Trump’s plan to eliminate EPA regional programs puts public health ‘in jeopardy’

FY18 budget would do away with clean-up initiatives from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast.

Experts worry Trump’s proposed cuts to EPA regional programs, including the Lake Champlain clean-up initiative (above), will have devastating effects on public and ecosystem health. CREDIT: AP Photo/Toby Talbot
Experts worry Trump’s proposed cuts to EPA regional programs, including the Lake Champlain clean-up initiative (above), will have devastating effects on public and ecosystem health. CREDIT: AP Photo/Toby Talbot

The Trump administration wants to cut all funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional environmental programs, initiatives that have helped address major pollution problems from the Great Lakes region to the Gulf of Mexico.

Public health and environmental advocates contend that President Donald Trump’s plans to eliminate these programs as part of his fiscal year 2018 budget, released Tuesday, will harm public health and destroy ecosystems across the United States. The regional programs cover the Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico, Lake Champlain, Long Island, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, South Florida, San Francisco Bay, and Puget Sound.

Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund, hopes members of Congress will look closely at these programs and their value in protecting drinking water and other resources. “We very much see this through the lens of family, public, and community health,” Holstein told ThinkProgress. “I think healthy communities would be in jeopardy as a result of this budget if it were to pass as is.”

Trump’s FY18 budget requests $5.7 billion for the EPA, a cut of $2.6 billion, or 31 percent, from the fiscal year 2017 annualized continuing resolution level for the agency. The administration noted that elimination of the EPA’s regional programs would cut about $427 million from the agency’s budget.

“The budget returns the responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to state and local entities, allowing EPA to focus on its highest national priorities,” the Trump administration said. One of the few core priorities listed in the administration’s EPA budget is providing “robust funding for critical drinking and wastewater infrastructure.”

“I think healthy communities would be in jeopardy as a result of this budget.”

Despite the Trump administration’s plans to eliminate them, the EPA’s regional programs have proved successful in cleaning up bodies of water and improving regional economies. The programs enjoy tremendous bipartisan support among lawmakers and business officials in the various regions.

The EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program is “the glue that holds the multi-state restoration effort together,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William Baker said in a statement in response to the budget proposal. “If it is eliminated, there is the very real chance that the Bay will revert to a national disgrace with deteriorating water quality, unhealthy fish and shellfish, and water-borne diseases that pose a real threat to human health,” Baker stated.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has stood behind Donald Trump’s plans to gut the agency he oversees. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has stood behind Donald Trump’s plans to gut the agency he oversees. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The EPA has provided funding for dozens of projects in the five Gulf of Mexico coastal states — including coordination to restore water quality and promoting environmental education — since the regional program’s inception in 1988. The program has overseen regional efforts to reduce nutrients in the Mississippi River watershed to reduce the size of the low-oxygen “dead zone” along Louisiana’s coast and other environmental issues affecting the Gulf Coast.

These regional programs are successful and popular because they “are delivering solid public health outcomes,” said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Cleetus expects Congress to resist the zeroing out of the regional programs due to their broad public support. “These programs are iconic in terms of the benefits they have delivered and very tangible economic benefits. Surely, they have helped in cleaning up the environment and making ecosystems more resilient,” she said. “But the pure economic benefit that they deliver — things like fishing, tourism, property values — are all clearly of great interest to Congress and their constituents back home.”

In its EPA budget, the Trump administration explains that many of the environmental initiatives it hopes to cut would become the responsibility of state and local governments. But officials at these levels contend they are already struggling with tight budgets that will prevent them from taking over responsibilities currently handled by the EPA.

“There is no way that states can pick up the slack.”

“Experts who work in states are being very clear: There is no way that states can pick up the slack. There’s a lot that states can do, but they cannot do it without federal budgets and guidance,” Cleetus said. “If that money goes away, it’s not as if magically states will be able to step in and fill the gap. In fact, there will clearly be a deficit in terms of enforcement, monitoring, and the ability to safeguard public health.”

The proposed budget also calls for a 30 percent decrease in federal grants to state and local air pollution control agencies. The National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA) stated cuts of the magnitude proposed by the administration “would likely have a devastating impact on the efforts of state and local air pollution control agencies to provide healthful air quality for the American public,” the group said. “Indeed, if cuts of this magnitude are sustained by Congress, we fear more people will die prematurely and get sick unnecessarily,” NACAA added.

Republicans are generally supportive of reducing the role of the EPA as long as the efforts don’t weaken or eliminate funding for programs, like the regional programs, that enjoy bipartisan support. Prominent Republicans in the Midwest came out in large numbers to support the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative when Trump called for its elimination in his “skinny” budget released in March.

“I have long championed this program, and I’m committed to continuing to do everything I can to protect and preserve Lake Erie, including preserving this critical program and its funding,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) said in a statement in response to Trump’s draft plan to eliminate funding for the program.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the Midwest region are pushing back against the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. In a letter to House appropriations committee leaders, the members of Congress explained the initiative “is showing real and measurable results, but there is still a great deal of work to do.”

The EPA’s work in the Great Lakes region offers a clear example of the importance of these programs, according to Holstein. “If you take Lake Erie as a recent example, the algal tide that bloomed there literally made Toledo’s water supply unsafe to drink,” said Holstein, who oversaw EPA’s budget at the Office of Management and Budget and served as chief of staff at the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration.