Can State Environmental Agencies Fill in for a Failing EPA?

by |April 10, 2017

It is far too early to know if the massive non-military budget cuts proposed by the Trump Administration will be enacted by congress, but if they are, the burden on state governments will grow. Over the past year, the Environmental Council of the States, a nonprofit organization of the leaders of state environmental agencies, has surveyed those agencies to collect budget data. Last month they released their findings, which included responses from 48 state and territorial environmental agencies. According to their report, state environmental agency funding rose from $12.2 billion in 2013 to $14.9 billion in 2015. But most of that increase was in California where the budget grew from $2.9 billion to $4.9 billion. With California excluded, state funding only went up from $9.3 billion in 2013 to $10.0 billion in 2015.

Federal support for states other than California during this part of the Obama Administration dropped by 3% from $2,557,856,937 in 2013 to $2,493,785,970 in 2015. Remember that the Obama Administration was not immune to the right-wing attack on environmental regulation that has dominated the budget making process for years. EPA lost 1,600 staff during the Obama years. But it looks like the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus was just warming up for the main event: EPA with republicans in charge of all three branches of the federal government. The effort to eliminate national environmental regulation is now underway.

Before the Trump-Pruitt budgetary train wreck hit last month, state environmental agencies were generally holding their own, and California was rapidly increasing its environmental programs. Still, some states have been struggling. Writing about Massachusetts in the Boston Globe in early March, David Abel observed that:

“Over the past decade, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s enforcement of air and water quality rules has fallen off sharply, as the agency’s workforce shrunk by nearly a third, according to a Globe review of state records. Enforcement actions for serious violations have dropped by more than half, statistics show, as inspections also declined. Fines collected from violators plummeted during the same period by nearly 75 percent.” 

Trump’s proposed EPA budget cuts the agency by 31% from $8.2 billion to $5.7 billion. Initiatives that once promoted environmental justice and environmental education are eliminated. Programs to protect the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay are also eliminated along with most efforts to understand the science of climate change. In fact, much of EPA’s scientific research is eliminated under the proposed budget. This is part of a government-wide attack on climate science in NSF, NASA, NOAA and the Department of Energy.

In a Washington Post piece at the end of March, Juliet Eilperin, Chris Mooney and Steven Mufson reported that:

“The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a new, more detailed plan for laying off 25 percent of its employees and scrapping 56 programs including pesticide safety, water runoff control, and environmental cooperation with Mexico and Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement…Because of the sweeping cuts to scientific programs, the administrator’s own Science Advisory Board budget would be cut 84 percent. As the document explains, it would not need much money due to “an anticipated lower number of peer reviews.” Reductions in research funds will curtail programs on climate change, water quality, and chemical safety, and “safe and sustainable water resources,” the document said.”

What is notable about these cuts is how many relate to national, international or scientific programs that are unlikely to be funded at the state and local level. Where federal cuts result in increased risk of visible threats to a community’s health and environmental quality, it is likely that state and local resources will be generated for environmental protection and enforcement. Unfortunately, some poorer states will not have the resources to act. And national problems that cross state borders will be very difficult to address. States are free to negotiate compacts with each other and it is possible that this technique will be used to overcome federal reductions. But the cuts at EPA make no sense. Decades of national progress in successfully cleaning up our environment are sacrificed for no reason whatsoever.

Ecosystems do not recognize state or national borders. Toxics transported by air and water can easily move from place to place. That is why national institutions and international treaties are needed to protect the planet. States and communities are the first line of defense, but they may lack the resources or the scientific expertise needed to understand and successfully address the problem. Americans concerned with wellness, diet, exercise, and preventative health care will not be happy when they learn that the federal government is cutting back on efforts to study, regulate, and control toxics in their air, water, and land.

The attack on EPA is based on an assessment that the agency is a big, lumbering anti-freedom behemoth. This is nonsense. EPA is actually a small, and by federal government standards, relatively efficient and effective agency. It has long leveraged its modest resource base to generate complementary activities in the private sector and from non-federal governments. The attack on EPA assumes that the public thinks it is abusing its power. That is also nonsense. I think the public finds EPA and its state and local counterpart agencies largely invisible. They only get noticed when an environmental emergency hits: when BP spills oil into the Gulf of Mexico; when Flint’s water supply is contaminated; or if a cloud of smog settles on a city during a heat wave. The public expects government to protect them from harm. That can be harm from a terrorist, a hurricane, a fire or an environmental toxic. Remove that protection and an invisible agency suddenly gets noticed, and an issue that never breaks into the top ten is suddenly number one.

Climate change may not be a highly visible local issue, but it is one that most people are concerned about. In a Quinnipiac University National Poll at the end of March, 67% opposed cuts to scientific research on the environment and climate change; 73% are concerned about climate change and 63% do not want climate regulations removed. Of those between 18 and 34 years of age, 78% believe that human activity causes climate change–that compares to 54% of those over 65. Polling on visible local pollution shows even deeper support for environmental protection.

Pruitt and Trump seem to believe we must trade off environment and economic growth. Mike Bloomberg learned when he was New York’s mayor that the opposite was true. A clean environment is an economic asset. People do not want waterfront homes on rivers that smell like sewers.  No one wants to live in a place where the air is orange and unbreathable. But if the air is clean, the parks look good, mass transit works and you can dine out in a smoke free environment, businesses and people want to visit, move in and invest. Solar energy is not just cleaner than coal, it is cheaper. Mayors know that a clean, healthy environment is a bankable asset. Governors get it too. So do real estate developers.

State and local governments cannot perform all the functions that a national environmental agency can. There are places where a failing EPA will fail the American people. Science, cross border impacts, and global issues will be neglected under the Trump-Pruitt EPA. But visible local environmental impacts will generate “not-in-my-backyard” community activation. People care about their family’s health and their own health. Toxic waste, polluted air, garbage on the beach, and lead in their drinking water will require mayors and governors to act. And they will.


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