Energy & Environment

Tigers no More

State EPAs are suffering from federal budget cuts, but that may not be their worst problem.
by | April 2006
 

Five years ago, state pollution-control directors were ready to reinvigorate a sluggish environmental protection process. With a former governor in the White House and another running the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, many state commissioners figured they'd get more rein to pioneer new ways to meet environmental quality goals quickly and reliably.

Now the tables are turned. Instead of loosing the states' innovative spirits, Congress and the Bush administration have sliced pollution- control funding drastically and distorted common-sense streamlining to give regulatory breaks to business and landowners. Even as they get ready to tackle some tenacious new environmental threats, states are scrambling for funds just to live up to obligations they've assumed over the past 30 years to enforce existing federal standards. Whatever progress EPA and the states once made working together, "now it's just blown to hell," says Stephanie Hallock, Oregon's environmental quality director.

Similarly discouraging words are heard from current and former state commissioners. State agencies do most of the legwork to enforce federal air, water and waste standards under authority that EPA has delegated. State governments pick up roughly half the cost from their own general revenues and regulatory fees, and EPA has covered the rest through grants for state-run programs. Now, the Environmental Council of the States, an organization that represents state pollution-control chiefs, says that EPA is protecting its own turf by cutting federal support for vital state operations.

For fiscal 2005 and 2006, by ECOS's analysis, EPA's total budget was reduced by more than $500 million. Over those two years, however, the federal agency cut more than $600 million from fiscal assistance that states count on to enforce federal standards and finance local water and sewage treatment improvements ordered by federal law. ECOS says EPA is spending the difference to maintain and even expand its own programs. In state capitals, pollution agencies are now talking about stepping aside and eliminating some expensive state programs so EPA will have to take them over.

"We're at the point where we've got to think about what we're not going to do," says Steve Thompson, Oklahoma's veteran environmental director. Oklahoma may cancel ongoing efforts to establish water- quality standards in lakes and rivers and stop assessing contaminated industrial sites for local redevelopment projects. The state also plans to raise laboratory fees for testing local water supplies for arsenic and other contaminants that new EPA standards will regulate. Oregon already has shut down some Portland air-quality monitors, while other states have cut back on the frequency of inspecting hazardous waste sites. And, once again, some state staffs are taking two years to grant or deny permits that streamlined procedures could process in one month.

ECOS has gone to Congress with a plan to restore state and local funding by shifting $600 million from what states regard as less essential EPA spending. The group points out that EPA is paying two consulting firms $37 million over five years to study performance- track programs that states launched a decade ago. States already work with industries to encourage early compliance, but "EPA is creating voluntary programs left and right," spending $172 million a year on 68 separate initiatives, says ECOS Director R. Steven Brown. "In tight fiscal times, it's the core state programs that should be funded first."

ECOS has become obsessed by the EPA budget battle, but there's more than money missing from state missions. Thirteen years ago, state directors formed ECOS out of frustration with the by-the-book procedures that EPA forced the states to follow. Most were experienced regulators who rose through the ranks, and they insisted states could be trusted to uphold national pollution goals even as they experimented with new methods to meet them.

Most ECOS founders have moved on, and not all their successors combine the same pioneering enthusiasm with career-long commitments to regulating more effectively. New governors picked political supporters, some from industry or environmental law firms, as their pollution-control directors. Old-timers say some newcomers promote voluntary programs but don't share their predecessors' commitment to backing them up with vigorous enforcement. Others haven't challenged regulatory staffs to think more creatively.

Those are continuing tensions in government pollution policy, and squabbles over funding basic regulatory tasks don't help resolve them. Instead of exploring better ways to make sure standards are met, "we're kind of back to doing things the way we used to do them before," one former state director says. That's a more serious loss than steep budget cuts for the country's environmental progress.

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