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A Breath of Fresh Air at the EPA, But Budget, Staff Need Boost

May 17, 2021, 8:00 AM

The health of Americans depends on a healthy Environmental Protection Agency to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the communities in which we live.

Heading into 2021, the agency’s capacity to fulfill these responsibilities was dangerously compromised. This led the Environmental Protection Network, a bipartisan network of almost 550 former EPA career employees and political appointees, to release a report with recommendations to reset the course of EPA to address the most significant and pervasive threats to public health and our environment.

It’s time to take stock of the progress that has already been made, and what lies ahead, including the need to restore budget and staff resources that have been declining for years.

Critical First Steps Are Underway

The EPA has suffered too much damage for too long to be fixed overnight. Nevertheless, we can all breathe a little easier knowing that the agency is getting back to work. The Biden administration has acted swiftly and boldly to take critically important first steps across four major areas that will help the agency fulfill its mission of protecting public health and the environment.

First, the administration has appointed and nominated an exceptionally qualified and competent leadership team. The new appointees already have demonstrated a renewed commitment to transparency, stakeholder engagement, cooperation with Congress, and respect for the career staff that are the expert backbone of the agency.

Michael Regan was confirmed by a bipartisan and overwhelming Senate vote to be EPA administrator. He brings extensive state experience from his work in North Carolina, and has earned high marks already from staff for his engagement and transparency. Regan’s April memo to EPA staff directed them, like great predecessors before him, to operate “in a fishbowl,” working transparently and restoring public trust.

Second, the EPA has taken strong steps to restore scientific integrity at the agency. On March 31, Regan took decisive action to restore the integrity of the EPA’s independent science advisory committees. And EPA’s move to reinstall the agency’s climate change website, previously removed by the Trump administration, and to provide public access to science-based climate change information, is a welcome departure from four years of politically imposed censorship.

Third, Regan has directed the agency to step up its work on environmental justice and better serve historically marginalized communities, including by boosting investment and strengthening enforcement of environmental violations.

“Too many communities whose residents are predominantly of color, Indigenous, or low-income continue to suffer from disproportionately high pollution levels and the resulting adverse health and environmental impacts,” Regan said in a message to all agency staff. “We must do better. This will be one of my top priorities as Administrator, and I expect it to be one of yours as well.”

Fourth, the EPA has acted decisively to restore its responsibilities to protect public health under the law. The EPA is moving swiftly but smartly to scale back Trump-era rollbacks, step up on climate change, accelerate action on PFAS forever chemicals, and take other steps focused on fulfilling the agency’s mission to protect public health and the environment.

We are heartened to see that so much has been done in such a short time to restore “protection,” EPA’s middle name. The work, however, is far from done.

The Work Ahead: Historic Budget Request

One critical benchmark that looms large for the months ahead: Rebuilding the agency’s capacity after years of budget and staff cuts.

The EPA’s budget has been substantially “hollowed out” from inadequate resources that long have been dangerously declining to a point at which the EPA is spending, in real dollars, less than half what it spent in 1980. These cuts have especially eroded the EPA core programs that are the backbone and muscle of the nation’s environmental protection system, protecting air, water, and drinking water; addressing the harmful effects of pesticides, chemicals, and hazardous waste; promoting environmental justice; and responding to emergencies.

If EPA spending since 1980 had just kept pace with increases in discretionary federal spending, as the agency has taken on a growing list of environmental responsibilities, its budget would be three times as large as it is today.

Biden and Regan have proposed to Congress a desperately needed budget increase for the agency. The $11.2 billion budget request—a $2 billion increase over current funding level—would make historic investments in public health and the environment, especially in disproportionately impacted low income and BIPOC communities.

Particularly important: The $110 million increase proposed for the EPA’s core operating programs to rebuild the agency’s capacity to carry out its mission to protect public health and the environment.

In addition, the agency has boldly staked out an overdue investment in environmental justice, proposing $900 million towards an initiative to accelerate environmental and economic Justice and help create jobs, clean up pollution, and secure environmental justice for communities that too often have been left behind.

The EPA’s future success at confronting climate change, cleaning up toxic threats, and protecting vulnerable communities will depend heavily on whether Congress steps up and delivers the funding it needs.

After all, the EPA’s budget accounts for less than 1% of the total federal discretionary budget—a small price to pay for the health of children, the elderly, the infirm, disadvantaged communities, and others who are especially vulnerable to environmental threats.

In addition to new funding, fulfilling the agency’s good intentions will require hard work, the highest ethical standards and integrity, and more.

Fortunately, the EPA has hit reset and is off to a great start.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owner.

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Author Information

Michelle Roos is executive director of Environmental Protection Network.

Jeremy Symons is an adviser at Environmental Protection Network and principal at Symons Public Affairs.

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