The Importance of the EPA

October 16, 2017

This is the first of a multi-post blog series by the BERC-Action community on President Trump’s proposed budget. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the opinions of the entire BERC organization. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), established by Richard Nixon in 1970 amidst strong bipartisan and public support, is the reason why acid rain no longer kills fish and trees and why the hole in the ozone layer is finally showing signs of healing [1, 2]. The EPA is to thank for the fact that people can now swim and fish in the same rivers that were once so choked with industrial waste that they caught fire [3]. The Clean Air Act, a historically-bipartisan policy enforced by the EPA, has resulted in approximately $33 trillion in net economic benefit to the American taxpayer since the 1970s [4, 5].

Shockingly, the budget proposed by the Trump administration aimed to slash Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31%, nearly the lowest funding level since the inception of the EPA in 1970, and cut 20% of its workforce [6]. Defunding the EPA like this will pass the burden of health problems and environmental cleanup costs to American taxpayers instead of requiring polluters to pay for their mess. The EPA budget already accounts for less than 0.5% of the federal budget yet this agency took largest hit in Trump’s proposed budget. The EPA’s impact on the federal budget is small while the impact on the health and quality of life for the American taxpayer is massive [7]. Both Republican and Democratic members of the House Appropriations Committee have expressed concern regarding the impact of the proposed cuts [16].

What, specifically, is cut in the proposed 2018 Trump EPA budget [8]

  • Scientific research funding at EPA is cut by 47% across the board
  • Most climate programs for research and voluntary reporting are eliminated
  • Clean air and radiation safety research, management, & cleanup, cut 44.8%
  • Water quality and ecosystem protection programs cut 25%
  • Drinking water human health programs cut 18%
  • Pesticides and toxics research, management, and risk review cut 22.7%
  • Hazardous waste management programs cut 37.5%
  • Hazardous substance cleanup (Superfund) programs cut 28.1%
  • Enforcement against companies polluting air and water cut 24%

Why you should be opposed to these proposed cuts to the EPA

1. The cuts place financial burden of cleanup on taxpayers instead of polluters

The EPA calculates that from 1970 to 1990, the economic benefits of the Clean Air Act totaled $22.2 trillion while the cost of compliance was $0.5 trillion [4, 11]. A study from 1990 to 2020 found that $12 trillion in economic benefits resulted from the Clean Air Act Amendments, while costs were $0.38 trillion [5, 11]. Thus, the benefits were 42 and 32 times greater than the costs, respectively. Whether one argues that corporations end up shouldering the costs or that they pass the costs onto consumers, the benefits of the Clean Air Act are massive compared to the costs for the American taxpayer on the whole.  Additionally, the American taxpayer suffers disproportionately compared to corporations if they are allowed to pollute. It does not hurt corporations if they fill the air with toxins, but American citizens then suffer health problems and environmental destruction. Without the Clean Air Act, the American taxpayer would have to foot the bill for health problems and environmental cleanup directly rather than requiring the polluter to pay.

The EPA helps assure that polluters pay to clean up their mess by enforcing environmental regulations, but the proposed budget cuts would cripple the EPA’s ability to do so. In 2016, the EPA’s enforcement of the law resulted in $13.7 billion of company investments in equipment and actions to mitigate pollution, as well as over $1 billion committed to cleanup toxic Superfund sites, and $6 billion in fines [13]. All of this goes to keep the cost of polluting on the polluter, not the taxpayer, and the EPA’s track record shows success in doing so.   

2. The cuts put Americans’ health, safety, & recreation at huge risk

As a result of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, which limited toxins and particulate emissions beyond the original 1970 Act, there were 160,000 early deaths avoided in 2010 and it is calculated that 230,000 early deaths will be avoided in 2020 [5, 9].  The Clean Air Act has greatly reduced cases of chronic bronchitis, asthma, heart disease, emergency room visits, and resulted in 13 million fewer lost work days in 2010 [5, 9]. The Clean Air Act Amendments are also responsible for the fact that the hole in the stratospheric ozone layer has stabilized and shows signs of healing [2]. The protective ozone layer shields us from the full intensity of the sun’s radiation and its continued destruction would have meant an increased risk of skin cancer, among other problems.

