The Biden administration’s 2024 budget presentation for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will provide a much-needed boost to efforts to rebuild the agency after years of dwindling resources and stagnant funding. Now, the Republican-controlled House is trying to bulldoze any gains and push back on the EPA, a doomsday proposal to slash the agency’s budget to levels last seen under the Ford administration.
Over the years, EPA’s budget problems have forced it to cut key environmental protection activities such as monitoring air pollution, inspecting facilities, measuring pollutants, and taking enforcement actions against violators of environmental laws. Even last year’s modest 6 percent funding increase was too small to keep up with inflation, less than a quarter of what the agency requested.
This year, the House Appropriations Committee launched an assault on the EPA beyond the Trump administration’s wildest dreams with a proposal to cut the EPA budget by 40 percent. The resulting $6.2 billion budget is the agency’s smallest in constant dollars in nearly half a century.
Adding grave insult to crippling injury, the proposed budget rescinds $9.1 billion of money already appropriated under the Inflation Reduction Act. Those exemptions are laser-focused on two goals: climate change and environmental justice, two areas the bill treats as literally unmentionable, never using the words “climate” or “justice” or “equity” except to prohibit the EPA from addressing the topics.
At the heart of the bill is an attack on the EPA’s core function of protecting our nation’s health and environment. It cuts EPA science by a third, which is critical to understanding pollution and how to control it. It eliminates EPA environmental regulation programs by cutting funding to manage such programs in half. A 40 percent cut in the account for state and tribal aid grants comes with a staggering $3 billion reduction in cuts to support core environmental protection efforts.
Cuts of this magnitude would prevent EPA from developing new programs and impose massive cuts to existing programs. Pulling the plug on ongoing operations will disrupt the agency’s functioning to the maximum extent possible. This would create regulatory uncertainty and inefficiency, eliminate the consistency and clarity needed for production control, and invalidate past progress and knowledge gained. The harm from such disruptions can be particularly severe for an agency in the midst of rebuilding itself and rebuilding its programs and workforce. While reducing environmental and health protections for everyone, these cuts will not reduce overall federal spending.
The cuts will hit employees particularly hard, as roughly 28 percent of the EPA budget supports its workforce. The cuts would reverse the EPA’s progress in restoring the workforce it maintained over two decades between 1992 and 2012. EPA employees enforce our environmental laws to protect public health and safety and work to protect the safety of our drinking water, the air we breathe, and the chemicals we sell to consumers; Address climate change, improve protection for disadvantaged communities, and promote resilience and sustainability; lead responses to emergencies often exacerbated by climate change; Address new challenges such as improving methods to detect and reduce harm caused by highly toxic “forever chemicals” that fall under the general heading of PFAS contamination. Cuts will either take away resources for workers to do this important work or sacrifice resources from other programs.
The cuts would hamper more specific but less EPA actions to address public health threats, such as high levels of lead in drinking water in Benton Harbor, Mich., a community that is nearly 90 percent African-American. There, EPA’s work in coordination with state, city, and local drinking water systems helped keep community residents safe and healthy.
The House appropriations bill also includes harmful policy riders that could damage the agency’s ability to do its critical work. The riders repeal the Clean Water Rule, prevent greenhouse gas reporting, and prevent consideration of the social cost of carbon in evaluating the costs and benefits of proposed actions.
Finally, a particularly insidious new effort to “repeal” the agency’s environmental justice plan includes the idea that giving everyone fair treatment and meaningful participation in environmental decision-making is “woke up” to the nation’s good. The provision broadly prohibits the agency from using funds appropriated to “conduct, administer, apply, enforce, and enforce” Executive Orders 13898 and 14091 aimed at advancing racial equity and support. deficient communities” (emphasis added). The orders themselves seek to “combat discrimination and advance equal opportunity.” The new provisions in the bill appear to create a blanket prohibition on any conceivable action to remedy discrimination or promote equal opportunity provided for in the two EOs.
The House budget proposal appears to be carefully designed to end EPA’s environmental justice work through a legislative strategy and cut much of the agency’s critical work to protect our health and the environment we all depend on. Our country deserves more.
David F. Coursen is a former EPA attorney and a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit organization of EPA alumni working to protect the agency’s progress toward clean air, water, land, and climate protection.
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