One of the problems with the ongoing drama over Congress’ inability to pass a budget, its reliance on a string of continuing resolutions and the threat and consequences of government shutdown, is that the details of the budget could be lost in that toxic procedural morass.
We could be left to live with a literal toxic morass if the Trump administration is successful in pushing through budget cuts to the federal Environmental Protection Agency that would drain the agency of nearly a third of its current funding, support that is necessary to the EPA’s core mission of enforcement of environmental laws, cleanup of polluted sites and protection of clean air, water and land.
Barring yet another short-term fix, Congress must pass a budget by Feb. 8 or again risk shuttering government offices, perhaps longer than the three-day shutdown earlier this month.
Every community in every state of the nation relies on a vital EPA, but the agency’s work is especially obvious throughout Washington state, from removal of lead- and arsenic-contaminated soils caused by long-closed smelters in Everett and Tacoma, ongoing cleanup of radioactive waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and work to restore the health of Puget Sound and the southern Salish Sea and the endangered species that live there, including wild salmon and orca whales.
Last spring, the Trump administration suggested, among a host of proposed agency and department cuts, cutting 31 percent from the EPA and the layoffs of more than 3,200 employees, reducing the budget from $8.2 billion to $5.66 billion. While Trump’s stated goal was to shrink what he called a “bloated federal bureaucracy,” the truth is that the EPA in particular has performed its mission despite a slow bleed in real dollars over the past 40 years.
Compare its 2017 funding level of $8.2 billion to the $5.4 billion budgeted in 1979. Adjusted for inflation, as a recent commentary in The Hill points out, the EPA’s budget would actually equal just $2.4 billion in 1979 dollars. And that’s with 100 million more people in the United States and an economy that has doubled in size during that 40 years.
Among the cuts to local EPA programs, the president’s proposed budget would zero out about $28 million in funding of projects for Puget Sound cleanup and restoration.
Among the work that EPA funding has supported in recent years in Washington state, the Puget Sound and Snohomish County:
The National Estuary Program, which supports salmon and other habitat restoration projects and programs that are working to resolve the problems caused for local waters by failing septic systems and polluted stormwater, by treating pollutants and preventing them from entering waterways.
Clean air programs that provide a significant health benefit to more than 625,000 adults and children in the state with asthma.
Enforcement of the cleanup of Superfund sites, such as the lead and arsenic remediation of neighborhoods in Everett, Tacoma and Ruston and the nuclear waste cleanup at Hanford. Thousands of more such sites in Washington state are waiting for such funding.
Support of the state’s Drinking Water Revolving Fund, used to fund replacement of lead-laden water pipes in older neighborhoods and buildings and failing water systems.
The loss of federal dollars for those programs and others runs deeper than the federal money itself. There’s a loss, too, in the economic benefit that results and the potential for leverage that the federal funding provides.
Two recent examples:
The cleanup from the Asarco smelters in Ruston improved the property value of homes there by an average of more than $52,000, estimates Earth Economics, a Tacoma-based environmental nonprofit. And the cleanup allowed for the construction of a $1 billion mixed-use development on the old smelter site.
Everett residents last Earth Day celebrated the completion of a restoration project at Everett’s Howarth Beach, that returned a more natural setting to the beach, replanted near-shore beds that provide fish habitat for forage fish that salmon and other sealife depend on, and used dredge spoils from the Snohomish River to replenish the natural movement of beach sand along the Everett waterfront. A $592,000 grant from the EPA helped to leverage additional funding, support and contributions through Snohomish County’s Marine Resources Council for the $1.57 million project.
Washington’s congressional delegation has shown itself to be good stewards of the state’s environment in years past. Its members, Democrat and Republican, will need to stand together to restore full funding to the EPA. Last month, U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray joined nearly three-dozen other senators in urging fellow senators to push back against the proposed cuts.
“Because of these endless attacks on both the career employees and regional programs, the EPA is badly underfunded, understaffed and struggling to perform its basic and legally required functions,” the letter said.
The House, for its part, has proposed a budget that rejects most of the Trump administration’s EPA cuts but would still reduce current funding for the agency by $528 million.
Bureaucracy and government waste make a useful punching bag during political campaigns, but those allegations fail to recognize the immense value of the work the EPA and its employees have performed in our communities to protect our quality of life, our health and our environment.