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Michael Hiltzik Columnist
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A beleaguered EPA has become ground zero in Trump's war on science

Few federal agencies would entirely escape the meat cleaver in President Trump’s proposed budget, but none is facing more devastating cuts than the Environmental Protection Agency.

The agency would suffer a 31% cut in the budget that was released late last month, to $5.7 billion — that’s from previous spending that already was cut to the bone. Some 25% of its workforce would be lopped off, leaving it the smallest it has been since 1982. Fifty-six specific monitoring, enforcement, regulatory and research programs — greenhouse gas reporting, indoor radon monitoring, water quality research grants, pollution cleanup programs from Chesapeake Bay to San Francisco Bay, state grants for clean water and air programs — would be zeroed out.

Because two major programs — providing state revolving funds for clean water and drinking water infrastructure — would be untouched, the rest of the agency would suffer an effective cut of 42%.

“This seems like a full-frontal attack,” says Ruth Greenspan Bell, a former EPA attorney and an organizer of the Environmental Protection Network, a group of former EPA employees devoted to fighting the attack. This week, the EPN sounded the alarm that the proposed budget would cut spending on science by nearly half — a cut that would undermine almost every function in the agency’s portfolio.

“Everything at EPA is so intertwined,” Bell says. “Science is tied into the regulatory process, permitting, enforcement. It’s not just a bunch of people in lab coats.”

The EPN’s critique certainly isn’t the first aimed at Trump’s EPA budget. When details first began to emerge in March, Gina McCarthy, the last EPA administrator under President Obama, called it “literally and figuratively … a scorched-earth budget that represents an all-out assault on clean air, water and land.” Some proposed cuts are even deeper than they were in the March version.

But the urgency is greater now. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who made his name filing lawsuits against the agency for the benefit of the oil and gas industry, will have to account for these cuts in testimony Thursday before the House Appropriations Committee. It’s doubtful that the committee members will delve too deeply into the ramifications of the cuts — they’re too vast and their consequences too far-reaching.

Here are a few items pinpointed by the Environmental Protection Network in its budget analysis:

  • The elimination of most climate change programs, including those that facilitate greenhouse gas reporting, the Energy Star program rating consumer product for energy efficiency, and partnerships aimed at encouraging the use of renewable energy.
  • Cuts totaling $678 million in state, local and tribal grants for air and water pollution programs, pesticide control, wetlands restoration, beach protection and lead programs.
  • The elimination of geographic programs including cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay ($73 million), the Great Lakes ($299 million) and San Francisco Bay ($4.8 million).

On the other side of the ledger, the budget reserves $68 million for what it terms “workforce reshaping.” The EPN aptly labels this an “Orwellian euphemism” for the buyouts and layoff costs incurred in cutting 3,805 full-time equivalents from its current payroll of 15,416.

To EPA veterans like Bell, the atmosphere surrounding the agency is reminiscent of the reign of Anne Gorsuch, Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator (and the mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch). Appointed in 1982, Gorsuch lasted barely two years because of her own scorched-earth approach, which included a 25% budget cut and the elimination of 30% of the workforce. Like Pruitt, her policy aimed to roll back a decade or more of environmental progress. But her morale-sapping approach made her job all the more difficult.

As a member of the general counsel’s office then, Bell recalls, “We spent a tremendous amount of time trying to throw our bodies between some pretty irrational and difficult political folks and the staff. We wanted the staff to stay there for the future of the institution.”

What’s curious about all these cuts is that they’re likely to undermine Trump’s and Pruitt’s oft-expressed intention to roll back existing EPA regulations. “You can’t change rules with the flick of a pen,” Bell says. “You need tons of resources to do that” — including lawyers and scientists to create a record justifying the revision or elimination of regulations that in some cases have been in place for decades.

Yet even if they can’t achieve their immediate objectives, the danger is that they’ll hamstring the agency’s work for years to come. Mass layoffs will be targeted at the youngest, most recently hired employees being trained for the future.

“They’re the seed corn,” says George Wyeth, a former EPA lawyer who left the agency in January after 27 years and helped organize the EPN. Gorsuch, Bell recalls, was succeeded by William Ruckelshaus, who tried to reverse the damage Gorsuch had caused, but it was a long-term project. “There were bruises,” Bell says. “You don’t just pick up the pieces.”

Wyeth adds that the cuts being proposed now will squeeze harder on an agency that long has been underfunded. The EPA’s recent budget peak came in 2010 at $10.3 billion. It fell more than 20% to $8.2 billion in 2016-17. The workforce’s recent peak came in 2011, at 17,494 full-time equivalents; Trump’s recommendation cutting that to 11,611 would mean a drop by more than one-third.

“The natural thing is to assume we’ll get a cut between 31% and zero, so a cut of 10% would be OK,” Wyeth says. “But the budget has been in a downward spiral. Everything that’s grown in the agency has had to come out of something else.”

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