Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Democrats are questioning EPA over allegations that the agency withheld more than a quarter-million dollars from a group of state environmental regulators.
In a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler about the agency’s newly strained relationship with the Environmental Council of the States, EPW Committee ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) wrote that they learned the agency may have either delayed or withheld more than $250,000 from the group.
"If true, this would constitute a clear abuse of power and the latest in a series of retaliatory steps taken by this Administration," the letter said. "It could also threaten cooperative environmental protection efforts across the country."
EPA’s relationship with ECOS has been strained since this fall, when the agency threatened sanctions against California for water quality issues and threatened to revoke federal highway funds over Clean Air Act compliance issues. ECOS, in turn, sent a letter to EPA accusing the agency of taking "unilateral actions" that were not in "the spirit of cooperative federalism."
In the letter’s aftermath, EPA officials scrambled to demonstrate they had states’ support. EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Doug Benevento solicited comments from environmental regulators in red states, E&E News reported last month, and stoked fear among ECOS members that EPA may withhold funding from the group (Greenwire, Jan. 23).
Carper and Whitehouse are asking EPA for records of communications between Benevento and ECOS officials or state regulators, information about the delayed grant, and records documenting EPA’s financial contributions to ECOS for the past three fiscal years.
ECOS did not respond to requests for comment.
An EPA spokesman in an email denied the allegations in the letter, saying, "We did not threaten ECOS with any reduction in funding."
He said the agency "has a strong relationship with state leaders and continues to work and meet with states on both policy and implementation regularly." He noted that EPA recently issued several grants to the Interstate Technology & Regulatory Council "that will fund work important to both states and EPA."
However, Carper and Whitehouse’s letter said ECOS was expecting the funding by the end of fiscal 2019 but had not received it as of Jan. 29. They questioned whether EPA withheld the funds because the group opposed its California actions.
"The events related to EPA’s potential retaliation against ECOS’ action occurred at the same time EPA was also taking retaliatory action against California," the pair wrote.
They noted that EPA’s budget requests to Congress routinely tout the importance of cooperation with state regulators, and with ECOS in particular.
"If EPA political leaders are delaying the disbursement of or withholding grant funding from ECOS as part of a retaliatory response to the ECOS letter that expressed concern with EPA’s actions toward state agencies, this would constitute another clear abuse of power," the letter said. "It would also run entirely contrary to the strategic goals that you have purported guide your leadership of EPA, namely the fostering of a cooperative and balanced relationship between EPA and the state environmental authorities."