U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said last night he will discuss with the White House ways to save portions of the agency’s budget, such as those that go to state grants for water infrastructure and cleaning up Superfund sites.
His comments follow reports that the administration may be considering slashing EPA’s budget by up to a quarter. About half of EPA’s money goes to states to carry out federal environmental laws and build public works projects (E&E News PM, Feb. 27).
Speaking after President Trump’s first address to Congress, Pruitt confirmed that he had talked yesterday with North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, one of only two Democrats who voted for his confirmation, about her concerns about the potential spending cuts.
Pruitt said the two had a "great conversation" and that he had already talked with White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney about the funding in question.
"I am concerned about the grants that have been targeted, particularly around water infrastructure, and those very important state revolving funds," Pruitt said. "The importance is setting priorities as an agency and then allowing the budget to be formed around that. What’s difficult, having only been there a week, is to have these kinds of recommendations made and then look at our priorities and say, ‘You know what, we’ve got to make sure that we look at these programs.’"
Pruitt noted that the nation is at 40 percent nonattainment for air quality criteria pollutants.
"We can do better than that, so it needs to be a priority," he said.
He added that more than a thousand Superfund sites across the country need to be cleaned up, too.
Pruitt said he would ask Trump, as the administration and Congress discuss an infrastructure package outside the budget, to also consider money for water infrastructure and Superfund cleanup.
"What’s important for us is to educate OMB on what the priorities of the agency are, from water infrastructure to Superfund, providing some of those tangible benefits to our citizens, while at the same time making sure that we reallocate, reprioritize in our agency to do regulatory reform to get back within the bounds of Congress," Pruitt said.
He said his staff will need to work on regulatory reform too and commended the president for beginning the process yesterday to roll back the Waters of the U.S. rule.
Dems slam Trump speech as ’empty’ words
Heitkamp said she believed Pruitt shared her concern about how EPA cuts could affect rural America.
"The one concern that I have about EPA’s budget is people don’t understand half of it is in grants for water infrastructure," she said. "When you’re going to have those big cuts, I think that’s easy to say, ‘We’re going to cut it 25 percent.’ What rural America is going to see is cuts in rural water projects, and that’s not something that’s a formula for success."
Heitkamp said Pruitt needs to make the internal case for water grants.
"I think he knows that there’s some challenges ahead with that level of cuts," she said.
Other Democrats after Trump’s speech last night were not as confident that the administration will protect the environment.
Trump wants to boost defense spending $54 billion and cut spending by other agencies, including EPA. But he said in his speech that he wants "to promote clean air and clear water" (see related story).
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said, "It’s ironic that he nominated a person who spent the last six years trying to make sure we don’t allow the EPA to better ensure that we do have clean air and clean water."
"As candidate Trump, as President-elect Trump, as President Trump, he said, ‘We’re basically going to degrade and destroy the EPA,’" Carper said. "We’ll see what they do on the budget cuts. … It all sounds good. People may not believe what you say, but they’ll believe what you do. So let’s just see what he does."
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) didn’t believe Trump, either.
"He mentioned some words. Empty," he said.