Trump’s proposed budget could cripple environmental disaster response

Former regional EPA directors told ThinkProgress cutting regional offices could endanger public health.

The June 2016 oil train derailment in Mosier, Oregon. CREDIT: Brent Foster via AP, file
The June 2016 oil train derailment in Mosier, Oregon. CREDIT: Brent Foster via AP, file

On June 3, 2016, a Union Pacific train carrying thousands of gallons of Bakken crude oil derailed in the town of Mosier, Oregon. The derailment sparked a fire, which burned about a quarter acre of land, and sent some 42,000 of crude oil spilling into the soil, wastewater system, and — in small amounts — Columbia River.

The derailment in Mosier was, in many ways, a best case scenario for an oil train derailment in the Columbia River Gorge. On a typically windy day, the blaze might have engulfed the entire line of derailed cars. But any oil train derailment — and subsequent spill — is a problem, and emergency responders had to work quickly to prevent as much oil as possible from seeping into the town’s groundwater or into the nearby Columbia River.

And that’s where Richard Franklin — on-scene coordinator for the EPA’s Region 10 office, which includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho — came in. Franklin arrived in Mosier shortly after the first responders and helped coordinate on-scene response to the spill, using his years of experience and expertise working in on-scene disaster management to put into motion a local response plan that had been crafted by the regional office some years prior.

“It would have been much more confusing to not have that guidance, and the frankly, the experience of that person in knowing how to move the response quickly and responsibly,” Jim Appleton, Mosier fire chief, told ThinkProgress. “I cannot imagine going through that type of an incident, anywhere, without having a competent on-scene coordinator from EPA.”

But the regional expertise that helped Mosier respond to the derailment and spill could be in trouble, facing shrinking budgets and an administration that appears hostile to their continued existence. Earlier this week, InsideEPA detailed how the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had asked the EPA to devise a plan for eliminating two of the agency’s 10 regional offices. According to the report, OMB is asking the EPA to submit a comprehensive plan by June 16 — about three months after Trump’s budget is expected to be made public — for eliminating two regional offices.

It’s unclear whether such a plan will ultimately come to fruition. Trump’s EPA administrator, and professed states’ rights advocate, Scott Pruitt appears to support the EPA’s regional offices, saying in his introductory remarks that he had talked to career EPA officials about “how important [regional offices] are in partnering with environmental quality at the state level.” But reports of Trump’s proposed budget suggest he could be interested in cutting the already under-funded EPA by nearly a quarter — cuts that would require scaling-down, if not eliminating completely, some regional offices.

And those cuts, former EPA officials told ThinkProgress, would come with costs of their own — potentially crippling state and local government’s ability to quickly and effectively respond to environmental disasters, from oil train derailments like Mosier to massive oil spills like Deepwater Horizon.

Imagine, for instance, if an environmental disaster were to take place in an area without a nearby regional EPA office. Such decentralization might mean that it takes some time for an EPA official, like Franklin, to arrive on scene and help begin coordinating a response — wasting precious time that, at the beginning of an environmental disaster, can often mean the difference between containing a crisis and watching one unfold.

“It’s really critical, to be able to protect public health and the environment, to have people that can mobilize quickly and be engaged with state and local governments,” Dennis McLerran, who served as EPA Region 10 administrator under the Obama administration, told ThinkProgress. “The states don’t always have the capacity or ability to respond to those emergencies on an immediate basis.”

The Trump administration has also proposed an 11 percent budget cut to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which oversees the federal response to emergencies such as hurricanes and tornadoes. With cuts to FEMA funding, the ability for regional EPA offices to respond to environmental emergencies becomes all the more pressing.

“It’s really critical, to be able to protect public health and the environment, to have people that can mobilize quickly and be engaged with state and local governments.”

Responding to local emergencies is an important function of the EPA’s regional offices, but it’s not their only function. The offices also serve as hubs for local and regional environmental enforcement — overseeing Superfund cleanup projects, approving local air quality plans, and dispersing the money that goes to state, local, and tribal governments from the federal EPA. Regional EPA offices also employ experts in federal environmental law, making sure that local governments are complying with keystone environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

“Having folks with the technical expertise and skills to oversee those at the local level, close to where the issues are, is critically important,” McLerran said. “The farther those are away, the more problematic it is.”

Jared Blumenfeld, who served during the Obama administration as EPA administrator for Region 9 — which oversees California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands — echoed McLerran’s emphasis that it’s crucial for a federal agency like the EPA to maintain a presence in local communities.

“Just like politics, all environmental issues are local. From monitoring water quality in a stream, to making sure disadvantaged communities’ voices are heard, requires having people on the ground,” Blumenfeld said. “The variation between states and tribes across all 50 states is enormous. In order to understand and help local solve their environmental issues, you need experts who understand the difference between coastal wetlands and desert ecosystems.”

“Just like politics, all environmental issues are local. From monitoring water quality in a stream, to making sure disadvantaged communities’ voices are heard, requires having people on the ground.”

States, of course, have their own environmental departments, which can be well positioned to respond to environmental emergencies or oversee key environmental policies, from air quality standards to environmental remediation and enforcement. But the budgets for state environmental agencies have declined in recent years, leaving some states understaffed and without crucial resources needed to respond to environmental disasters or local environmental problems.

That’s where the specialized expertise of the EPA, can be especially useful for states, McLerran explained, pointing out that the agency might have have access to technology like specialized air monitors that local and state governments don’t. “States and local governments really rely on EPA not just for funding, but expertise and scientists and engineers that augment the capacity that the states don’t have,” he said.

And beyond cutting local environmental services, cutting back regional offices could take a financial toll as well — it would likely require the government to walk away from leases on facilities and laboratories in the regions that are eliminated. And, according to Blumenfeld, similar attempts to save costs by centralizing certain functions of the EPA’s regional offices have already proven costly, pointing to an attempt to put all the human resource work for EPA’s regional offices in four hubs around the country.

“For me, I think it’s the potential to compromise public health by not having the boots on the ground near where those public health issues are.”

“It was an absolute disaster that ended up costing more money because the response times were extended,” Blumenfeld said.

Longer wait times for human resource staffing might be a costly inconvenience, but longer wait times for responses to environmental disasters — from the Mosier oil train derailment to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — could threaten the health of people who live in these communities.

“For me, I think it has the potential to compromise public health by not having the boots on the ground near where those public health issues are,” McLerran said. “Many of the state environmental programs have undergone some pretty deep cuts themselves, so if you put deep cuts to the EPA on top of cuts to the state, it really will compromise public health.”