What a Gutted EPA Would Cost Our Communities

Cities, towns and counties depend on the federal agency in numerous ways. Drastic budget cuts would create a lot of pain for them.
March 20, 2017
By Elizabeth Beardsley  |  Contributor
Senior policy counsel at the U.S. Green Building Council

By all accounts, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) faces the likelihood of significant budget and staffing cuts under the new presidential administration; the questions are by how much and what programs would remain. But while the news and general commentary is focused on familiar complaints about regulation, one of the considerations missing from the discourse is an understanding of how these cuts would adversely affect local communities.

President Trump's preliminary budget released last week proposes cutting EPA's discretionary spending by fully 31 percent -- the most of any large federal agency -- and the president has said he wants to cut the agency's workforce by one-fifth. The budget blueprint asserts that "more than" 50 programs will be eliminated, with just a few that help regions and local communities specifically identified, including the South Florida and Great Lakes programs and the familiar and widely used Energy Star program.

To understand the impacts of a dramatically slimmed-down EPA on communities, we need to fully appreciate the relationships that local governments have with the federal agency. A core relationship, of course, is as financial beneficiary, whereby cities, counties, towns and districts receive funds from EPA either directly or through their states. The lion's share of the EPA budget -- more than 43 percent of the fiscal 2016 appropriation -- goes to the State and Tribal Assistance Grant account, which covers clean air, clean water, brownfields, beach protection, green infrastructure and many other programs.

In recent years, for example, the rural town of Garber, Okla., received funding to replace pipes and provide safe drinking water, and Carson City, Nev., got money to rehabilitate its wastewater treatment plant. Adding to the direct benefit of these funds to the environment, the resulting facility upgrades and other capital projects typically also create a bump in local jobs.

The state revolving funds seem to be retained in the proposed budget, meaning that everything else would be severely reduced or eliminated entirely to reach a 31 percent overall cut. Among those vulnerable programs are the less well known categorical grants that support local activities. Earlier reports identified for elimination, for example, EPA’s diesel emissions reduction program, which has covered costs for replacement or retrofitting of school buses. That program is hardly a budget-buster: Only 17 percent of applicants were funded at the meager 2016 appropriation level of $7.7 million.

Local governments also receive tangible non-financial assistance from EPA. The agency's technical resources and support are available to cities, towns and counties on a voluntary basis. These resources help communities answer questions from citizens, such as on the safety of drinking water, have access to digestible and trustworthy science, and find information on solutions such as green building.

And there is local government as a regulated entity: Communities need permits and approvals from EPA for facilities such as wastewater treatment plants. A smaller EPA could mean delays in these legally required approvals and a reduction in technical assistance.

Of course, not all local governments are big fans of EPA, particularly when it acts as a regulator of local utilities. But even where EPA imposes costs on local government -- through requirements triggering facility upgrades, for example -- they benefit from EPA having a more robust budget. Why? A larger budget supports regional office employees. These are the people who best understand what other challenges a community is facing, which can be significant when negotiating orders and deadlines.

Finally, communities and their residents benefit generally from EPA's work to clean up contamination, protect human health and restore waterways essential to vibrant communities and economies. EPA's bipartisan Local Government Advisory Committee, for example, strongly supports the brownfields program, which spurs development and creates economic opportunity.

And what of EPA's climate change program, which is among those targeted to be zeroed out? Local governments would miss that too. Many of the program's functions are as much about saving energy, reducing operating costs and creating resilience as they are specifically about slowing climate change: think Energy Star, a resource now being used for more than 450,000 buildings across the country that is embedded in countless local incentives and codes.

As cities are well aware amid the debate over climate change, they are on the front lines when it comes to dealing with safety and property risks from extreme weather events. To date, more than 130 cities have committed to reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions. And EPA's eGRID database, which converts electricity consumption to greenhouse-gas emissions, is essential for cities, along with the private sector, in tracking progress on these local goals.

Clearly, as the debate over EPA's budget and mission unfolds in Washington, much will be at stake for America's local governments. If Congress gives its blessing to cuts of the scope being proposed by the White House, our communities -- and the people who live in them -- will be sharing the pain.