“Nobody could get on it for about two weeks in October,” Michal Freedhoff, chief of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said in a recent phone interview. “It happens quite regularly.”
After years of neglect, President Biden has promised to reinvigorate the EPA as part of his efforts to fight climate change and ease the burden of pollution placed on poor and minority communities. But the agency’s budget struggles prevent the nation’s top pollution regulator from doing its job, in ways big and small.
Funding for the agency has remained stagnant since its inauguration. Its work is crippled by low staff levels unprecedented since Ronald Reagan left office.
Lack of resources and workers have undermined its ability to inspect facilities, measure contamination, punish violators and write new rules to stem pollution and climate change at a time when scientists say the world must act faster to stop rampant global warming.
Early in his term, Biden asked Congress for a big increase in the EPA’s budget, from $9.2 billion to $11.2 billion. But the agency ultimately secured only a fifth of the additional $2 billion requested by Biden, an increase that does not keep pace with rapid inflation.
That means the EPA actually has less buying power since Democrats took full control of the executive and legislative branches, even as its responsibilities increase.
“It’s not a good idea to starve the agency when it comes to trying to protect public health,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said during one of the hearings. congressional budgets this month. “We have to rebuild the agency.”
One area where the EPA is cutting back — rather than rebuilding — is air pollution monitoring. This month, the agency suspended monitoring for ammonia, sulfur and other pollutants at more than two dozen locations across the country, citing budget constraints.
Locations include forests in New Hampshire, New York, and North Carolina, as well as areas around the college towns of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and State College, Penn.
The closures will make it more difficult to detect violations of public health standards. Monitoring of smog-forming ozone will continue at some stations.
“That means you’re flying blind,” said Eric Schaeffer, who headed the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement and now leads the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group. “We already have a shortage of monitoring stations.”
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Even climate change, a top priority for Biden, is being overlooked.
For example, a science and technology pot of money intended to get automakers to reduce carbon pollution from automobiles was cut from $7.9 million to $8 million, well below the inflation, even as the administration enacted sweeping new exhaust pipe regulations.
Another funding pool that supports recording greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors of the economy, maintaining the Energy Star program for energy-efficient appliances and drafting regulations received a modest increase of $1 million, going from $97 to $98 million.
Another cash-strapped office is the Compliance Assurance and Enforcement Office. During the presidential campaign, Biden vowed to get tough on polluters, reversing two decades of declining inspections, criminal investigations and charges against polluting factories, power plants and other facilities.
But lawmakers have denied the agency an additional $59.7 million for the bureau to bolster its polluter policing for the current fiscal year. And the Senate has yet to confirm Biden’s choice for chief enforcement officer David Uhlmann, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School.
As a result, the EPA only opened 1,562 new civil cases against potential violators last year, tied with 2020 for the lowest level for at least a decade. By comparison, the EPA more than doubled the number of cases in 2011.
“All indicators are down,” Schaeffer said. “If you look at all of this together, it’s pretty compelling evidence that there is a problem.”
The coronavirus pandemic has not helped. Justin Chen, a Dallas-based law enforcement officer who inspects facilities for toxic air pollution, said he still feels the burden of taking on the workload of a colleague who has retired. towards the end of 2020.
“It was incredibly difficult and still a challenge to this day, honestly,” said Chen, who also leads the American Federation of Government Employees local chapter that represents EPA workers in Texas and the states. neighbors. “You always expect yourself to try to do your best.”
As covid restrictions ease, EPA officials said they expect to deploy inspectors more often.
“Coming out of the pandemic, we expect our enforcement results to increase as we increase activities on the ground over the coming months,” spokesman Nick Conger said.
Yet this month, the agency canceled an in-person meeting of senior law enforcement officials to save money on travel. And he still doesn’t have the budget to hire more inspectors.
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Under Biden, the EPA hired about 1,400 new staff to help replace the hundreds who left the agency under Donald Trump as covid raged and his administration rolled back dozens of regulations. With nearly half of the remaining EPA workers eligible to retire within the next five years, officials are bracing for another wave of departures.
The EPA is still capped by Congress at about 14,600 employees — 700 less than the workforce requested by Biden last year and 3,500 less than the peak set at the end of the Clinton administration.
Other cost-cutting measures are straining the remaining staff. In Houston, the EPA is about to close a regional lab and move it to Ada, Okla., to save money on office space. Workers there warn of an exodus if they are forced to uproot their lives to keep their jobs.
“It takes many years for a new employee to be fully trained,” said a scientist at the Houston lab who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “All that institutional knowledge would be completely lost.”
Under pressure from union officials, the EPA delayed the move for five years.
Instead of approving Biden’s budget request, Congress passed stopgap measures to fund the government as Democrats devoted most of their energy to passing an infrastructure package and negotiating a vast package of domestic policies. The infrastructure bill became law in November, while the measure to tackle climate change and expand the social safety net languished due to opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va. ) and Republicans.
“I was disappointed that the fiscal year 2022 budget agreement did not allow us to meet the full magnitude of the needs” at EPA, Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Chairman of the sub -Senate Appropriations Committee on the Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, said during a hearing this month.
Many conservatives have long called for cuts to EPA funding, accusing the agency of overregulation.
“I’m happy to see the EPA’s budget shrink in real terms,” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and the Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, which oversaw the transition. of the EPA under Trump. “I hope if the Republicans are in the majority in the 118th Congress, they will pass much larger cuts.
Now some Republicans are hesitant to meet the White House’s latest EPA budget request for $11.9 billion in 2023, after Congress funneled billions through the agency under the law. on infrastructure.
“I have serious concerns about the EPA’s ability to handle all of this,” Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.) told Regan at a House Energy and Commerce hearing. Committee.
But much of that infrastructure money is only managed by agency staff and will ultimately go to states, cities and businesses to rip out lead pipes, clean up industrial waste and buy electric school buses. .
“You have all this money going through the EPA because of the infrastructure act, and no real authority to hire staff for infrastructure programs,” said David Coursen, a former EPA attorney and member of the non-profit environmental protection network.
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As billions of taxpayer dollars pour into states, divisions like the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety remain strapped for cash.
In 2016, lawmakers updated a law regulating hazardous chemicals called the Toxic Substances Control Act, long considered ineffective. Yet six years after it was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, the office is operating on roughly the same budget as in 2016.
“The new law gave the agency a lot more work to do,” said Freedhoff, who helped change the law as a congressman.
The agency now expects to miss all statutory deadlines to write rules for 10 chemicals and complete risk assessments for 20 additional compounds. Freedhoff said it needed 200 additional toxicologists, economic analysts and other staff to do the job.
Among the toxic substances pending new regulations are asbestos, a building material that increases the risk of lung cancer, and methylene chloride, a paint stripper linked to at least a dozen deaths between 2000 and 2011 for bathtub renovators.
“Our budget situation is such that we run a real risk of delays of several years,” she said.
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