EPA cuts could risk a public health emergency

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Posted: Dec. 18, 2017 3:04 AM
Updated: Dec. 18, 2017 3:05 AM

With time running out for Congress to reach an agreement on the budget, lawmakers are advancing a quiet but crippling assault on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has already suffered years of hollowing out from budget cuts. At stake is the EPA's fundamental ability to carry out its most basic public health and environmental missions. Without full funding for the agency, the health of our children, our seniors and our communities are at risk.

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President Donald Trump, who pledged as a candidate to reduce EPA down to "little tidbits," asked for around 30% cuts to the agency this spring - deeper than any other agency and enough to cut its funding to 1970s levels in real dollars. The potential real-world result will be more asthma attacks, more heart attacks, and more pollution in our lives. And if all that isn't enough, the administration also wants to cut support for critically needed research into alternative energy sources and innovations to protect the water we drink from physical, chemical, and biological threats.

Congress, which has traditionally provided bipartisan support for environmental safeguards that protect constituents, is falling out of step with public support for a fully capable EPA. In September, the House of Representatives voted to cut the EPA budget by $528 million in 2018 , less radical than Trump's proposal but deeply damaging. And just days before Thanksgiving, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee hustled through cuts of his own, choosing to "release" the chairman's recommendation, without so much as a public hearing.

This kind of secrecy is not surprising when you consider what is being proposed. Remarkably, the Senate proposal would eliminate EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program, which provides foundational assessments of chemical toxicity needed to protect American families. And it would cut "green chemistry" research designed to produce safer chemicals while improving the safety of production and disposal of chemicals.

Congress is also proposing major cuts to EPA's enforcement budget, making it harder to hold polluters accountable when they use hazardous pesticides inside nursing homes, release dangerous chemicals into the air, dump oil and hazardous waste into the ocean and sludge into storm drains. The EPA already has about 50 fewer criminal investigators than the 200 required by law. Further cuts would send the wrong message to polluters who flout the law-and be a slap in the face to the majority of businesses who work hard to deal properly with hazardous materials.

Also on the chopping block are critical clean-air programs, like pollution monitoring, that have helped states and communities make historic strides in fighting air pollution. Congress would also cut support for monitoring of greenhouse gases, harmful particulates, and other pollutants.

The White House, House and Senate budget cuts all would require EPA to continue to lay off public health experts, environmental engineers, scientists, and other vital staff members. They would also slash the agency's science and technology work, which helps states and localities fight and clean up pollution. They would even cut support for environmental justice efforts that help the country's most disadvantaged communities whose children are at a disproportionate risk of health problems like asthma, lead poisoning, and other serious ailments.

As William Ruckelshaus, EPA's administrator under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, put it, in response to Scott Pruitt's secrecy in managing the agency under Trump, "It appears that what is happening now is taking a meat ax to the protections of public health and environment and then hiding it."

In addition to worrying about our children's health, members of Congress ought to consider the effects of rolling back environmental safeguards on their political health as the voting electorate grows younger and greener. More than 85% of Americans call the environment a top or important priority, according to Pew Research Center, and over 60% want the EPA preserved or strengthened. And as former GOP Governor Thomas Kean pointed out recently, as of August, fewer than 1 in 4 independents approve of President Trump's handling of environmental issues.

Whether lawmakers strike a deal now, or delay decisions until early in the new year, it's time to pick a side. The frightening truth is this: If the EPA is forced to continue cutting corners, the chances of a horrifying environmental disaster will only grow. Every child, from Alaska to Maine to Tennessee, and everywhere in between, deserves to grow up with clean water, food and air.

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