How Trump's EPA cuts could gut Oregon environmental programs

A leaked memo shows the Trump administration wants to slash the EPA by $2.6 billion. These Oregon programs would take the biggest hit.

PORTLAND, Ore. – The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality now knows just how deep the Trump administration wants to cut programs at the Environmental Protection Agency, and the cuts could gut some of Oregon’s biggest environmental projects.

A leaked memo sent March 21 detailed how the White House hopes to slash the EPA, by cutting $2.6 billion, a quarter of EPA staff and shrinking or doing away with more than 50 programs. The New York Times took a look at the losses and which programs they impact the most.

NY Times: What’s at stake in Trump’s proposed E.P.A. cuts

President Donald Trump says the cuts would help businesses thrive without having to bow to unnecessary regulations. Some business groups and politicians praised the move, but Oregon state officials are concerned the slimmer budget could impact public health.

If Trump’s budget passes, those cuts will quickly pour down to Oregon, reducing or eliminating some programs while making others far more difficult to enforce. State officials weighed in on how bad the funding cuts could be and what they mean to projects such as the Portland Harbor superfund cleanup plan.

The budget is not set in stone and lawmakers on both side of the aisle are expected to push back in support of programs that are on their agendas.

But based on Trump’s budget so far, here are the Oregon programs that could see some of the biggest impacts.

Radon program

Elevated levels of radon found at Portland Public Schools KGW

Oregon only gets $64,000 in federal funding for its radon program every year, but that money goes a long way through educating state staff and the public about how to detect and mitigate toxic, odorless radon gas.

The Trump budget proposes to cut that funding.

“As no alternative funding source has been identified, Oregon’s program would likely end,” said Oregon Health Authority spokesman Jonathan Modie.

Modie said in smaller communities such as La Grande, where data shows residents are at a higher risk for radon exposure, residents could have increased risk of negative health effects without the state radon program.  Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., behind smoking.

“Loss of educational outreach and training efforts would like have the biggest impact on local communities such as La Grande,” he said.

Public water

Concerns about lead and other contaminants in public drinking water made headlines last year in Oregon, after high lead levels were found at many public schools. Trump proposes to reduce the Public Water System Supervision Grant Program by one-third. While that doesn’t impact school testing – the lead was mainly from old pipes, not the water itself -- it does mean cities and states will have a more difficult time testing the safety of public drinking water.

The Oregon Health Authority oversees Portland’s water bureau. Over the last year, water testing has found concerning levels of some contaminants and while lead levels aren’t above state limits, there is some lead in Portland’s drinking water.

“Approximately 54 percent of the OHA Drinking Water Services Budget is derived from federal grants,” said Tony Andersen, communication officer for the Oregon Health Authority. “While we can’t speculate on the specifics, or scope or timing of cuts, we know that any cuts at the federal level will affect our ability to provide direct services and will force us to prioritize our work.”

Andersen said budget cuts could make it harder to implement the Safe Drinking Water Act and other regulatory programs aimed at protecting public health. 

Illegal pollution

The EPA has a staff of enforcement officials who make sure federal laws are being followed. Under Trump’s budget, the programs would be cut in half, eliminating hundreds of jobs.

That could make cracking down on illegal pollution very difficult. 

“This is very important to Oregon,” said Richard Whitman, the new state DEQ director.

If businesses are breaking the law but cutting corners on environmental regulations, they could be polluting more than the law allows and saving money on environmental regulations.

EPA staff, along with the DEQ, makes sure businesses aren’t skirting regulations. But if the EPA’s enforcement staff is cut, businesses could have a much easier time getting away with illegal pollution.

Whitman said Oregon plans to continue enforcing the law but other states who can’t -- or won’t -- crack down on businesses could gain a competitive advantage over more environmentally conscious states if the EPA enforcement staff goes silent. Some businesses could even choose to leave Oregon for other states with more relaxed enforcement.

“The loss of EPA capacity to continue making sure states are being fairly consistent in the long-term creates a potential for an uneven playing field between states,” he said.

Oregon could also lose hundreds of thousands of dollars if EPA enforcement staff stops levying fines on companies for violating the law.

For example, the Oregon DEQ received $48,000 when JELD-WEN’s Klamath Falls lumber facility violated the Clean Air Act. The EPA also ordered JELD-WEN to pay $444,000 for local uncertified woodstove change-out programs in the area. Without EPA enforcement, JELD-WEN could have been off the hook for those fines.

Portland Harbor Superfund Site

Feds announce billion dollar Superfund plan KGW

Cutting enforcement staff also means EPA-led Superfund cleanups, like the one on the Willamette River, could be significantly delayed.

“This is probably our top concern in terms of the White House blueprint budget,” Whitman said.

The White House budget proposes to slash Superfund Site funding by reducing EPA staff. While some Superfund cleanup plans are state-led, the Portland Harbor site is led by the EPA.

“EPA will have to sign off on the specific cleanup plans around parts of the harbor, and sign off on the work that mainly private parties will be undertaking,” Whitman said. “That could result in some pretty substantial delays.”

