Still Significant Work Ahead for EPA, Former Officials Say

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By Rachel Leven

The Environmental Protection Agency has successfully reduced pollution for many individuals, but it needs to be funded for the significant work that is still ahead, Mustafa Ali, assistant associate administrator for environmental justice at the agency, said in a March 8 resignation letter obtained by Bloomberg BNA.

That message is not unique. Obama administration EPA officials, including the former agency administrator to the last head of research, are also publicly crying out for protection of funds and programs for issues from research to enforcement.

“The 70 percent drop in air pollution in this country since EPA was established didn’t happen by accident; and it’s not because of luck the economy tripled during the same time period,” Gina McCarthy, former EPA administrator, said in a statement. “It is due in large part to the hard work of EPA and a bipartisan commitment to making sound investments in the health of our people and our country.”

At the center of these calls are a variety of concerns, such as leaked budget proposals calling for the reduction of the agency’s staff by 20 percent and cutting its budget by 25 percent, and general uneasiness over whether the agency will be able to continue its work. Many of these former officials laid out ways the new administration could advance the agency’s work to protect the public and reduce inequities.

The EPA didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA’s message requesting comment. While the EPA has previously declined to speak about specifics of the budget proposal being developed, the agency has told staff and its employees’ union that the development is a process and nothing is final yet.

“I understand your concerns and I know employees are worried, but please tell them the administrator is working hard to negotiate a better budget and ask them to focus on their jobs while the process goes forward,” Don Benton, senior White House adviser in the EPA’s Office of the Administrator, told John O’Grady, president of the union that represents EPA employees, in an March 7 email obtained by Bloomberg BNA.

What to Save, Move Forward On

But individuals inside and outside the agency are concerned about the EPA’s ability to do its work moving forward.

Ali told Bloomberg BNA he left the EPA because he wanted to be at a place where he was well-positioned to help communities overburdened with pollution, even though he said he has hope the agency will be able to do that work, as well. In his letter, he pointed to work still left to do in the justice space.

“I would be remiss if I did not point out that while we have made great strides in protecting the air, water and land for most of our citizens, there are still many disproportionate environmental impacts occurring in our most vulnerable communities,” Ali said, urging the administrator to protect the Office of Environmental Justice. Leaked documents show that office as under consideration to be zeroed out.

Ali also advocated in the letter to save brownfields program funding that helps clean up previously contaminated areas and other money that can be used to help communities that are disadvantaged or disproportionately burdened by environmental pollution.

Former Deputy Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development Tom Burke also took part in an article urging the Trump administration to conduct evidence-based decision-making. The administration should also increase funding for research and use of environmental monitoring to address emerging issues and to continue acting on climate change, Burke and his co-authors said.

At minimum, John Cruden and Ethan Shenkman, former assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and former deputy general counsel for the EPA, respectively, urged the administration to adequately fund the EPA and the Justice Department division so they can execute their responsibilities.

“New administrations have the right to steer the ship in different directions as a matter of policy. Elections matter,” Cruden and Shenkman wrote on CNN. “In the long run, only an approach that plays to the institution’s strengths, its people and its core mission will be successful.”

--With assistance from Tiffany Stecker

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The resignation letter is available at http://src.bna.com/mPr

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