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By Abby Smith
Residents of Florida and other states in the path of Hurricane Irma may have a rude awakening after the winds die down and the rain and storm surge stop.
Recovery and rebuilding efforts could be hobbled by proposed budget cuts and staff buyouts at one of the key agencies that handles emergency response and rebuilding efforts after disasters.
Even as the Environmental Protection Agency sent teams to south Florida in preparation for the then-Category 4 storm barreling toward the U.S., former EPA and other officials say Trump administration budget plans could constrain rebuilding after the storm—efforts that take months, if not years.
The EPA not only oversees the handling of mountains of hazardous materials in the aftermath of storms like hurricanes Harvey and Irma but also coordinates and provides technical assistance to other federal, state, and local agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to address environmental impacts of the storm.
For example, the EPA works closely with state and local agencies to get water systems back online and make repairs after major storms. The agency’s Region 2 staff, based in New York, already has begun the process of assessing drinking water and wastewater systems in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories within its jurisdiction affected by Hurricane Irma, according to EPA spokesperson Elias Rodriguez.
But some former officials say other agency grant programs targeted by Trump will be critical to rebuilding. If those cuts survive in Congress, it could severely limit the ability of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas to repair areas flooded by the storm.
“With Irma bearing down, Florida residents are going to be unfortunately surprised when they realize some of the funds they need have been cut out of the budget just because somebody didn’t like the EPA,” said Heather McTeer Toney, who served as Region 4 administrator during the latter part of the Obama administration.
The administration has proposed the elimination of agency programs vital to Florida’s ability to have “meaningful, sustainable rebuilding efforts,” Toney told Bloomberg BNA, including the EPA’s nonpoint source pollution management program, which helps to control pollution from agricultural runoff; the national estuary program, which helps to protect bays and other water resources; the agency’s grant program for beach protection; and grants to encourage green building in urban and rural communities.
Toney also said Trump administration moves to shrink the EPA’s staff are worrisome because then “they don’t have the people to be there on the ground” to prepare for and assess damage from the storms and coordinate with local government on recovery efforts. During her time heading Region 4—which covers Florida and seven other Southeast states—she led the agency’s response to hurricanes Matthew and Arthur.
Toney isn't alone in her concerns. Judith Enck, former Region 2 head during the Obama administration, told Bloomberg BNA just after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas that the EPA was at risk of losing some of its most experienced career staff. The Trump administration offered its first round of buyouts for EPA employees Sept. 2.
Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, told Bloomberg BNA the EPA doesn't seem to be listening to the regional offices, which he said “are the ones that actually know what’s going on” and handle the bulk of emergency response efforts.
In many cases, he said, there is no Trump-appointed regional administrator—though the administration recently did name Trey Glenn, former head of Alabama’s environment agency, to lead Region 4 in Atlanta.
The House’s draft fiscal year 2018 appropriations bill for the EPA and Department of Interior would fund the EPA at $7.5 billion, $1.9 billion more than the administration’s request. Lawmakers are expected to vote on that bill next week. The draft Senate version would fund the EPA at $8.1 billion, compared to the $5.65 billion requested by the Trump White House.
UCS’ Rosenberg said Trump administration plans for massive cuts to the EPA’s science budget also pose a risk for rebuilding efforts. The EPA’s national labs—which would face a 40 percent cut under the proposed budget—are responsible for research on how to deal with toxic contaminants.
“Without those labs, those efforts stop, and we don’t continue to improve our ability to prepare and recover,” he said, adding that it is “fiction” to say states have that capacity.
The EPA declined to respond to a query from Bloomberg BNA on whether it had adequate resources to respond to Hurricane Irma, simply saying it “stands ready to assist all states, tribes, and citizens impacted.”
But Rosenberg said the “best way” to prepare is “to address the man-made disasters before the natural disasters,” or, in other words, “enforce the rules.”
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