Congress got it right with a bipartisan infrastructure bill that gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) solid funds to pay for hazardous waste cleanup and distribute it to states for critical clean water and wastewater projects. But it fell short with an omnibus EPA grant that neglects key environmental infrastructure, the EPA’s core capacity to protect our nation’s health and environment. That infrastructure has been depleted by years of neglect and slow starvation, culminating last year in EPA funding that, in real dollars, was barely half what the agency received 40 years ago and its smallest staff since 1987.
The Biden administration’s 2022 EPA budget proposal aimed to reverse the decline in EPA resources with a down payment to rebuild the agency and restore its environmental protection infrastructure while addressing climate change and advancing environmental justice. But despite its generous support for physical infrastructure in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, Congress continued its longstanding pattern of funding EPA’s operations — neglecting EPA’s infrastructure, personnel, and programs that enable the agency to protect the environment .
This year’s EPA funding torpedoes the agency’s recovery plans by denying requests for nearly $1.7 billion in new funding. It includes a token “increase” in support for EPA programs that are themselves too small to keep up with inflation. The EPA cannot remain a bad relative among federal agencies and still provide the environmental and health protections that the nation needs and demands.
The most direct blow to the agency’s recovery plans is the Omnibus Act’s denial of a $110 million request to hire 1,000 new employees to improve environmental protection and offset the significant declines of the Trump administration. A second blow is the rejection of all but the $10 million increase that the EPA proposed in its request to restore the role of science in the agency with $100 million in new support for science and research. It even rejects a modest $10 million increase to address the ubiquitous and harmful pollutants collectively referred to as “PFAS,” an emerging problem controlled by the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, $2 billion annually receives.
The biggest damage concerns the protection of air quality: the omnibus refuses $300 million for climate research ($60 million); state, local, and tribal air quality management ($100 million); and EPA clean air programs ($140 million). That makes roadkill of plans to upgrade a woefully inadequate air quality monitoring system that doesn’t adequately measure nationwide air pollution and has a long track record of overlooking serious pollution problems.
The omnibus is declining an additional $175 million for EPA core programs to address toxins and protect water quality, along with operations, activities and facilities, and enforcement and compliance oversight. The lack of monitoring and enforcement support is particularly damaging as new data shows serious environmental breaches are widespread. Often the worst violations involve the most serious pollutants, and a handful of the worst polluters cause a disproportionate share of the damage: 100 facilities — half of 1 percent of the total — caused a staggering third of America’s toxic air pollution in 2014. The brunt of this pollution falls on disadvantaged communities, which too often are treated as little more than victim zones. The airdropped aerial surveillance upgrade could have helped address this with better intelligence to inform and protect congested frontline and fence communities, as well as help draw enforcement’s attention to the worst issues.
Another significant cut is $200 million from the $290 million requested to advance environmental justice and address it through a new national program office. Even with this reduction, the omnibus allocation adds $90 million to the existing $12 million environmental justice budget. This is by far the largest single increase in support for EPA’s core activities and should help spur progress in advancing environmental justice for our nation’s disadvantaged, Indigenous, low-income people and people of color.
In addition, funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill offsets or mitigates the impact of the rejection of some of the increases proposed in the EPO budget. But nearly all of the infrastructure money goes to the EPA for onward distribution to the states, and almost none of that goes to support, let alone rebuild the EPA’s environmental protection capacity.
For example, the Omnibus grant denies EPA’s request to add $450 million to support sewage and infrastructure revolving loan fund programs, but over the next five years those programs will receive more than $20 billion under the Infrastructure Act . Similarly, Superfund’s rejected $330 million increases in hazardous waste remediation and brownfield remediation will be offset by $5 billion of infrastructure bill funding over five years, $700 million per More than evened out year for Superfund and $300 million in brownfield projects. And the denial of a requested $60 million increase in support for the diesel emissions reduction program should be mitigated by new $1 billion-a-year funding for clean school buses to reduce diesel emissions.
Unfortunately, the bipartisan Infrastructure Act contains no provisions to mitigate the harsh consequences of the Omnibus Fund’s failure to allocate $800 million to support EPA’s core environmental protection infrastructure — programs and personnel badly needed to help the agency manage the To fully protect human health and the environment. Congress needs to do better with EPO fiscal 2023 funding.
David F. Coursen is a former EPA attorney and member of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit organization of EPA alumni dedicated to protecting the agency’s advances toward cleaner air, water, land and climate change.