This Montana site endured a 34-year cleanup of arsenic and other toxic metals.
This Montana site endured a 34-year cleanup of arsenic and other toxic metals.

Trump’s EPA Budget Plan: Slash Research and Go Easy on Polluters

A former EPA administrator breaks down what’s at stake with the president’s proposed 31-percent cut to the agency’s budget

This Montana site endured a 34-year cleanup of arsenic and other toxic metals.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

The Trump Administration released its draft budget outline last week and the document confirmed what the environmental community has been fretting over since January 20: the EPA is in for a walloping. 

The proposed cuts, which would slash the agency’s budget by 31 percent across the board and eliminate at least 3,000 jobs, shocked onlookers with its scale, but wasn’t exactly surprising. President Trump campaigned on “abolishing” the EPA, after all. His pick to run the agency, Scott Pruitt, recently told an audience that he does not believe greenhouse gases are a “primary contributor” to global warming, something that runs counter to the beliefs of 97 percent of active climate scientists.

The total annual allocation to the EPA represents significantly less than 1 percent of the federal budget. The agency, which, according to its mission statement, is tasked with protecting “human health an environment,” spent about 64 percent of the $8.1 billion it received last year on ensuring clean air and water. Still, the administration has the agency on the chopping block. “You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it. So, I guess the first place that comes to mind will be the Environmental Protection Agency,” Mick Mulvaney, the director of White House Office of Management and Budget, told reporters last week. “The president wants a smaller EPA. He thinks they overreach, and the budget reflects that.” 

At this stage, the proposed cuts are opaque and tentative—nobody is sure how, say, a 44 percent cut to the Brownfield Program, which funds pollution clean-ups and land redevelopment, will affect the agency—and none of the numbers will be finalized until the Republican-controlled Congress has its say. To help us cut through the murk, Outside called up former EPA regional administrator Judith Enck, an Obama-appointee who led the EPA’s regional office in New York City who is now a visiting scholar at Pace University. Here are seven places where Enck believes the proposed budget will hit the EPA hardest. 

Superfund Cleanup

The Trump budget aims to cut $330 million from agency’s Superfund Program, taking its total allocation down to $762 million. The program cleans up the nation’s most serious environmental messes, covering everything from run-of-the-mill contaminated lands to oil spills and natural disasters. There are over 1,000 superfund sites in the country and they’re the kind of environmental catastrophes that ruin land for generations—think toxic mining refuse in the Berkeley Pit outside Butte, Montana, or the acres of nuclear test and disposal sites along the Colombia River in Washington—and make people who live near them sick. 

What strikes Enck as most “crazy” about the nearly 30 percent cut here, she says, is that it targets the program’s administrative side—the part of the office that goes after polluters and ensures they cover the bill for their contamination. Without funding the lawyers and engineers on the administrative side, Enck says, we’ll have just as much pollution, but the country will have to pick up the tab for remediating superfund sites, instead of the polluters. “With this cut, we will see fewer and less comprehensive superfund clean-up efforts,” she says. “It’ll cost us more money and expose more Americans to contaminants.”

Cutting Enforcement

The Office of Compliance and Enforcement is where the EPA keeps its teeth. It’s the office that worked with the Department of Justice to pursue Volkswagen for its emissions lies, eventually earning a multi-billion-dollar settlement. This is the kind of work, Enck says, you can expect a lot less of after the Office of Compliance and Enforcement’s budget is cut by nearly 25 percent. 

Axing 50 Programs

The Administration’s cuts for the EPA’s budget are the biggest proposed for any federal agency. No shock, then, that some of the 50 programs on the chopping block are a bit random. “The most astonishing one is Energy Star,” Enck says. The voluntary program, which awards manufacturers with Energy Star certification if their appliances are energy efficient, saves Americans a lot of money in utilities, she says, and keeps us from using energy unnecessarily. “The only explanation here is if [administration officials] don’t want people to save money on their utilities, they want more oil and gas drilling” instead, Enck says. 

Another surprising cut: WaterSense, a similar program that IDs water-efficient products in an effort to help people save water.  

Reducing State Grants

Pruitt, the EPA’s new administrator, believes that much of the environmental regulation in America should be decided and handled by the individual states. “The states are not mere vessels of federal will,” Pruitt testified during his confirmation. “They don't exist simply to carry out federal dictates from Washington, D.C. There are substantive requirements, obligations, authority, jurisdiction granted to the states under our environmental statutes. That needs to be respected.” Too bad, then, that the proposed budget would cut grants from the EPA to the states almost in half, from $1.1 billion to $597 million. “You can say you want to shift responsibility to states, but you can’t cut their funding in half,” Enck says.

Ending Waterway Pollution Clean-Ups

The proposed budget would nearly eliminate funding for a handful of multi-state efforts to cleanup waterways, including programs to reduce pollution in the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake and San Francisco bays and the Puget Sound. These programs are popular in Congress, Enck says, and may be saved when representatives get their hands on the budget. 

That may sound like good news, but Enck thinks the cuts might be a bait and switch. If the water programs are restored, Mulvaney, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, may ask for the money—which amount to around $400 million—to come from somewhere else. Encks guess: Further staff reductions. “Everyone stands up for Chesapeake and the Great Lakes, but who stands up for staff?” she says. 

Ignoring Climate Change

Mulvaney was clear about the administration’s stance on climate change last week. “We’re not spending money on that anymore,” he said in a press conference. “We consider that to be a waste of your money.”

There’s no line-item laying out which climate change-focused programs will be cut yet, but the Obama Administrations’ Clean Power Plan, which sought to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuel, will almost certainly be axed. De-funding climate change research is nonsensical and dangerous, Enck says and “when people in the future write books about climate change [Mulvaney’s quote] is going to be the opening chapter.”

Slashing Health and Science Funding

Endocrine disrupters are chemicals, often found in household goods and industrial products, that cause horror in the body—tumors, development disorders and birth defects are all common outcomes. The EPA’s office in charge of screening for endocrine disruptors examines any chemical that you might come in contact with—the pesticides on your food, for example—and ensures it isn’t present at levels that could cause harm. “You don’t want endocrine disrupting chemicals on your apples,” Enck says. Unfortunately, the endocrine disruptor screening program is up for a 94 percent budget cut. 

That's just one example of how officials worry that the current budget attacks the agency’s scientific and research programs. The agency’s Office of Research and Development, in fact, is set to have its budget cut in half, from $483 million to $250 million. In a commentary earlier this month in the New England Journal of Medicine, three former EPA scientists all but begged the administration to protect the agency’s scientific budget. Reagan got lead out of gas and was president when the EPA first began studying global warming, they write. “Scientific evidence does not change when the administration changes,” it reads.