The budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is about to be cut to around the size it was in the Reagan years. The exact numbers are not available yet, but leaks about the Trump administration’s budget indicate that the agency could lose as much as 25 to 30 percent of its funding this year.
The 2016 EPA budget was slightly over $8 billion with almost 18,000 employees. To folks like me dealing with a household budget this sounds like a lot of money and a lot of people. But when it comes to the ground truth, though, the EPA has been neutered with a flat-line budget for nearly 25 years that hovered between $7 billion and $8 billion, sums that left the agency often toothless in the face of ever growing environmental troubles. With a cut of 25 percent, the EPA’s budget could be dumped close to the $5 billon range, a wholly inadequate sum considering the EPA is the branch of the federal government that deals with America’s and the world’s most pressing climate and resource problems. In a total federal budget of some $3.5 trillion, the EPA’s take is less than .015 percent.
The EPA has been in budgetary stagnation for so long because if it were fully armed it would put in peril the profit margins of the companies that make up what I call the Pollution Industrial Complex. Environmental tokenism is just fine with them. These companies not only hide and lie about their pollution, their bottom line profits depend on the taxpayer picking up the tab for cleaning up their messes. The EPA is so hated and feared by laissez-faire ideologues that if extremists in the House of Representatives have their way, the agency might just be terminated altogether. That seems like a long shot, but these days anything’s possible. Even a huge budget cut would be better than that – but not much better.
In New Mexico, and most everywhere else, an EPA with a Reagan era budget would act something like an aging dam with fatal structural flaws, eventually unleashing torrents of more pollution. With the dead end budgets of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years, the EPA’s clout and influence in New Mexico has receded to the status of a wraith. It had no meaningful impact on the health of many hundreds of citizens of Corrales living downwind of Intel and who suffered multiple ailments they thought were caused by the fumes coming from the company’s smokestacks. Its presence has done little or nothing to clean up the terrible air pollution in the Four Corners region. Its “oversight” basically overlooked for decades massive radioactive pollution at the Department of Energy’s national labs in Los Alamos and Albuquerque.
In 1995, when the EPA’s budget was around $7 billion, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) of the U.S. Department of Health reported that Bernalillo County alone had “over 150 documented ground-water contamination events” that have “polluted vast amounts of groundwater, it’s quality degraded to an extent that it affects its usefulness as drinking water.” The ATSDR thought at the time that at least 20 of those “contamination events” should be considered by the EPA to be Superfund Sites, greatly expanding the Middle Rio Grande basin’s Superfund designations. From what I can tell, not only was the ATSDR’s report buried, but no new EPA Superfund Sites around Albuquerque were ever put on the EPA’s national priorities list. This is partly explained by the EPA’s minuscule budget.
As awareness has grown of greenhouse gas pollution leading to climate change, of air pollution and its mercury poisoning, and of massive ground water contamination all over the country, the EPA’s budget has never grown to meet the challenge. It did frequently play an advisory role to many state and local organizations around the country. But to reflect the magnitude of America’s ever worsening environmental health, the EPA should have had an evolving budget of at least quadruple its normal size.
Right when we need a scientifically advanced and aggressive EPA more than ever, the Trump EPA will be stunted and led by a man, Scott Pruitt, who is virtually a hireling of the pollution kings of the oil and gas industry, a man who doesn’t believe that mercury is a hazard to public health or that ever growing levels of CO2 contribute to climate change. The Trump EPA funding cuts will have nothing to do with budgetary restraint and good management. They are purely a political and ideological vendetta against the many tens of millions of Americans who link environmental degradation not only to climate change but to the corporations that cause it and wreak irreversible damage to personal and public health.
The Trump EPA will not have the resources to do a proper job at Superfund sites all over New Mexico, from railroad contaminated water in Albuquerque, Espanola, Roswell and Clovis to mining waste in Questa, Carrizozo, and Silver City, from solvent plumes in Grants and Las Cruces to uranium mining reclamation in Cibola County at the Jackpile-Paguate uranium mine and at sites in McKinley County. The Trump EPA budget might cut out funds for brownfield reclamation projects which could effect hundreds of sites all across the state. And some fear that scientific research at the EPA will be crippled by a prohibition against climate change investigations.
A slashed EPA budget certainly won’t help the already hobbling and anemic clean up efforts of the 24 million gallons of jet fuel in Albuquerque’s aquifer around Kirtland Air Force base. It will be of no help at all to the Mountain View neighborhood in the South Valley with its more than 30 air polluting small industries, its numerous brownfields, its two Superfund sites, its junked cars, porta-potty storage, ground water contamination at the former GE plant, its threatened asphalt plant, its mountains of construction waste, and its two transloading facilities for truck and trains with rail spurs through the neighborhood that currently store oil tankers, the kind that have been known to explode. The Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in Carlsbad will probably be left without any EPA oversight, even as efforts are being made to store highly radioactive material from military R and D and commercial reactors around or in the site. And if fracking is carried out around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park and World Heritage Site, it’s highly unlikely now that the EPA would be monitoring air pollution and water contamination in the area. Because the EPA partially funds most of the state Environment Department’s education, outreach and science initiatives, in New Mexico that agency will be more hobbled and relatively useless than ever.
Will it be time, over the next four years, for New Mexico to assert its states’ rights prerogative to create, like California has, it own stringent environmental protections and clean-up regulations, its own local version of an aggressive EPA? What would it cost to fund such a thing? Could environmental NGO’s help raise funds and supply staff and scientific rigor to such an effort? Could a New Mexico EPA be a hybrid of governmental and non-governmental agencies? Would New Mexico finally have to find new sources of revenue above and beyond that of the polluting oil and gas industry?
If we want health for our families and a healthy economy grown in part by New Mexico’s reputation as an environmentally sensitive oasis that is peaceful, clean, and beautiful enough for think-tank geniuses and entrepreneurial wizards to come here and help solve the world’s pollution and climate problems, questions such as these have more than merely academic interest. With Trump administration’s war against “regulation,” it looks as if we’ll be called upon to take the fate of our environment into our own hands. Are we up to such a challenge? Do we really have any choice?
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it