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Drink water in Pennsylvania? Trump’s budget puts your health at risk, regulator says By Wallace McKelvey Patriot News

Drink water in Pennsylvania? Trump’s budget puts your health at risk, regulator says

 

Patriot News

http://www.pennlive.com/news/2017/03/drink_water_in_pennsylvania_tr.html

Wallace McKelvey | WMckelvey@pennlive.com The Patriot-News
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on March 16, 2017 at 5:26 PM, updated March 16, 2017 at 8:03 PM

 

Donald Trump’s budget proposal puts the onus on states like Pennsylvania to protect air and water quality amid sweeping cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The problems with that approach, experts say, are myriad.

For one, pollution crosses state lines. For another, states rely on the EPA for coordination, expertise and–most importantly–the money necessary to meet federal standards that aren’t going away. In 2016, for example, federal funding accounted for $193 million, or nearly a third, of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s $651 million budget.

 

“Put simply, cuts to the [EPA] signal the Trump administration’s disregard for its responsibility to protect the health and safety of American citizens,” state Environmental Secretary Patrick McDonnell wrote Thursday, in a letter to Trump’s handpicked EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Many of the DEP’s regulatory functions were already hollowed out due to federal and state budget cuts over the last decade. Staffing shortages led to a December warning about the state’s failure to adequately inspect public drinking water systems.

McDonnell estimated that Trump’s cuts would “[put] Pennsylvania’s 10.7 million water customers at risk” due to a further 30 percent reduction in the number of inspections. That alarming figure would hamper the state’s ability to detect lead and toxic pathogens in drinking water, the state’s top environmental regulator said.

 

“The DEP is getting squeezed at both ends,” said David Hess, who served as environmental secretary under Gov. Tom Ridge and now works as a lobbyist.

In the past decade, the state agency increasingly turned to higher fees on regulated businesses to make up for its own budget woes. For example, the DEP’s solution to its drinking water conundrum was to increase the fees it charges public water systems.

But that’s hardly a sustainable solution.

McDonnell has pointed out that the regulatory process for implementing new or increased fees can take two years or more. If Congress approves Trump’s budget, cuts to the EPA and other federal agencies would begin affecting Pennsylvania as early as this fall.

“It’s going to cripple these programs because the impact is going to be immediate,” Hess said.

 

On drinking water specifically, Trump’s budget emphasizes local and private infrastructure over inspection and oversight. Amid sweeping cuts elsewhere, including the wholesale elimination of 50 distinct programs the EPA oversees, Trump asked for a $4 million increase for a fund that pays for water and sewer upgrades. Of course, even that’s a pittance compared to the roughly $2.3 billion currently set aside from that program and the billions more needed to upgrade aging systems nationwide.

“You do the math,” Hess said. “Four million dollars divided by 50 states is not much. It’s meaningless.”

And cuts elsewhere completely negate the meager increase to water infrastructure funding, the former environmental secretary said.

Several highlights include:

  • Eliminating the abandoned mine land grants administered by the Department of the Interior, a program used by many Pennsylvania communities to remediate thousands of mines–some dating back to the coal boom of the 18th and 19th century–that leach harmful chemicals into local waterways. (The federal agency, as a whole, will see a 12 percent budget cut.)
  • Eliminating the Department of Agriculture’s $498 million water and wastewater loan program, which helps fund water infrastructure projects in rural communities. (In his budget, Trump points to the $4 million in additional funding for the EPA’s infrastructure program and private bank loans as possible replacements for this lost funding.)
  • Eliminating both the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes restoration projects, which funnel millions of dollars to the state to clean up polluted local waterways and reduce agricultural and industrial runoff that flows down the Susquehanna River and out to the Chesapeake or into Lake Erie.
  • Cutting the Superfund program budget from nearly $1.1 billion to $762 million. Pennsylvania currently has 127 Superfund sites–typically landfills or abandoned industrial sites that have leached toxins into surrounding communities–at various stages of mitigation.

Taken as a whole, Trump’s proposed budget calls for a 31 percent cut to EPA’s budget. It would also eliminate 3,200 jobs from its current workforce of about 15,000.

Larry Schweiger, an environmental advocate who’s been active since before the EPA was created in 1970 under President Richard Nixon, said Trump’s proposal threatens to return the nation to an era of flammable rivers and smog-choked cities.

“The idea that you shove this back to the state without giving them the money or the oversight–it’s just not correct,” he said. “We’ve lived that nightmare and we know what it did to our health and our communities.”

 

The environmental landscape Trump is offering is one in which every state has its own programs and priorities, said Schweiger, who now leads PennFuture. In practice, that means inconsistent regulation from state to state and a complete failure to address multi-state issues, such as runoff pollution from the six states that are part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

There are also more immediate financial components.

Lifting auto emissions and energy efficiency standards, Schweiger said, provided an enormous benefit to ordinary consumers through lower energy prices and reduced consumption.

“They want oil prices to go up because they make money on it,” he said. “But if you make cars more efficient, you can provide transportation to people who otherwise can’t afford it.”

Zeroing out the Chesapeake Bay program, meanwhile, could have serious implications for local waterways, some of which are used to supply drinking water. The nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates that ever $1 invested in pollution controls results in $27 of savings due to reduced drinking water treatment costs.

Pennsylvania was already lagging behind on its commitment to reduce runoff pollution. In all, the state has 19,000 miles of impaired waterway, including many tributaries of the Susquehanna River, which empties into the Chesapeake.

Harry Campbell, the foundation’s Pennsylvania executive director, said gutting the EPA will only worsen the situation and further erode water quality in the streams that feed both the bay and many local drinking water supplies.

“The totality of these cuts . . . can have a tangible and meaningful impact on the economy, the health and the quality of life here,” he said.

 

In addition to the large-scale impacts that will play out over years, Campbell said there are more immediate fiscal realities. The loss of EPA grants will hurt farmers in Lancaster County who need help to keep fertilizer on the land, where it will improve crop productivity, and municipalities in Cumberland and York counties that need help to upgrade flood-prone sewer systems.

And, of course, there are also the elimination of climate research–a factor McDonnell referenced in his letter Thursday, responding to comments the EPA administrator recently made, questioning the science behind climate change.

McDonnell cited projections that show Pennsylvania will be 5.4 degrees warmer in 2050 than it was in 2000.

“In the face of this reality, foot dragging and hand wringing is not an option; we need decisive action,” he said. “I urge you to take seriously your responsibility to provide leadership in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions–not to spread doubt and falsehoods about the existence of the problem.”

Environmental advocates said the most important thing to do now is to pressure the state’s congressional delegation to oppose Trump’s proposal and replace it with a more responsible one.

“People who care about the community and about our future need to join arms,” Schweiger said. “We ought to be uniting across the board against [Trump’s] vicious, destructive proposals.”

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