EPA Evaluation

March 30, 2017
Estimating the impacts of a reduced EPA budget

About the author: Bob Ferguson is a consultant in water and wastewater, industrial microbiology, laboratory analysis, markets and business strategy and is a frequent author on water and environmental topics. Ferguson can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @SCI_Ferguson.

Happy spring! I want to thank you for reading this column and for the responses I received for my last column about the new Trump Administration (“Assessing a New Administration,” February 2017). I received more positive messages about that column than for any other in recent memory. People told me they were happy to see a column that was “balanced” and lacked the “vitriol” of many other articles. A few people asked me what I would have written eight years ago when President Barack Obama came into office. I would have written something similar, and I think I will be able write another similar column four or eight years from now when another administration takes over.

I agree with those who commented that the extent of the coverage of the president and the tone of the coverage is unprecedented. I do not know what the legacy of the Trump administration will be, but it seems that Trump will go down in history as the most “media exposed” president to date. Franklin D. Roosevelt ushered in the age of radio, John F. Kennedy ushered in the age of television and Trump has ushered in the age of 24-hour social media. I even saw a story last month that claimed that Trump has been seen late at night walking around the White House late in his bathrobe. That must be the very definition of overexposure—pun intended—in the media.

Regulation Reality

I have adopted a policy to largely ignore all the talk and watch what actually happens. For example, Trump signed an executive order to reduce regulations by requiring the elimination of two old regulations for every new regulation implemented. This executive order could be good or bad depending on which regulations are implemented and eliminated. Eliminating old regulations could bring regulatory relief or could result in troublesome unintended consequences.

But chances are neither will happen. Last month I was in Washington, D.C., working with individuals with experience on Capitol Hill. They reminded me that politicians are clever people and that, “Washington usually gets its way.” The consensus of that group was that the “old” regulations that will most likely be eliminated will be the kind that are made fun of on late night television. Did you know that in Washington, D.C., if you are herding sheep over a bridge between 6 and 10 a.m., it is illegal to occupy all lanes of the bridge? Traffic in Washington, D.C., is bad enough and it is about time we get the shepherds off the bridges at rush hour. If this is the way it happens, we will have the implementation of new regulations, the elimination of useless old regulations that will result in no change, and Washington will proceed as usual.

Budget Cuts

New U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator (EPA) Scott Pruitt has now taken office. I read W&WD Editor-In-Chief Elisabeth Lisican’s editorial regarding the conflicting opinions about Pruitt (“A Changing EPA,” March 2017), and I certainly understand the controversy surrounding his appointment. But like the president, the EPA administrator is no monarch and will be subject to all the checks and balances inherent in our federal government. He will be challenged by all sides and will achieve some—but not all—of what he wants. In this challenge, he may be facing opportunity.

The administration’s first budget proposal is being prepared and there are discussions that the EPA budget may be reduced as much as 25%. I think that level of cut is unlikely to get through Congress, but I believe significant cuts are likely. I hope they will be done with forethought, for there is a considerable risk of unintended consequences if they are implemented indiscriminately.

For example, Trump has asked for a $1 trillion investment in the nation’s infrastructure. Although details have yet to emerge, some of this will certainly involve water and wastewater infrastructure. This investment is long overdue. I agree with the American Water Works Assn.’s position that if we are going to make these investments in water infrastructure, EPA programs like the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund should be fully funded as part of a sound financial backbone. These programs also enhance cooperation with the states, and Trump has said that moving authority to the states is a goal. These are examples of EPA programs that leverage state and local investments and drive infrastructure improvements that will return economic benefits for decades.

Increased EPA funding does not automatically and directly translate into cleaner air and water. I agree with the EPA critics who say that in some cases, the EPA itself is an impediment to those very same goals. The EPA Superfund program is a good example of a program overdue for overhaul and one that in many cases is impeding progress toward cleaner air and water. EPA officials themselves have admitted that perhaps 90% or more of the risk remaining in Superfund sites could be removed in a few years if it were not for overreaching risk assessments looking to remove 100% of all possible risks. This practice results in the expenditure of more and more money with dramatically diminishing returns and infinite delays in the removal of the contamination “hot spots” that are indeed a threat to drinking water and the environment.

I have worked on Superfund cleanup projects on military and industrial sites that were well-funded and could have been completed in less than one year that instead went on for many years and, in some cases, remain uncompleted to this day. These projects, like many, were delayed due to a focus on risk assessment exposure scenarios that will never occur on sites that will never be relinquished by the military or used for anything other than industrial purposes. This is an example where reduced funding and less regulatory involvement could lead to cleaner water.

These contrasts are why any effort to reduce EPA spending must be done intelligently and in a deliberate fashion. Sequesters and across-the-board cuts result in the worst types of unintended consequences and the least cost-effective results. But a review of programs and a sober analysis of their economic cost and impact on the goal of cleaner air and water would make the EPA a more effective agency, unlike what many critics are fearing. This is where Pruitt can distinguish himself and reward his supporters and silence some of his critics.

By the way, did I mention that it is illegal in Washington, D.C., to curse in any place where you may be heard by someone else? Now there’s a law that may be seriously tested. 

About the Author

Bob Ferguson

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