States follow EPA in slashing environmental oversight

Source: By Corbin Hiar, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 5, 2019

In EPA’s current five-year plan, one of the agency’s three main goals is to “rebalance the power between Washington and the states to create tangible environmental results for the American people.”

The problem with that February 2018 objective: Most states aren’t willing or able to take on the additional responsibility the Trump administration wants to give them, according to a new analysis of staffing and funding at state environmental agencies over the past decade.

The analysis, conducted by the Environmental Integrity Project watchdog group, found that between 2008 and last year, 40 states reduced the workforce of their environmental agency and 30 effectively cut their agency’s budget.

Those losses came during a boom in both oil and gas production and climate change-fueled disasters, EIP noted, and amid a decadelong decline in funding and staffing at EPA.

“The Trump administration has been trying to roll back EPA’s authority and funding by arguing that the states will pick up the slack and keep our air and water clean,” said Eric Schaeffer, EIP’s executive director.

“This is just a shell game, however,” said Schaeffer, the former director of civil enforcement at EPA. “Neither EPA nor states have the funding they need to meet their responsibilities under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other laws that protect the public’s health and our environment from dangerous pollution.”

One of the states that has suffered the biggest overall drop in environmental resources is Louisiana. The oil, gas and chemical industry-dependent state has slashed its spending on environmental protection programs by 34.8% over the last decade when controlled for inflation — more than every other state included in the analysis aside from Texas, which saw a 35.2% funding drop, and Wisconsin, where environmental spending has plummeted 35.6%.

At the same time, the Pelican State has cut the head count of its Department of Environmental Quality by 151 workers in a decade, a drop of 30%. Only Arizona, North Carolina and Illinois — which lost 38% of its environmental regulators, more than any other state — saw larger percentage decreases since 2008.

Alaska and Hawaii were excluded from the report because full data was not available for those states. Wisconsin didn’t break down its workforce figures.

Louisiana is also a coastal state that’s vulnerable to sea-level rise and natural disasters — phenomena that scientists say are worsened by a warming planet. Other vulnerable states that have slashed the budgets and workforces of their environmental agencies include North Carolina and New York.

North Carolina “is home to 2,246 factory hog farms housing 9.7 million pigs that produce 10 billion gallons of manure annually — 500 times the waste produced by the population of Washington, D.C.,” the report noted. “The hog waste lagoons often spill into rivers because of higher storm surges caused by sea-level rise and climate change.”

Yet the state has seen a substantial drop in environmental spending.

The inflation-adjusted budget of North Carolina’s environmental programs was over $116.5 million in 2008. That’s about $45.9 million, or 33.7%, more than its budget last year. Over the same decade, the Tar Heel State’s overall budget grew 8%.

North Carolina also has lost 35% of its environmental regulators since 2008, EIP found.

Similarly, the budget of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has been effectively slashed by 31% and the department’s workforce has dropped 29% in a decade.

Meanwhile, the budget and staffing numbers of EPA — which is supposed to oversee state environmental efforts — also have dropped precipitously since 2008. Congress and the White House have cut funding for the agency from $5.3 billion down to $4.5 billion and shed the equivalent of 2,699 positions, or 16% of its workforce.

Exceptional California

There are some notable exceptions to the downward trends for state environmental agencies. The California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), for instance, has increased its staffing by 28% and its funding by almost 75%, or about $1.8 billion.

“The largest area of growth in CalEPA’s spending was in recycling programs, with the state budget for resource recovery and recycling growing from zero in 2010 to $1.6 billion in 2018,” the report said. That spending was driven by A.B. 341, a new recycling law that “directed the state EPA to oversee a sweeping new program of mandatory commercial recycling and establish a new statewide target of 75 percent recycling by 2020 through source reduction and composting.”

CalEPA also has made substantial investments in its cap-and-trade program to limit companies’ planet-warming emissions and drinking water quality programs.

The state with the largest percentage growth in its environmental protection budget over the decade was Connecticut, which saw a 117% increase. At the same time, however, employment at its Department of Energy and Environmental Protection dropped 4%.

Overall, environmentalists are troubled by the trajectory of most state and federal efforts to protect the environment and public health.

“This idea that we can just slowly underfund our state environmental agencies, and that is somehow going to be beneficial to the state or business, is just really backward,” Drew Ball, director of Environment North Carolina, said in the report. “It doesn’t help business and certainly doesn’t help the health and safety of families.”