you look at a budget proposal of this kind, it raises serious concerns about the agency’s capacity and integrity.”

He said the rationales given by Pruitt and the administration — that the proposed cuts will merely refocus EPA’s attention on its core duties of safeguarding clean air and water — “are inconsistent with what you see in the budget yourself.”

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