Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has noted time and again that cooperative federalism will be a guiding principle of his tenure. Cooperative federalism—the idea that state and federal governments share responsibility in implementing the law—is fundamental to how most environmental statutes work. Administrator Pruitt, however, appears to be using the concept of cooperative federalism to gloss over what is really happening: The Trump administration is weakening the foundation of federal public health and environmental safeguards that establishes a baseline of protection for all Americans, regardless of where they live.
The Trump administration’s proposed EPA budget for fiscal year 2018 is the latest evidence that Administrator Pruitt is merely paying lip service to the idea of empowering states while actively undermining the ability of the EPA and state environmental agencies to fulfill their missions.
Trump’s EPA budget tells states to do more
The Trump administration’s proposed budget for FY 2018 recommends slashing the EPA’s budget by $2.6 billion, or more than 31 percent. The administration achieves a significant portion of these savings by proposing to eliminate 46 programs.
The Center for American Progress examined the EPA budget proposal and found that for 23—half—of these discarded programs, the EPA justifies the decision to eliminate them by saying that the states will pick up the slack. For example, the budget proposes to eliminate the agency’s indoor air quality radon program, saving $3 million. The EPA budget suggests that this federal program is no longer needed, since the agency “has provided important guidance and significant funding to help states establish their own programs.” Similarly, the EPA budget would save almost $27 million by getting rid of the National Estuary Program. The EPA budget promises that the agency “will encourage states to continue this work and continue to implement conservation management plans.” Several geographically focused programs are also on the chopping block, including restoration programs for the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. For these programs, the EPA budget says that the agency “will encourage” the relevant states “to continue to make progress.”
According to CAP’s analysis, more than 250 full-time employees implemented these 23 eliminated programs with $624 million of funding in FY 2017. The Trump administration’s EPA budget dumps hundreds of millions of dollars of work in the laps of the states.
Trump’s EPA budget will give states less funding
While committing states to do more work to make up for the loss of federal programs, the Trump administration’s EPA budget slashes funding for state environmental agencies.
In a March 2017 report, the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) concluded that state environmental agencies rely on federal funding for approximately 27 percent of their budgets. ECOS found that states use 65 percent of this funding to protect clean air, including activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate climate change, control air toxins and radon, and address smog.
The EPA allocates money to states primarily through grant programs. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund are the two largest funding mechanisms. In the proposed FY 2018 budget, the Trump administration provides a $4.3 million increase for these state revolving funds, a bump of just 0.19 percent. This is a pittance compared with what states say they need to update their water infrastructure to 21st century standards. In the EPA’s 2015 infrastructure survey, states reported needing more than $375 billion in capital investment over 20 years to upgrade their drinking water infrastructure.
Moreover, Trump’s EPA budget cuts $481.6 million for categorical grants—a decrease of almost 45 percent over the previous year. The EPA awards categorical grants to states and tribes to help them implement federal environmental laws and meet core needs, such as work to improve air quality, address climate change, clean up hazardous waste, control water pollution, regulate pesticide use, and keep beaches clean.
Categorical grants for state and local air quality management face a 30 percent reduction in the Trump EPA budget. In May, the National Association of Clean Air Agencies surveyed its members—state and local air quality agencies—about how these budgets cuts could affect their work. Agencies reported that the loss of grant funding could lead to staff layoffs and cancellation of programs, which “would likely have a devastating impact on the efforts of state and local air pollution control agencies to provide healthful air quality for the American public.” The agencies also warned that they may not be able to implement Clean Air Act requirements fully, leading to potential violations and tough sanctions for states.
All told, the Trump EPA budget would slash state and tribal assistance grants by $678 million—about the same value of the work that the EPA wants to add to the states’ plates to compensate for eliminated federal programs. This blows a new billion-dollar hole in the state agencies’ budgets.
The Trump EPA budget is a one-two punch
The Trump EPA budget would saddle states with new responsibilities and provide less grant funding to help states take on those responsibilities. At the same time, the Trump budget proposes to cut funding for or eliminate several national and regional environmental programs—a choice that would have state and local consequences.
Trump’s EPA budget, for example, proposes to cut funding for Superfund toxic waste cleanups by 30 percent, even though Administrator Pruitt claimed that he would prioritize this program. The budget reduces funding for cleanup and reuse of contaminated properties—also known as brownfields—by 37 percent. Communities living near toxic waste sites and brownfields will feel the direct impacts if these sites are left to languish due to a lack of cleanup funding—and state environmental agencies will be the ones feeling community pressure to act.
State environmental agencies already struggle to fulfill their missions because of state-level budget cuts. In December 2016, for example, the EPA sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection warning that the state’s drinking water inspection program was so understaffed that “major violations could be going unidentified.” In Administrator Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality had to delay toxic waste cleanup projects in 2016 due to severe budget cuts. At the same time, state legislatures—at the urging of polluters—are pushing to pass legislation to weaken environmental laws, make it harder for state agencies to enact new public health and environmental protections, and block clean energy deployment.
By cutting the EPA’s budget for federal environmental protection while granting less money for state environmental agencies to do critical work, President Donald Trump and Administrator Pruitt are sending a clear signal that protecting clean air, clean water, and public health is simply not a priority for the Trump administration. The EPA’s proposed budget and accompanying rhetoric merely shifts responsibility from the federal government to the states, while cutting funding for both and offering no guarantees that the state agencies will have the staff, resources, or authority to fill the holes left by the nation’s top environmental watchdog.
Myriam Alexander-Kearns is a policy analyst for the Energy and Environment Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Alison Cassady is the director of domestic energy and environment policy at the Center.