Despite the EPA’s excellent track record in protecting Americans’ health and safety, the proposed budget cuts would make it impossible to continue doing so. For example, the cuts call for a 97% reduction in funding to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which helps to provide clean drinking water to tens of millions of people, assure safe waters for swimming, and provide healthy ecosystems that support fish populations for recreational fishing [14]. The critical importance of this program is illustrated by events such as the August 2014 toxic algal bloom that caused Lake Erie to become so contaminated with microcystin that the City of Toledo had to order residents not to drink the tap water [14]. Florida’s beaches and waterways suffer from pollution-driven algal blooms that can create toxic pollutants or simply disgusting slime that hurts recreation and tourism. EPA programs are critical for the enforcement and research programs that prevent this sort of pollution [15]. There are examples from programs across the country of how the health, safety, & recreation of American citizens would be put at risk with the proposed cuts to the EPA.

3. The cuts will lead to environmental damage

In 1990 the Clean Air Act Title IV was put in place to address the problem of acid rain, which occurs when byproducts from burning fossil fuels react with moisture and oxygen in the air. Acid rain damages the environment by killing organisms in water and soil, causing ocean acidification and loss of soil nutrients, all of which threaten to destabilize natural ecosystems. Acid rain also corrodes bridges, buildings, and roads, and negatively impacts critical industries such as forestry, fishing, and agriculture [10]. Sulfates, which contribute to acid rain, have dropped 70% since 1990 in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the US [1], and we have the Clean Air Act to thank.

With the budget cuts being proposed, the EPA will struggle to enforce regulations like this, and will struggle to conduct scientific analyses that evaluate whether regulations are needed, are working, and what their cost-benefit would be to society. One specific example is that the cuts call for essentially eliminating the funds for vehicle testing and certification, which would result in an inability to enforce automobile emissions standards. The importance of programs like this is illustrated by the Volkswagen emissions scandal of 2015, for which Volkswagen has agreed to pay $14.7 billion in fees. The EPA has recently accused Fiat Chrysler of evading emissions standards as well [17], but enforcement of emissions standards is impossible without the budget.

4. The cuts will cause job loss and a generational gap of professional expertise

The budget cuts will require the EPA to fire 3785 employees (about 20% of its workforce)[6]. Most of lost jobs are expected to be younger, less senior employees, resulting in a whole generation of environmental science, economics, and policy professionals who will not become experts in this area and will have to find jobs in other fields. As the older generation retires and there is no one to fill their shoes, the ability of the EPA to fill jobs in the future will be undermined and could slow progress for many years. The Clean Air Act has been successful because it was informed by rigorous environmental science and modeling, detailed economic cost-benefit analysis, and was a carefully crafted policy. Without a new generation of professionals becoming experts in these areas, we are unlikely to be able to produce similarly successful policies for decades to come.

Scientific research is fundamental to understanding the impact of pollutants on human and environmental health and to inform policy, planning, and allocation of budgets [18]. Economic research is needed to quantify a policy’s costs and benefits to society. Enforcement of policies is critical to assure compliance from powerful industries.  Gutting these three areas assures that we will pass up opportunities for economic savings and for improving the health of American citizens.

Where does the budget proposal stand as of today?

As of today, the proposed 2018 Trump budget has not yet been implemented. The House Appropriations Committee approved 6.5% in budget cuts to the EPA on July 18, 2017, and now the bill will go before the full House of Representatives [12].

Cutting the EPA budget by 31% would be absolutely devastating and crippling to the EPA, but even cuts of 6.5%, on top of budget reductions that were handed down over the last decades, would have a significantly detrimental impact on the ability of the EPA to do its job in the ways discussed above.

What can you do?

For now, there are two things you can do: 1) share this information to help educate your fellow citizens on what is at stake, and 2) stay tuned for a coordinated effort to contact specific members of congress to make your voice heard.