The Environmental Protection Agency has sent letters to 182 staffers in its Midwest regional office offering buyouts or early retirements as part of the Trump administration’s plans to drastically reduce the size of the agency.
Using funds from the current fiscal-year budget, the EPA is hoping 79 employees in the region will agree to the buyouts or early retirements, Mike Mikulka, American Federal of Government Employees Local 704 President, told reporters on a conference call Monday. The EPA Region 5 office, based in Chicago, currently has about 1,150 employees.
The buyouts in the EPA’s Midwest region are part of a larger effort by President Donald Trump to weaken the agency, according to speakers on the conference call. The agency plans to offer to buy out 1,227 positions across the nation, with 655 of those offers going to positions within agency headquarters, E&E News reported Monday. Employees who take the early retirements or buyouts will have to leave the agency by September 2.
Mikulka expects many EPA employees will agree to the offers. “Federal employees have been demonized by certain interest groups as well as Congress over time, and people are tired of it,” he said. “Some really good people are going to leave the agency because of this, and the environment and human health will suffer.”
A fiscal year 2018 budget bill, passed last week by a House appropriations subcommittee, represents about an 8 percent across-the-board cut and a 9 percent cut to personnel from the previous year. It also marks a 27 percent decrease in the overall EPA budget in the last six years, according to the American Federal of Government Employees Local.
The bill funds the EPA at $7.5 billion for fiscal year 2018, $528 million less than the fiscal 2017 enacted level, but $1.9 billion above Trump’s requested budget. Trump had proposed reducing the agency’s budget by more than 31 percent, one of the biggest reductions among all federal agencies. Under Trump’s proposal, the agency would have lost 3,800 employees.
The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up the bill on Tuesday.
At an EPA budget hearing last month, Pruitt described reports that the Trump administration planned to close the EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago as “pure legend.” Reports surfaced in April that the regional office would be closed or consolidated with the agency’s Region 7 office in Kansas to meet the administration’s budget-cutting goals.
Mikulka said he takes Pruitt “at his word” when he says closure or consolidation of the Region 5 office is off the table. “At least for fiscal year 2018, we’ve put the issue of the closure or the consolidation of the EPA region office to bed,” he said.
Even though the House subcommittee did not rubber-stamp Trump’s plan, Mikulka and other speakers on the conference call were unhappy with the proposed cuts to the agency. When combined with years of cuts to the EPA’s budget, the House bill would further weaken the agency’s ability to protect human health and the environment, said Margaret Levin, director of the Minnesota chapter of the Sierra Club.
“We do appreciate the work that has been done over the past weeks by champions like Rep. Betty McCollum [D-MN] to fight cuts to the EPA. But this fundamentally is not a relief,” Levin said. “The Republican House budget and Trump’s original proposal are two shades of the same color and they have the same goal: to slash protections for the health of our families and communities in order to afford tax giveaways to millionaires and special interests.”
J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the House bill is similar to someone initially hearing their leg will be cut off but later learning it would be cut only below the knee.
People may be relieved with the House’s proposed smaller EPA cut, “but they will be back next year to cut off the rest of the leg, then they’ll want to take the other leg,” Cox said. “They’re crippling the agency [to the point] where the agency can’t fulfill its mission.”