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Environmental scientists answer questions on proposed deep cuts at EPA

This week, FEND’s Nathan Abse speaks with two academic environmental scientists—who do not work for EPA—to get their outside opinion about their impressions on what a proposed 30-plus percent funding cut would do to staff and scientist morale and functioning at the agency.

President Donald J. Trump released a proposed fiscal year 2018 $1.1 trillion dollar federal budget that includes expected deep cuts across all non-defense agencies—with agency cuts ranging from 10 to more than 30 percent, in some cases. The President has repeatedly said he believes agencies can work more efficiently with less—and that the Department of Defense and related agencies require funds that must be cut from what he sees as less urgent priorities. The president’s budget faces alteration and debate in Congress, but deep, widespread cuts are likely to happen at many departments, including the Environmental Protection Agency. This week, FEND’s Nathan Abse speaks with two academic environmental scientists—who do not work for EPA—to get their outside opinion on what a proposed 30-plus percent funding cut would do to staff and scientist morale and functioning at the agency.  

Q & A with environmental scientists Raja Rajagopal (University of Iowa) and David Butman (University of Washington)

Professor Rajagopal, as an academic scientist outside of government, how might the proposed massive cuts affect the EPA—a hugely scientific organization?

Rajagopal: The cuts [have been] announced. But, at EPA, do we know exactly what will happen next, how the cuts will be managed? No, not to my knowledge. All I know is that some programs, including EPA’s water program under the Clean Water Act, and pollution and global climate issues under the Clean Air Act program, these are very important programs. We hope these are handled carefully.

You lack exact knowledge, but what might happen to the mission at EPA if the cuts pass?  

Rajagopal: If these proposed deep cuts are applied across the agency in such a way that it is going to hit every program, then we do know—and the media has been reporting this—that the EPA and our whole country is going to scale back our involvement, for example, in climate change programs, everywhere. This, on its own, is very unnerving. There are over 150 countries on board the [2016 Paris Agreement] to address climate change. The previous administration signed onto it. This treaty structure is so important—it is a kind of insurance, planetary insurance.

So, you say EPA cuts will likely harm the environment—but specifically, how might they affect the work at EPA labs, investigations, and enforcement?

Rajagopal: The cuts will lead to new decisions. As soon as the cuts are official, the EPA administrator must make many decisions—if the law is written for that, which is likely—about how to do the cuts. The EPA has 14 main labs across the USA—some concentrate on health effects [of toxins], some on air and hazardous waste, some on water and the [effects of nuclear pollutants at the] Nevada Test Site. Agency funds to these labs and other programs come under six major laws that consume about 95 percent of the agency’s budget. Again, the main ones are the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and others. The administrator likely will have to decide many things about implementation. As I said, in my view, there are three or four areas that are crucial to the functioning of the EPA—and to our environment, and to the global environment—clean air, water and the toxic substances. These are areas of great interest. Geographically and to the workforce, the cuts will hit everywhere. EPA has a major facility in Duluth, Minnesota, and another one in Bay Shore, Louisiana, and another in Las Vegas, for instance. Each is assigned crucial work. Everybody is going to feel the pain of this huge cuts as they percolate through the system. In terms of [the types of] personnel, I think the cuts will lead to contractors being laid off first, and then ultimately fewer EPA employees.

Amid layoffs and staff cuts, what about productivity and morale issues in those who remain?

Rajagopal: The current budget for EPA is around $8 billion. Much of that goes to EPA’s labs and research missions, and otherwise to carry out program objectives. This is the bread and butter of this agency. The point is, a cut down to $5 or $6 billion is going to be devastating. It’s going to shatter a lot of people’s work. There will be a chain reaction. The only thing I can guess is that the administrator will cut some areas more than others—but we just won’t know exactly where until the cuts are enacted, and how they are enacted. I believe it will be devastating to the agency. But I think we should remember that things can change and recover after this. As for the whole country, not the agency, we need to remember that environmental work and jobs are mostly state and local level [and private sector, too], and add up to perhaps $200 billion—versus the agency’s $8 billion.

What might the cuts mean, with regard to EPA’s enforcement staff and activity?

