Trump Could Drain Great Lakes Cleanup Budget
Funding to protect drinking water for 35 million people may be cut 97 percent
By Jennifer Lu
At least three programs that ensure the safety of the nation’s drinking water would be dramatically affected if the Trump administration succeeds in persuading Congress to cut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by almost a third, as recommended in the 2018 budget it released on Tuesday.
The 31.4 percent budget reduction would eliminate the agency’s regional conservation and restoration projects, including in the Great Lakes, which supply drinking water to 30 million people.
It would also cut the EPA’s categorical grants—federal money distributed to states to help them protect their soil, air and water—by 44 percent, to $597 million. Funding for the Office of Research and Development (ORD), which provides the science that shapes water and other environmental regulations, would shrink by 48 percent, to $249 million.
Left untouched in the proposed budget are the EPA’s Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, which provide loans that water systems can use to upgrade their infrastructure.
“Drinking water in this country is extremely vulnerable,” said Thomas Burke, who directed ORD during the last two years of the Obama administration and was the agency’s science adviser. “The nation is very dependent on EPA. Drinking water is a kind of thing where, if people want to trust the water when they turn on the tap, there needs to be a partnership between the EPA, states and local communities.”
Those partnerships are laid out in the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. States are responsible for doing most of the legwork, making sure public water systems are using the best available technology to keep more than 90 regulated drinking water contaminants under the legally allowed limits. The EPA is responsible for determining what those limits should be, how best to reach them and whether to set new ones. The agency also keeps tabs on whether states adhere to these limits.
If the EPA is crippled by a lack of resources and can’t perform its essential functions, “how can we offer the American people any security that the water they’re drinking is safe?” said John O’Grady, an EPA scientist and president of the union that represents EPA employees.
The importance of the EPA’s watchdog role was apparent in December, when the EPA flagged Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection for having too few water inspectors: just one for every 149 water systems. It also pointed to an 84 percent rise in unaddressed drinking water violations over the past five years.
Pennsylvania couldn’t meet the EPA’s standards because state lawmakers had cut the DEP’s funding over the years, said David Hess, who led the DEP from 2001 to 2003. Hess now directs policy and communications for Crisci Associates, a lobbying firm.
Pennsylvania currently receives $5 million annually from one of the categorical grants threatened under the Trump budget: the public water system supervision program grant that helps states comply with drinking water standards. If Pennsylvania were to lose that federal support, Hess said, it would be “like burning a candle on both ends. You’re slowly going to get down to a program that can’t function.”
The DEP is already operating in triage mode, Hess said. “By the law of averages, if you’re not out there inspecting, if you’re not looking at water monitoring quality reports…there will be consequences. You will be able to respond to big things, like (the lead problem in) Pittsburgh, but other places may go unnoticed.”
It seems unlikely that Congress will slash the EPA’s budget as dramatically as Trump would like. When Congress passed the 2017 Omnibus Appropriations bill in early May, it ignored many of the cuts the president proposed in the March preview of his budget. Funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Chesapeake Bay estuary were maintained at 2016 levels after a wave of bipartisan outrage from state and local politicians.
But even minor cuts to the agency’s grants and research programs could weaken the nation’s drinking water protections. EPA staffing levels have declined since the late 1990s, while funding for many key programs has remained flat for years.
“We regulate the amount of pollution that a system can actually handle and be acceptable,” O’Grady said. “Without adequate support for research…how can we say how much is acceptable in the streams and air? How can you do enforcement if you don’t have a reliable standard?”
Trump’s budget almost halves funding for the Office of Research and Development, from $483 million to $249 million. The office is responsible for collecting scientific information, studying toxicity data, weighing the evidence and providing assessments that become the basis for EPA guidance on maximum contaminant levels for chemicals in drinking water.
The potential cuts come at a critical time for ORD, which is in the midst of assessing high-profile chemicals, including formaldehyde and pesticides, said Burke, the former ORD director who is now a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University.
The office is also researching the harmful algal blooms that are an increasing problem throughout the United States. An algal bloom over Lake Erie shut down Toledo, Ohio’s water treatment plant for almost three days in 2014.
ORD provides direct assistance when towns detect contaminants in their source water. In 2014, researchers and scientists at ORD determined when residents of Charleston, W. Va., could safely drink their water again after a chemical spill contaminated the Elk River, their primary water source.
Science is very much “at the heart of what safe drinking water is all about,” Burke said. “Nobody wins if we don’t understand something that we’re all exposed to and don’t have a public health response. If you remove the science from the EPA, you really remove the agency’s ability to protect public health and the environment in this country.”
Jennifer Lu is an InquireFirst intern. Her work is funded by a Larry J. Waller Investigative Reporting Fellowship from the University of Missouri and support from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing through The Brinson Foundation.