The recently enacted $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the single largest federal investment in clean air and water ever made and will go a long way toward improving clean water infrastructure and protecting drinking water from unregulated toxic chemicals.
However, almost half-way into the fiscal year, Congress has not finished the job, and failed to provide the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies funding they need to effectively implement the bipartisan infrastructure bill and carry out their other essential work.
As an EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush and a leading agency scientist, we played major roles in past efforts to reduce pollution in the nation’s waterways and identify safe levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water. We know all too well how difficult it can be to carry out the agency’s responsibilities without appropriate resources. Strong investment in the agency will be essential for success in achieving Congress’ infrastructure goals.
Agencies are working with hollowed out staffing and the band-aid process of a “continuing resolution” that funds them from month to month at levels that predate the infrastructure bill. The latest band aid gets pulled off on Feb. 18, when the continuing resolution to fund federal programs expires, leaving agencies underfunded unless Republicans step up and work with Democrats on appropriations bills that provide resources needed to make the infrastructure bill work.
The EPA is especially resource-starved as states, tribes, and localities look to it for infrastructure grants and technical support. For decades, the EPA has pioneered and administered many of the nation’s most successful grant and loan programs, which have helped modernize water infrastructure.
Budget Cuts, Stagnant Funding Hurt the Agency
However, the agency has endured years of budget cuts and stagnant funding. Today, the EPA has half the resources it had in 1980 with significantly more responsibilities. On top of these cuts, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative found the agency suffered a 7.4% staff decrease—including a loss of over 670 scientists—between 2016 and 2020, accounting for the greatest loss across all federal agencies. During this time, the EPA also endured a 35.6% reduction in chemical safety research.
President Biden’s fiscal year 2022 budget requests the addition of 1,000 new talented and diverse STEM graduates urgently needed to support the EPA’s mission even before implementation of the new infrastructure bill. These investments are included in the House-passed appropriations bills and Senate proposals, but the budget stalemate in the Senate threatens to leave the EPA vastly short-handed as it grapples with new mandates.
The infrastructure bill gives the EPA $60 billion, most of which is dedicated to water infrastructure, the single largest federal investment in this area. It provides $24 billion in loans for wastewater and drinking water treatment plants, $15 billion in grants for lead service line replacement, and $10 billion in grants for monitoring and treating unregulated contaminants in drinking water and wastewater.
The EPA urgently needs staff to provide technical expertise to states, tribes, and communities to make the most effective use of these funds. Serious challenges of deficient water quality and availability are found in the Río Grand Valley of Texas, farming communities in Central California, and the Mojave and other Native American communities.
The agency’s technical assistance is also needed to maximize the use of the $10 billion for cleanup of unregulated health-harming contaminants like PFAS, a class of thousands of fluorinated chemicals found in drinking water, fish and wildlife.
In the Michigan community of Oscoda, for example, fire-fighting foam used at nearby former Wurtsmith Air Force Base is the likely source of PFAS contamination of drinking water wells and locally caught fish and deer. Investigations found PFAS in 272 out of 390 wells tested. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has issued advisories warning residents not to eat fish or deer caught in the area.
In the U.S., over 40,000 industrial chemicals are already in use, with new chemicals introduced every year. State and federal governments rarely monitor for these chemicals, and most have never been assessed for toxicity. Industrial and municipal wastewater treatment systems are often not designed to reduce unregulated chemicals, so they enter waterways through direct discharges as well as agricultural and urban stormwater runoff.
VIDEO: PFAS—The “Forever Chemicals”
Reliance on EPA
States and tribes depend on the EPA to develop analytical methods to detect these chemicals, assess their toxicity, recommend safe levels, and identify effective treatment technologies. They also depend on the EPA to restrict or ban high risk chemicals like PFAS and prevent new ones from entering the marketplace.
Without major hiring and a significant budget increase, the EPA will struggle to provide technical assistance needed to reduce exposure to PFAS and other unregulated chemicals. Congress cannot keep passing continuing resolutions and assume its historic investment in safe drinking water will be effective. Congress must pass a FY22 budget that gives the EPA the tools it needs to achieve the promise offered by the infrastructure bill.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Write for Us: Author Guidelines
William K. Reilly is a former administrator for the EPA, serving from 1989 to 1993, where he oversaw the implementation of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. He has also served as president the World Wildlife Fund and was appointed by President Barack Obama as co-chair of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling to investigate the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He has served under four presidents, both Democrat and Republican, and is a powerful voice for bipartisanship on climate action.
Dr. Betsy Southerland was with the EPA for 30, serving as director of science and technology in the agency’s Office of Water, before retiring in 2017. She has remained active on environmental issues as a member of the Environmental Protection Network, and regularly testifies before Congress about clean water issues, PFAS, and emerging, unregulated contaminants.