Even after Trump’s cuts at the EPA, emergency officials say they’re ready for Florence

The EPA is the first federal responder in oil and chemical spills, which could be a big issue after Florence’s flooding.
The EPA is the first federal responder in oil and chemical spills, which could be a big issue after Florence’s flooding.
Image: Reuters/Lee Celano
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The Trump White House assault on the US Environmental Protection Agency has been brutal and well documented, including widespread staff reductions, a rolling back of rules and regulations that give the agency power, attempts to slash the agency’s budget, and efforts to undermine its very mission.

That won’t affect the agency’s ability to respond to Hurricane Florence, promises Reggie Cheatham, the director of the agency’s Office of Emergency Management. Today (Sept. 13), as the storm approached the Carolinas, he told reporters that the EPA’s emergency response team is as strong as it has been in years past.

When it comes specifically to emergency response, the EPA’s manpower and resources haven’t been affected by Trump administration policies, Cheatham said. The emergency team is “staffed at levels we were last year ahead of the storm season,” when the US was hit with the quadruple whammy of hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Irma, and the California wildfires, Cheatham said. “We’re prepared to move.”

The EPA is the federal government’s first responder to accidents like oil spills and chemical spills, which could be an issue during Hurricane Florence thanks to the massive flooding that’s expected on the coast and inland. The agency’s emergency response team has been around since 1972, and the number of on-the-scene coordinators who arrive first when there is a hazardous-materials emergency has held steady at 230 for years, Cheatham said.

The EPA’s Congressionally mandated budget factors in the agency handling two major emergencies at a time, he said, but it was hit with four in 2017. After last year’s storm season, there were a “lot of tired people” Cheatham admitted, but the team was nonetheless able to pitch in on tasks first assigned to the US Army Corps of Engineers, like collecting and disposing of asbestos and other hazardous waste after the California wildfires.

While the on-the-ground team hasn’t been affected, there is still no permanent official in some key positions—the head of the Office of Land and Emergency Management, who Cheatham reports to, is still an “acting” administrator, for example.

In big emergencies, the emergency response team expands  by pulling in other EPA personnel who work in human resources, budgeting, and finance, Cheatham said. Personally, he said, it would be hard to go to sleep at night if he didn’t think the EPA was prepared.