“No one could get into it for just about two weeks in October,” said Michal Freedhoff, head of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, in a recent phone interview. “That happens fairly regularly.”
After years of neglect, President Biden promised to reinvigorate the EPA as part of his push to tackle climate change and ease the pollution burden placed on poor and minority communities. But the agency’s budgetary woes are preventing the nation’s top pollution regulator from doing its job, in ways large and small.
The agency’s funding has remained stagnant since his inauguration. Its work is hamstrung by low staffing levels not seen since Ronald Reagan left office.
The lack of resources and workers has undercut its ability to inspect facilities, measure contamination, punish violators and write new rules to stem pollution and climate change at a time when scientists say the world needs to act faster to stop runaway global warming.
At the beginning of his term, Biden asked Congress for a big boost to the EPA’s budget, from $9.2 billion to $11.2 billion. But the agency ended up getting only a fifth of that additional $2 billion requested by Biden, an increase that does not keep pace with the rapid rate of inflation.
That means the EPA actually has less spending power since Democrats took full control of the executive and legislative branches, even as its responsibilities grow. The budgetary slide continues a trend that deepened under Donald Trump but that began well before he took office.
“It’s not a good idea to starve the agency when it comes to trying to protect the public health,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said at one of the congressional budget hearings this month. “We have to rebuild the agency.”
One area where the EPA is scaling back — rather than rebuilding — is monitoring air pollution. This month, the agency suspended monitoring for ammonia, sulfur and other pollutants at more than two dozen places across the country, citing budget constraints.
The locations include forests in New Hampshire, New York and North Carolina, as well as areas around the college towns of Ann Arbor, Mich., and State College, Penn.
The closures will make it harder to spot violations of public health standards. Monitoring for smog-forming ozone will continue at some of the stations.
“It means you’re flying blind,” said Eric Schaeffer, who used to direct the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement and who now runs the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group. “Already we have a shortage of monitoring stations.”
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Even climate change, a top priority for Biden, is getting short shrift.
For instance, a pot of science and technology money targeted at getting carmakers to cut autos’ carbon pollution inched up from $7.9 million to $8 million, far below inflation, even as the administration enacts sweeping new tailpipe regulations.
Another pool of funding that supports recording the greenhouse gas emissions from every sector of the economy, maintaining the Energy Star program for energy-efficient appliances and writing regulations received a modest $1 million boost, from $97 million to $98 million.
Another cash-strapped bureau is the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. During the presidential campaign, Biden promised to crack down on polluters, reversing two decades of declines in inspections, criminal investigations and charges against polluting factories, power plants and other facilities.
But lawmakers denied the agency an additional $59.7 million for the office to beef up its policing of polluters for the current fiscal year. And the Senate has yet to confirm Biden’s choice for chief of enforcement, David Uhlmann, a University of Michigan Law School professor.
As a result, the EPA opened only 1,562 new civil cases against potential violators last year, tied with 2020 for the lowest level in at least a decade. By comparison, the EPA started more than double the number of cases in 2011.
“All the indicators are down,” Schaeffer said. “If you look at all of that together, it’s pretty compelling evidence that there’s a problem.”
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped. Justin Chen, a Dallas-based enforcement officer who inspects facilities for toxic air pollution, said he still feels the burden of taking on the caseload of a colleague who retired around the end of 2020.
“That was incredibly challenging and still poses a challenge to this day, honestly,” said Chen, who also heads the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees that represents EPA workers in Texas and neighboring states. “You still have an expectation on yourself to try to do as best of a job.”
As covid restrictions ease, EPA officials said they expect to deploy inspectors more often.
“Coming out of the pandemic, we anticipate an increase in the results from our enforcement actions as we increase field activities over the next several months,” spokesman Nick Conger said.
Still, this month, the agency canceled an in-person meeting of senior enforcement managers to save money on travel. And it still doesn’t have the budget to bring on more inspectors.
Under Biden, the EPA hired about 1,400 new employees to help replace the hundreds who left the agency under Donald Trump as covid raged and as his administration rolled back dozens of regulations. With nearly half of the EPA’s remaining workers eligible for retirement within the next five years, officials are bracing for another wave of departures.
The EPA is still capped by Congress at about 14,600 employees — 700 fewer than the workforce Biden requested last year and 3,500 fewer than the high set at the end of the Clinton administration.
Other cost-cutting measures are straining staff that stuck around. In Houston, the EPA is set to close a regional laboratory and relocate it to Ada, Okla., to save money on office space. Workers there warn of an exodus if they are forced to uproot their lives to keep their jobs.
“It takes many years for a new employee to be fully trained,” said one staff scientist at the Houston lab who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal. “All of that institutional knowledge would be completely lost.”
Under pressure from union officials, the EPA has delayed the move for five years.
Instead of approving Biden’s budget request, Congress passed stopgap measures to fund the government as Democrats put most of their energy toward passing an infrastructure package and negotiating a broad domestic policy package.
With bipartisan negotiations, “there are always tradeoffs,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a green group. “But inevitably, it’s in the environmental arena where Democrats make the most concessions.”
The infrastructure bill became law in November while the measure to address climate change and expand the social safety net has languished due to opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Republicans.
“I was disappointed that the fiscal year 2022 budget deal did not allow us to accommodate the full scale of need” at EPA, Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior Department, environment and related agencies, said at a hearing this month.
Many conservatives have long called for cuts to the EPA’s funding, accusing the agency of regulatory overreach.
“I’m happy to see the EPA budget shrink in real terms,” said Myron Ebell, the director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, who oversaw the EPA transition under Trump. “I hope that if the Republicans are in the majority in the 118th Congress, they will pass much bigger cuts.”
Now some Republicans are reluctant to fulfill the White House’s latest EPA budget request for $11.9 billion in 2023, after Congress funneled billions through the agency as part of the infrastructure law.
“I’ve got serious concerns about EPA being able to manage all of this,” Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.) told Regan during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.
But much of that infrastructure money is only being managed by agency staff and will ultimately go to states, cities and companies to tear out lead pipes, clean up industrial waste and buy electric school buses.
“You have all this money going through EPA because of the infrastructure law, and no real authorization to hire up to staff the infrastructure programs,” said David Coursen, a retired EPA attorney and a member of the nonprofit Environmental Protection Network.
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As billions in taxpayer dollars flow to the states, divisions like the EPA’s chemical safety office remain cash-strapped.
In 2016, lawmakers updated a statute regulating dangerous chemicals called the Toxic Substances Control Act that was long regarded as ineffective. Yet six years after its passage with overwhelming bipartisan support, the office is running on nearly the same budget it had in 2016.
“The new law gave the agency a lot more work to do,” said Freedhoff, who helped amend the law as a congressional staffer.
The agency now expects to miss every deadline set under the law for writing rules for 10 chemicals and completing risk evaluations for an additional 20 compounds. Freedhoff said she needs an additional 200 toxicologists, economic analysts and other employees to do the work.
Among the toxic substances awaiting new regulations are asbestos, a building material that increases the risk of lung cancer, as well as methylene chloride, a paint stripper linked to at least a dozen deaths between 2000 and 2011 among bathtub refinishers.
“Our workload has more than doubled,” she said. “Our budget situation is such that we’re at real risk of years-long delays.”