With fewer staff, the process could take an extra five to 10 years to finish, on top of the 13 years already planned for cleanup, Whitman said. That means work could last through 2040.

Getting funding for the plan could also be a lot harder with fewer EPA staff. Portland Harbor cleanup will be paid for partly by the companies that polluted the river in the first place. Without EPA staff enforcing those fees, polluters could drag their feet – extending the process even longer.

But Travis Williams, executive director of the Willamette Riverkeeper, is still optimistic.

“What is known is that legally, EPA has to provide oversight to begin implementation of the plan, and to work with the State of Oregon on a monitoring plan,” he said. “In addition, with The City of Portland, the State, as well as a few PRPs [Potentially Responsible Parties] likely providing some energy, we can get work going perhaps 12 months from now at some sites. That timeline has not changed.”

Oil Spills

Anti-oil train rally urges action by governor KGW

In June 2016, a Union Pacific oil train derailed and caught fire next to the tiny town of Mosier, in the Columbia River Gorge. Crude oil spilled in the area, contaminating the groundwater and the Columbia River.

The EPA took the lead on that case and it’s still considered “active/unresolved.” DEQ officials say they gave estimates for a civil penalty to the EPA, but so far haven’t heard back. If EPA cuts go through, the DEQ could wait a long time before seeing a penalty levied against Union Pacific, if at all.

If more oil trains derail, or oil spills happen, the lack of EPA oversight could mean the companies responsible for the spills could get off scot-free.

Pharmaceuticals in wastewater

Health officials are increasingly concerned about pharmaceutical drugs leeching into wastewater, and how it impacts public health and the health of wildlife by altering hormones. Endocrine disruptor research aims to find out how this emerging pollutant causes harm.

“It’s an emerging issue in terms of water quality,” Whitman said. “We have seen signs in some of the water quality monitoring in Oregon, including the Willamette River, about the presence of pharmaceuticals.”

Under the White House budget, the Endocrine Disruptor Research Program would be eliminated completely. Without more research, the full health impacts from this phenomenon are unclear.

Water quality on the coast

The White House’s EPA budget eliminates nonpoint source grants, which fund several programs in Oregon. One of the most critical is Oregon’s effort to protect the coast from the impacts of pesticides and other contaminants from agriculture and forestry.

“Through the nonpoint source grants, we work with forest land owners and agricultural land owners to make sure we are not seeing runoff from their lands that is polluting streams,” Whitman said. “This funding helps do that.”

The state also works with land owners to create larger buffers and fences, to contain pollutants. Without the grants that work wouldn’t stop, but the financial impact would be significant.

Another vital program that monitors beach health, the Oregon Beach Monitoring Program, is fully funded by $218,000 in federal money. The program tests the water for unhealthy levels of fecal bacteria and makes sure the public knows when it’s too high. Without the funding from the EPA, that program would vanish.

What’s not impacted: Local air quality concerns

Although air quality problems have plagued Oregon over the past year, with heavy metals and odorous toxic gas concerns emerging across Portland and the state, the EPA has little to do with regulating those issues.

“This is one of those areas where the federal law doesn’t really address the problem created by localized effects on its immediate neighbors,” Whitman said. “We’re using state law to do that.”

Gov. Kate Brown last year launched the Cleaner Air Oregon initiative, in response to heavy metal pollution from glass factories in Portland neighborhoods.  That initiative is moving its way through state legislature and could change how Oregon cracks down on relatively small polluters who spew toxics into areas where people live. It could also change how Oregon views polluters – instead of just looking at one factory, the DEQ could consider how a group of factories together impact air quality.

DEQ to re-investigate North Portland air quality KGW

How Oregon can help

Although the proposed EPA budget cuts funding to the DEQ, Alexandra Dunn from the national nonprofit Environmental Council of the States says all is not lost. 

On average, the federal government contributes about 27 percent to a U.S. state’s environmental budget. Another 12 percent comes from the state general fund, and the rest is made up through fees, like air quality permits.

Oregon actually contributes less than the average, according to an ECOS report. Of the state’s approximately $168,100,000 budget for environmental programs, just nine percent comes from the general fund. Forty-four percent comes from fees. The biggest chunk – 47 percent – comes from the federal government.

“I think it’s important to know that state government is resilient and budget cuts are a part of government,” Dunn said. “I do think that states will work very hard to ensure that public health is protected and they are remaining transparent and responsive to people.”

Dunn said states could contribute more to addressing environmental concerns by increasing fees or dedicate more general funds to the environment.

With a $1.6 billion budget deficit facing the state, Oregon may not have the extra money to devote to the DEQ. And Whitman says the EPA budget cuts may be just the beginning of a much larger shift.

 “It’s important to look at policy changes the White House is announcing. Not moving forward with the clean power plan. They are backing away from a change in the ozone standard for our air. They are backing away from the rules to protect water quality. It’s an overall picture of backing way not just from what they might think of as fringe environmental programs, It’s backing away from core environmental protections that are important to Oregonians and folks in the U.S.,” Whitman said. “This is the leading edge of a potentially very major change in how the federal government plays with the states in protecting our environment.”  

 

Published April 21, 2017

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