Cash-Strapped State Environmental Agencies Brace For Budget Cuts

Apr 11, 2017
Originally published on April 11, 2017 8:38 pm
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President Trump is proposing deep budget cuts for many government agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency would take the most dramatic hit, and many states are worried. The EPA gives a lot of its money to states as grants. Marie Cusick of StateImpact Pennsylvania reports that many state environmental departments are already strapped.

MARIE CUSICK: Late last year, the EPA sent Pennsylvania a letter warning its water program was so poorly staffed, it was failing to enforce federal safe drinking water standards. State inspectors aren't checking public water systems often enough.

JOHN HOLDEN: So this is the Conestoga.

CUSICK: John Holden is water production supervisor for the city of Lancaster. He's standing on the banks of the Conestoga River, watching water rush into one of the city's filtration plants. He shows off spaghetti-like membranes that block bacteria from getting into water for 120,000 people.

HOLDEN: This is what separates the dirty water from the clean water.

CUSICK: Holden says the state does regularly check water quality at this plant because it's so big. But he says smaller water systems, a school in a rural area or a mobile home community, can get overlooked.

And here's why that matters. It's almost always state environmental agencies that enforce federal environmental laws. And to do that, Pennsylvania now plans to hike fees on public water systems so it can hire more inspectors.

HOLDEN: Yeah, they probably need to raise their fees so they can do their job. It's - they've certainly been cut over the last 10, 15 years. I've seen that.

CUSICK: In the past decade, Pennsylvania's DEP has lost about 40 percent of its state funding and 25 percent of its staff.

DAVID HESS: I think the department, over the last 10 or 12 years, is - has had to do so much triage.

CUSICK: David Hess led the agency under former Republican governor Tom Ridge.

HESS: In my opinion, it is very close to not being able to accomplish its mission.

CUSICK: He worries public health is at risk. Together, Republican and Democratic administrations have cut nearly two and a half billion dollars from environmental programs.

HESS: That's a lot of money, and no one seemed to bat an eye about it.

CUSICK: Joanne Kilgour of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club says an agency with a bare-bones budget is also more vulnerable to lawsuits.

JOANNE KILGOUR: It makes it very difficult for an agency to adequately carry out their duties, and that's exposure to potential liability.

CUSICK: Pennsylvania's problems are hardly unique. Alexandra Dunn heads the Environmental Council of the States, an association of state agency leaders.

ALEXANDRA DUNN: There's not a lot of fat left in the state environmental agencies.

CUSICK: On average, she says, state agencies get more than a quarter of their funding from the federal government. Many face budget crises after the Great Recession. And she says they'd be hurt by more cuts.

DUNN: The outcome likely will be slower issuance of permits, less monitoring of ambient environmental conditions.

CUSICK: The new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, is defending the White House's proposed cuts. In a recent interview on Fox News, he said states can do their jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT PRUITT: You know, we have State Departments of Environmental Quality across the country that are - that have the resources and the expertise to deal with clean water and clean air issues.

CUSICK: Pennsylvania's top environmental chief disagrees. He recently sent Pruitt a letter slamming the proposed cuts. He accused the Trump administration of putting the health and safety of Americans at risk. For NPR News, I'm Marie Cusick.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROUNDISLAVA'S "THE DIG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.