Union: Proposed EPA Budget Cuts Would Hurt 'Bread and Butter' Services Like Disaster Response

Smoke rises from a chemical plant in Texas following Hurricane Harvey. The EPA office that deals with such hazards is slated for budget cuts. Smoke rises from a chemical plant in Texas following Hurricane Harvey. The EPA office that deals with such hazards is slated for budget cuts. KTRK via AP

Officials with the largest federal employee union, environmentalists and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., came together Wednesday to demand lawmakers fully fund the Environmental Protection Agency, which faced steep cuts in President Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal.

“The hardworking men and women that [the American Federation of Government Employees] represents are true public servants who work every day to keep the air clean to breathe and the water safe to drink,” Dingell said. “We don’t value enough the work that these public servants do every day.”

Last spring, Trump proposed a fiscal 2018 budget that would have cut the EPA’s budget by 31 percent, and its workforce by 25 percent. In July, the House appropriations committee approved an EPA budget that would reduce its annual funding by $528 million or 6.5 percent.

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In the meantime, more than 400 EPA employees reportedly will have accepted buyouts or early retirement offers through the agency’s Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment and Voluntary Early Retirement Authority programs by the end of September, and more could leave in the coming months.

AFGE held a press conference Wednesday to mark “National Save the U.S. EPA Day” and ask people to contact their representatives and senators to advocate for restoring the agency’s funding. John O’Grady, president of the union’s national council of EPA locals, said sustained budget cuts over the years are already affecting the EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission.

“At a hearing last week, we had Rep. Paul Ruiz, [D-Calif.], question the EPA Office of the Inspector General Counsel Alan Larsen and the [Government Accountability Office] director of natural resources Alfredo Gomez, and ask, ‘What’s the most significant barrier to EPA doing its job?’ ” O’Grady said. “Larsen said, ‘I would think it’s resources, people and money.’ And Gomez said, ‘The real issue is, do they have enough people?’ I can tell you the answer to that: We do not.”

Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said the proposed cuts have impacts on basic functions of the EPA, not just tasks that roil some Republicans like addressing climate change.

“There are bread-and-butter, bipartisan things the agency does day-in and day-out that are not part of a debate over the role of government, they’re just good government services,” he said. “Many of those programs took huge cuts [in the proposed budget] and haven’t been restored yet. These less sexy programs, like cleanup efforts and superfund [oversight], these things don’t have big coalitions behind them, and so they’re still on the chopping block.”

Clovis Steib, president of AFGE Local #1003, which includes the Houston area, said that Houston’s Region 6 environmental services branch laboratory, which is front-and-center in the response to the Arkema chemical plant explosion after Hurricane Harvey, could be closed in 2019 or 2020 as part of budget cuts.

“The agency [in Texas] has already been cut to the bare bones with staffing as it is, and it has been since before the hurricane,” Steib said. “If we get hit again, you’re definitely going to have to reassign the priorities of people’s desks. Something will have to fall off. That’s just basic math and resources.”

Dingell said that in response to an administration proposal to close the EPA’s Chicago office, which covers the entire Great Lakes region, she has introduced legislation to prevent the agency from using taxpayer funds to close any regional or program office. The Recognizing Environmental Gains in Overcoming Negligence Act (H.R. 3582) was introduced in July, but has yet to receive a committee hearing.

“What we should be doing is having bipartisan negotiations about the budget,” Dingell said. “We have to stop maligning these public servants, because where would we be if they weren’t here taking care of things every single day? [The EPA proposed cuts] are bad for the economy, they’re bad for the environment and they’re bad for the future.”

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