Changes, Budget Cuts At EPA Worry Some Va. Lawmakers, Please Others

Feb 22, 2018

In President Trump’s newly released budget, the administration calls for drastic cuts to environmental programs, including the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund. Lawmakers from Virginia are divided on the role the Environmental Protection Agency should play today.

President Trump wants to cut the EPA’s budget by more than $2.5 billion, a more than 23% reduction to an agency that has been seeing its workforce retire in droves since Trump entered the White House.

Southwest Virginia Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith says he supports the vision being laid out by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. “The EPA deserves a haircut," Griffith says. "What we need to do is move more people out into the field and get fewer people up here in the alabaster halls of Washington, D.C.”

A handful of House Republicans have called for doing away with the EPA altogether.  While Griffith opposes that idea, he says the agency needs to evolve because when it was created polluted rivers were catching on fire and heavy smog hung over cities from coast to coast. “I don't like to say 'get rid of the EPA.' I think that would be a mistake," Griffith says. "At the same time, these folks have been out looking for a mission to do for a number of years because they've succeeded on so many fronts and because they want to keep their jobs here in D.C. They don't realize the mission is not in D.C. It's in southwest Virginia. It's in Flint, Michigan. It's in places I don't know about.”  

The EPA was launched in 1970 and it had a lot of work to do, which Northern Virginia Democratic Congressman Don Beyer remembers well. In 1972 he served as a Park Ranger at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. and he says conservatives like Griffith have a point. “There were many days standing on the top step, you couldn't see the Capitol and a lot of days you couldn't see the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial because of the smog and the haze, and that's fortunately never the case now," Beyer remembers. "So, that's a good point, but it's not an argument to say we don't need the EPA anymore.”

Under Administrator Pruitt, the EPA has been overhauled. He removed academics from a scientific advisory board and filled some of those spots with people from private industry. He’s also moved the agency away from focusing on combating climate change and has supported the administration’s effort to unwind regulations.

Beyer says the EPA workforce doesn’t like all the changes being forced on them from the top.  "Well, it's incredibly demoralizing for the people who work there. We've already seen the flight of about 700 senior EPA officials already which just moves us in the wrong direction. It's going to take us a generation to rebuild the EPA after Scott Pruitt," Beyer argues.

Beyer says he and other Democrats are prepared to fight Trump’s proposed environmental cuts tooth and nail. "The EPA has strayed so far from its core mission, which has been a Democratic and Republican mission to protect the water, the air, the health of our society and now, so much of this is being turned over to industry with a different agenda.”

Central Virginia Republican Congressman Tom Garrett wants to see more of the EPA’s mission moved out of Washington and back to the states. But he says the federal government has an important role to play, especially on things like the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. President Trump’s budget calls for dropping that restoration funding from $72 million to just $7 million. Garrett says that’s an area where Virginia actually needs the federal government’s assistance. "In other words, we're trying to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland's been a wonderful partner. Delaware's been a pretty good partner. Virginia's all-in," Garrett explains. "We're getting half the pollutants in the bay from Pennsylvania, who has, you know, no real direct impact of bad policy, and so takes a federal agency to compel behavior from say, for example, Pennsylvania, to get an outcome that benefits directly, Virginia and Maryland.

It’s not just the Chesapeake. Virginia is considered a tailpipe state, meaning the pollutants from its neighboring states out west and to the north get blown into the Commonwealth. That’s why Northern Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly says Pruitt and his EPA are proposing things that could directly impact the health of kids and older Virginia residents. "I think it puts the public at risk in terms of clean air, clean water, you know, a host of diseases that are environmentally affected," Connolly says. "It just sets us back in terms of decades of progress that's had the support of the public, has created jobs and has made America cleaner and healthier."

But Republican Congressman Griffith, who represents the coal fields in the south west part of the state, says Washington isn’t the answer. "Anybody who thinks that having the federal government solve all of your problems is the way to go clearly doesn't understand how ineffective and inefficient the federal government is," Griffith argues.

Congress still needs to work out the final details of another funding package by the end of March, and the fight over environmental funding is expected to spark a heated debate inside the Capitol.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.