Rajagopal: It appears that this administration in general is not moving toward more enforcement—and obviously, enforcement looks like it will take a cut. What does this mean? If you monitor the water, and you monitor the air, and there is a violation, what do you do? You find out who is violating, then enforcement staff normally go and try to enforce that violation. They tell those who are doing it to stop, or there will be a fine and an enforcement procedure—laying out the consequences. But if the administration is not too strong on regulations or enforcement, this can all be weakened. I just don’t know if this is where they are headed yet.

 

The White House claims cutting EPA’s budget will create jobs—but it won’t at the agency, of course?

 

Rajagopal: That’s right. The issue here is that the administration says, on the one hand, they want to increase job opportunities in America. Meanwhile, they say they are all about jobs to the local areas and states, and if they reduce the regulatory burden, there will be increased job opportunities at the state and local level—that’s the conservative position. And there are some merits to this idea: that regulatory burdens sometimes get in the way of productive work. I say there needs to be a nice balance. This is the most important thing. In environmental protection, too much protection can cost a lot of jobs. Allowing absolutely no pollution would be a disaster, just like allowing all pollution is a disaster. Either extreme is unacceptable.

 

Do you think these cuts will hurt your ability to interest students, or governments to recruit scientists out of your graduates, to pursue government careers in the environment?

 

Rajagopal: This could be the case. I just participated in a two-day retreat regarding environmental employment, in which [teachers and employers] talked to about 40 students. I try to say, look, there is the federal part, the state part, and the local part to this sector. Most of environmental work is local: we deal with garbage and separate recycling and manage much of the environment locally, all the time. And so an enormous amount of environmental work takes place locally, as I was saying previously. Even with sizable cuts to the federal part, no one can destabilize either the environmental sector—or the American economy—overnight. If these cuts are made, no doubt it will affect morale—and it will shake up many people’s jobs and lives. But if it does too much in that way, I think we will see a reaction to that in the next election. It may, or it may not.

Prof. Butman, can you please comment on how cuts of over 30 percent at EPA could affect morale?

Butman: Generally—speaking for myself—this is a big concern [for environmental scientists], that decades of scientific inquiry that informed the EPA appear to be getting tossed aside. If this is what happens, it will feel like we are losing the support that we had from this country to protect natural resources—for ourselves as individuals, for industry, for everyone. There’s a very large concern among my colleagues, among all of us.

How could that affect morale, specifically?  

Butman: For morale, clearly the scientists at EPA and those like us at universities do what we do because we are passionate about it, and it is part of being a scientist. You follow data, and it leads you to certain directions, and places. You use the best information and you go from there to make informed decisions. And you hope that, outside of the lab, that this same kind of thinking process—using the best information—would happen all the way up to the people who work at the policy level. And yet here, in this instance, we are all able to hold the best information—and yet [in my opinion and my colleagues] it is being disregarded, in these cuts. It is very hard to have high morale. Essentially you are being told that your job is no longer being valued.

Can you name a specific reason why you feel the cuts mean morale might plummet?

Butman: Well, in this situation, your training is being completely negated—whether for political reasons or something else, it’s very frustrating.

Though EPA is federal, in Washington State, where you live and work, hundreds of millions of EPA dollars could be cut—making it hard to recruit new "envi sci" students and future employees at EPA?

Butman: There are two levels to that: First, can we really recruit young people to study something and offer them the possibility of jobs that would be supported, in the environmental field? That’s one thing we have to do. If there are far fewer or no viable jobs, no students will be interested. That’s got to be a nationwide concern. Second, regionally, as you said, we know that our area in Washington State and the Puget Sound is going to lose a lot of support from the EPA. And that is going to have not just personnel impact—but environmental impact too. It has taken 10 to 15 years for some of our huge improvements in water quality to take place—with EPA’s help. And having that ripped out from under us is another slap in the face, and may hurt recruiting for jobs at universities and government too.

What about administration’s argument—that many agencies need to be cut because they really don’t show tangible results?  

Butman: I am relatively new to the Pacific Northwest. But there have been environmental results. The [federal government’s environmental] work at the Washington state Hanford nuclear site, for example, and elsewhere on our rivers is important. Hindsight is 20/20. But we have made some incredible efforts—some of which comes from the EPA, and other agencies. As a result, there has been some recovery on the Columbia River—and tremendous recovery on other smaller river systems. These are real successes in that we have reduced habitat degradation, and permitted salmon to be maintained.

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