A leaked version of a US Environmental Protection Agency budget proposal sent out by the Trump administration last week is dominated by cuts that would ravage the agency’s ability to function, reducing funding for many of its core programs by 20-30% each and zeroing out others altogether.
The proposed budget would also eliminate about 3,000 EPA jobs, on top of the program-funding cuts, reducing staff to numbers not seen since 1985. The agency’s science office, responsible for the research that helps set pollution standards, would “implode,” according to a senior EPA official who spoke with Science, and in several areas, like climate change mitigation and pollution reduction, budgets would be so reduced that the agency would likely be unable to do major parts of its job.
To a lesser degree, that’s been happening for a long time. The EPA’s budget—just 0.22% of the national budget—has mostly stayed flat or declined for the last 10 years, aside from a notable stimulus spike in 2010. That trend kept the EPA from fully doing its job for years, according to George Wyeth, an attorney on staff at the agency for 27 years before leaving January 2017. When he was with the EPA, he says, there wasn’t enough money or resources at times to fully implement every rule and regulation. So staff were already making decisions about what rules to not fully enforce.
“The reality is we were already at that point. There were basically some areas of regulation where the resources were already shrinking.” Staff would never say that they were abandoning programs, but “we would say we have some ‘low-priority’ things,” Wyeth says. “It was at that point where that was explicit. It was becoming a more and more difficult triage.”
“It’s like the body going hypothermic—your body starts giving away body parts,” he says. “We were already getting frost bite.”
The latest proposed cuts would create a problem far more extreme than the historically declining budget, however. “Some things would just fall off entirely,” Wyeth says. “I’m sure that at the level [of cuts] they’re talking about, there would be statutory provisions they won’t do any more.”
In other words, some environmental laws will still on the books, but they simply won’t be enforced. “We won’t know what was complied with.”
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget gave the EPA a few days to propose ways to “reallocate” the cuts if it wants. The deadline was March 1, according to Wyeth, and it’s not clear whether the EPA responded, or if it did, what the details of its proposal were. The EPA is not commenting “at this point in the process,” according to Julia Valentine, an EPA spokesperson.
But Wyeth says, “Given the depth and extent of these cuts it really doesn’t matter.” Reallocation won’t help.