PORTLAND, Ore. – As the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality works to rebound from a tumultuous 2016, the agency now faces an uncertain future in light of the Trump administration’s planned cutbacks at the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
DEQ officials say questions surround the agency’s access to research, communications and budget, impacting its ability to monitor environmental health hazards in Oregon.
The DEQ came under fire last year due to air quality problems in Portland and other parts of the state. The agency is now in the final stages of hiring a new director, with the current interim director competing against a Missouri Department of Natural Resources employee for the position.
One question the candidates were asked is how they would handle a diminished EPA.
The Trump administration likely wants to cut the agency by half, if not more. Trump’s pick for EPA chief, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has accused the EPA of overreach and said the agency’s agenda destroyed jobs. It’s a viewpoint shared by many in the farming, industrial and energy industries.
Pruitt has not yet been confirmed and the EPA is in limbo.
In Oregon, the DEQ relies on EPA grants for 10 percent of its budget. It receives about $30 million in federal grants every year. The DEQ also borrows EPA equipment, including air monitors. Without that support, the department would have an even more difficult time handling environmental issues.
“It does create some concern,” said DEQ spokeswoman Jennifer Flynt.
Among the concerns are how the EPA will communicate with the public under the current administration. Following Trump’s inauguration, EPA staff were ordered not to post on social media and limit communications with press.
The EPA has not posted anything on its Twitter account since January 19. Its latest Instagram post is a photo of President Obama and former EPA Chief Gina McCarthy.
EPA staff say they don’t know when the agency will be allowed to use official social media accounts. They expect some press releases to be issued soon but staff could not reveal the contents or release dates.
The agency issued the following statement regarding communications:
“The EPA fully intends to continue to provide information to the public. A fresh look at public affairs and communications processes is common practice for any new Administration, and a short pause in activities allows for this assessment.”
The Trump administration reportedly planned to remove climate change information from the EPA’s website. The Washington Post reports EPA transition team members are “looking at scrubbing it up a bit,” according to Doug Ericksen, one of two Washington state senators charged with leading the team.
Some DEQ employees have reportedly downloaded entire EPA databases to protect research. The DEQ did not lead that effort, Flynt said.
“It wasn’t a DEQ directive for staff to do that,” she said. “It’s not clear if that’s a necessary action or not.”
The most pressing questions surround the millions of dollars in federal grants the state receives for air, land, and water quality programs.
Flynt said she’s been on the phone with other state DEQs, trying to figure out what to expect. Usually when a new administration takes office, federal agencies experience some kind of slowdown. But in a phone conversation last week, an EPA official admitted the current restrictions “are a little different,” Flynt said.
Right now, the DEQ isn’t bracing for any changes until October, when the new federal fiscal cycle begins.
KGW reached out to multiple EPA officials. One sent a statement on the grant program, echoing what the DEQ knows so far:
“As of last Friday, EPA has completed review of our grant programs, and all grants are proceeding normally and nothing has been delayed. This includes environmental program grants and state revolving loan fund grants to the states and tribes.”
What the agency does know is that potential cuts could come in October. The EPA has been banned from issuing new federal grants. EPA staff say they won’t know whether the agency will be able to issue new grants, and to what extent, until a new chief is named.
DEQ programs in flux
“Federal funding and technical assistance have been particularly important in responding to concerns over industrial air toxics,” said DEQ administrator Linda Hayes-Gorman.
Some pieces of key monitoring equipment, such as air monitors, are owned by the EPA. The DEQ does not know if the EPA will repossess the equipment or allow them to borrow more in the future.
Superfund cleanup plans have also been called into question. Kevin Parrett, who manages the Northwest Region Cleanup Program for the DEQ, said the Portland Harbor Superfund site will likely be protected from funding cuts since the polluters pay for that specific cleanup program. What could gum up the process is if the businesses on the hook, such as Port of Portland, decide to challenge how much they have to pay.
Parrett said EPA officials told him planned public meetings about the Portland Harbor Superfund Site are still happening.
Other Superfund sites could lose some funding, such as North Ridge Estates site near Klamath Falls. That’s an EPA-led site and the agency could withhold the next round of money. Flynt said that decision is expected to be announced in the spring.
The DEQ is protected from some EPA actions, since it’s allowed to go beyond what the federal agency requires. So, theoretically if air quality standards were loosened, the DEQ could still enforce stricter regulations.
Some programs, such as the state’s Cleaner Air Oregon initiative, are secure. A spokesman for Governor Kate Brown said the state’s attempt to reform air toxics regulation is moving forward as planned. The program is not directly supported through federal funding.
But EPA funding cuts could make it difficult for the DEQ to even meet federal air and water quality mandates, the governor’s office said.
Oregon Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli said it’s impossible to know exactly what will happen at the state level.
A loosening of regulations could also save money.
“Higher standards bring higher costs,” he said. “Those days are over, and so perhaps are the days when EPA and DEQ would either call the shots, raise the ante or back up an overreach at the state level.”
For now, Ferrioli and other state officials are just waiting for the direction of the next EPA chief.
“Interesting times,” he said.
Published January 31, 2017