In the past decade, Congress and the White House cut the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) funding for science and pollution regulation by 16 percent (if you adjust for inflation) and cut 2,699 positions. Those cuts were fueled by the idea that environmental protection should be states’ responsibility, not the federal government’s.
The Trump administration has tried to cut EPA funding even more, and they’ve spewed that same rhetoric to defend their proposal. But a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project shows that most states have cut their environmental agencies’ funding and staffing in the past 10 years.
These budget cuts couldn’t have come at a worse time. Air pollution has risen for the first time in a decade. And increasingly severe impacts of climate change are putting industrial sites at waste (see: Hurricane Harvey). At the same time, these facilities are responsible for the climate and pollution crises and that need to be checked. Despite this, 30 states reduced their environmental agencies’ pollution control programs. Sixteen of those states’ cuts were more than 20 percent when adjusted for inflation.
“The Trump Administration has been trying to roll back EPA’s authority and funding by arguing that the states will pick up the slack and keep our air and water clean,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA, in a statement. “This is just a shell game, however, because state agencies are often badly understaffed and the EPA workforce is already at its lowest level in more than thirty years.”
Eighteen states cut their environmental agencies’ budgets despite overall increases in state funds. Texas’ budget, for instance increased by 40 percent, but its environmental agency has seen its budget slashed by 35 percent.
“With one-third of our waterways unsafe for fishing and swimming and two-thirds of Texans living in areas with unsafe air quality, Texas has major environmental problems,” said Luke Metzger, Executive Director of Environment Texas, in a statement. “But instead of meeting this challenge, our legislature is deprioritizing the environment and public health.”
The budget cuts came despite evidence that the U.S. is slacking when it comes to environmental enforcement. Records show that there are currently more than 2,000 industrial sites, including fossil fuel plants, sewage plants, and factories, that are in violation of federal pollution controls.
Schaeffer said that number will likely increase. He said state applications for those kinds of projects can exceed a thousand pages. “Someone needs to read those permits and ensure those projects meet environmental controls,” he said on a press call. But when you lose capacity, he says, the proposals can get backlogged and overwhelm employees, or worse, they can get “rubber stamped” without much oversight. Anne Rolfes, Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, has seen this in her state.
“You may think decreased capacity for regulation would mean less permits for new projects,” she said on a press call.
But in fact, from 2008 to 2018, Louisiana issued permits for 42 new petrochemical facilities, and has 11 more on deck. Environmental advocates say one newly approved plastic plant, set to be built in Louisiana’s already polluted St. James Parish, will be the third-largest emitter of ethylene oxide in the country and double the area’s air pollution. Schaeffer says that kind of greenlighting for polluters is happening across the country.
“We risk having more of these industrial accidents, more evacuations, more workers injured, more neighbors exposed to really harmful pollution in the years to come” he said. “So the bottom line is, it’s past time to give both the U.S. EPA and state agencies the resources they need to enforce our environmental laws and make them work to protect public health.”