Wayward EPA Needs New Vision, Not More Money
Bloated agency has drifted from mission to 'protect human health and the environment'
Former EPA head Gina McCarthy clanged alarm bells Thursday over the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the EPA’s massive budget. That’s because the Trump administration wants to slash its $8.2 billion budget by at least 25 percent, a level not seen since 1991. The EPA employs about 15,000 people, with 40 state offices across the country and thousands of outside contractors.
The new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, has already explained to a mayoral conference he wants to make sure budget cuts don’t affect the Brownfields program, water infrastructure plans, and Superfund projects. Pruitt told E&E News that after only being at EPA a week, it’s difficult for him to make the needed cuts as there are so many programs, grants, and contractors to evaluate.
But as is the case with all dealmakers, President Trump likes to negotiate high and then settle somewhere in the middle. And like all budget proposals, it’s simply that: a proposal. Once it’s submitted to Congress, it then goes through various committees before finally being voted on and passed. One area most experts agree on is that the EPA has ballooned far outside its original core mission: to protect human health and the environment.
A 2015 report by the nonpartisan watchdog group Open The Books showed that since 2000, the EPA has doled out $72 billion in grants, with much of it flowing toward various entities in local, state, and federal governments. The remaining grant money went to private entities, Native Americans, and universities. That’s twenty times more than what has been parceled out by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Significantly, EPA also sent $50 million in grants to 61 non-U.S. entities, including $1.2 million to China.
The EPA has so far spent $92 million on expensive, lavish furniture for its office needs, even as Superfund sites have remained contaminated for decades—including seven in Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma. The EPA’s interior design work also included $813 for pencil drawers and $7,000 for Herman Miller desks. Since 2005, these furniture expenditures have cost taxpayers $48.4 million, with another $5 million on upscale Knoll furniture. The EPA also created a rehiring program for retired seniors, costing taxpayers a whopping $1 billion since 2007.
Another Open the Books’ report showed how the EPA proposed regulations to expand its authority under the Clean Water Act. To accomplish such a goal, the EPA enlisted the use of an outside public relations firm to launch a social media campaign to garner public support during the public commenting period. This is problematic, since agencies are prohibited from lobbying for their own rules and regulations.
The EPA's outside public relations spending amounted to $170 million even as it conflicted with anti-lobbying laws. The effort could easily have been kept in-house, however, since the agency employs nearly 200 public relations officers who have earned more than $140 million in salaries since 2007, plus $1.5 million in bonuses. Ironically, despite the EPA employing over 1,000 lawyers, it still embarked on a legally dubious campaign to influence public opinion.
The EPA's largest expenditure is hazardous waste removal and disposal, which has cost taxpayers $1.9 billion. Five of the top six highest budgets for the agency took place on President Obama's watch, with 2010 setting an all-time budgetary record of $10.3 billion. At the time, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. After they lost both in 2010, the EPA's budget slowly declined to its current level of $8.2 billion.
Bureaucracies, however, are known for their rapacious appetite. Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) noted on Fox News this week that agencies race to spend all their money by the end of each fiscal year (September) to justify needing more money. Mast would know, since he worked at many of them prior to becoming a congressman. Such a policy would earn a failing grade in corporate America. The EPA, however, can spend money recklessly. And in the meantime, true environmental reform has been priced out of the budget.
Thomas Richard is a freelance writer working outside of Boston, Massachusetts, who has been featured in a number of publications.