EPA staffing nears lowest level in 30 years as environmental disasters pile up

Hurricanes, Flint reveal need for more resources, not fewer.

Hurricane Matthew caused heavy damage in Nichols, South Carolina in October 2016.  A stew of contaminants stood inches to feet deep in homes for a week. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Spencer
Hurricane Matthew caused heavy damage in Nichols, South Carolina in October 2016. A stew of contaminants stood inches to feet deep in homes for a week. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Spencer

Hundreds of Environmental Protection Agency employees are leaving as the Trump administration works to reduce the federal government’s role in protecting Americans from toxic air and water.

The staff reductions are occurring at a time when the EPA’s work is proving more valuable than ever. Storms, floods, and deteriorating infrastructure are forcing communities across the country to turn to the federal government for help protect their health and environment. A shrinking EPA will likely mean these localities will need to look elsewhere for assistance.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that nearly 400 workers have left the agency in recent days, primarily due to voluntary buyouts. The departures have cut the agency’s staff by 2.5 percent. As the buyouts and retirements continue, the departures could take the agency’s staffing level to its lowest point in almost 30 years, the Journal said.

Members of Congress are criticizing efforts by the Trump administration and House Republicans to drastically reduce the size of the EPA, especially in light of recent environmental disasters, including flooding from Hurricane Harvey. H.R. 3354, an omnibus House spending bill, would fund the EPA at $7.5 billion for fiscal year 2018 — $528 million less than the fiscal 2017 enacted level, but $1.9 billion above President Donald Trump’s requested budget.

“We strongly oppose the harmful cuts proposed to the EPA in this bill,” Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Paul Tonko (D-NY), and Doris Matsui (D-CA), co-chairs of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, said in a statement Thursday.  “The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is a dire reminder of how important it is to have a fully staffed and funded EPA that can respond quickly to protect communities after disasters, whether from accidental releases of dangerous pollutants at chemical plants or flooding of toxic Superfund sites.”

An EPA spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal that agency leaders designed the buyout plan so the agency would not be left with too few people to respond to natural disasters. The EPA is responsible for cleaning up some of the nation’s most contaminated land as part of the Superfund program and responding to environmental emergencies, oil spills, and natural disasters.

Last week, reporters from the Associated Press were able to visit various Superfund sites in the Houston area that had been flooded by Hurricane Harvey. At the time, the EPA said many of the same sites visited by the news agency had not been accessible by its response personnel. Embarrassed by the AP’s reporting on the potential spread of hazardous waste from these sites, the EPA issued a press release last Sunday attacking one of the reporters of the article.

With Hurricane Irma currently threatening southern Florida, the EPA will be monitoring 22 additional current or former hazardous waste sites to ensure they are secure and do not harm residents in the area. The agency said Wednesday it is contacting managers of the Superfund sites to ensure they are secure and that no contaminants migrate offsite if flooding damages the sites as it did in the Houston area with Hurricane Harvey.

After Irma passes and floodwaters recede, the EPA said its remedial managers and contractors will conduct assessments of the sites to identify any damage and begin cleanup plans if necessary. In a press release, the EPA noted that unauthorized entry at any Superfund site, either prior to or following the storm is prohibited.

The EPA currently employs about 14,880 people. The recent staff reductions include a dozen retirements at the end of August. Another 33 employees will retire at the end of September, and 45 additional employees are considering retirement offers, the Washington Post reported. With these planned departures, EPA staffing levels would fall to 14,428. The last time the agency’s staffing level fell so low was in the final year of the Reagan administration, the newspaper said.

As long-time scientists and environmental experts depart, the agency continues to hire officials from the industries it regulates. The hires are part of the Trump administration’s effort to recruit officials to fill its top staff positions from energy and chemical industry groups.

Former chemical industry lobbyist Nancy Beck now works as EPA’s deputy assistant administrator in the agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. The office “regulates the kinds of dangerous chemicals that, together with sewage and Superfund sites, have turned Houston area floodwaters into a contaminated stew,” the International Business Times reported. Prior to joining the EPA, Beck served as senior director of regulatory science policy for the American Chemistry Council, the primary lobbying group for the chemical industry.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has not hidden his desire to cut back on the agency’s role in protecting the nation’s air and water. The EPA is not only attempting to roll back climate rules but is seeking to duplicate Pruitt’s efforts as attorney general in Oklahoma where, according to the Sierra Club, he “led the charge to try to dismantle our most basic clean air and water protections.”

As its staffing levels decline, the EPA is playing catch-up — in the wake of the Flint, Michigan waster disaster — on ensuring Americans have access to safe drinking water. The agency awarded a $100 million grant to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to fund drinking water infrastructure upgrades in Flint.

The EPA’s statutorily required work to ensure safe drinking water will not end in Flint. “Most of our country’s underground water infrastructure was built 50 or more years ago, and in some older cities, water mains are a century old. The implications of deteriorating infrastructure can be felt nationwide,” Jim Gebhardt, director of the EPA’s water infrastructure and resiliency finance center, wrote in an EPA blog post last year.

The dramatic reduction in staff will almost certainly include career scientists and other staff who are often called into local communities where an environmental disaster is occurring, such as Houston, and staffers who work on less urgent, but serious problems like widespread drinking water contamination, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental and public health group.

The Environmental Working Group released a report Wednesday that shows the drinking water of nearly 90 million Americans is tainted with the cancer-causing chemical 1,4-dioxane. The EPA and its career staff are charged with working with local authorities to help mitigate drinking water contamination, the group said.

“Only the Trump administration would conclude that it’s a good idea to cripple the federal agency tasked with combating the growing pollution threats to Americans’ drinking water, and the clear and present dangers of climate change — like historic, back-to-back hurricanes,” Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement Wednesday. “These and other serious problems demand more resources, not fewer.”