The terrible environmental costs of stagnant EPA funding
Two decades of stagnant funding have left the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) without the resources to take essential measures to protect human health and the environment.
The lack of adequate funding has hampered the agency’s ability to clean up hazardous waste sites, enforce its own regulations, ensure indoor plumbing for people in rural areas, protect children from lead in drinking water, and promote environmental justice for disadvantaged communities and reduce air pollution. The Biden administration has set an ambitious environmental agenda, but it can only be fully realized if Congress is willing to pay the bill.
The shrinking capacity of EPA was not caused by draconian budget cuts, but by a long history of “staggered” funding, with each annual budget on par with that of the previous year. The value of the dollars in those budgets has been constantly eroding, and for two decades the cumulative effects have been devastating. In 1980, federal EPA spending, adjusted for inflation, was twice the current level, and in 2004 it was the EPA budget 45 percent higher than it is now,
Some of the strongest effects of limited EPA funding are in the Superfund hazardous waste disposal program. Originally funded by a special polluter tax, the Superfund program now relies on annual credits that have nearly halved over the past two decades. Forty years after the program was founded 1,370 priority sites have yet to be cleaned up, with 34 sites waiting for EPA funding to start working. Human exposure is not controlled at 127 sites, and there is insufficient data to determine whether exposure is controlled at an additional 138 sites. The burden of pollution from those locations falls on those who live in the area, and EPA almost has 50 percent of the population within both one and three miles of a Superfund site as ‘minority’.
Have insufficient resources forced EPA to cut back on enforcement action, despite evidence of widespread non-compliance with environmental requirements at many types of regulated facilities, and higher compliance rates at facilities with the greatest health impact. Worse, one handful of the blatant polluters, a huge proportion of the pollution is responsible, often from facilities near marginalized communities of color and low income and indigenous communities. Due to reduced enforcement, those communities often remain unprotected, effectively reducing them to zones of sacrifice.
A recent EPA Inspector General (IG) report found declining EPA enforcement activities for more than a decade, increasing the risks of unaddressed violations and undetected pollutants. Not surprisingly, the report concluded that a lack of enforcement resources was the “main” reason for the denials.
Limited enforcement resources also bear some of the responsibility for shortcomings in the unreliable national air quality monitoring system. With barely one monitor per thousand square kilometers, the system cannot even measure air pollution across the country, let alone detect the local variations that create hotspots that harm disadvantaged communities in particular. More than a third of our people, 120 million of them, live in counties where there are no monitors at all to measure the small particle pollution that poses the greatest risk to human health.
Disadvantaged communities are clamoring for environmental justice, but the EPA’s environmental justice program has long suffered from limited resources. In 2019, the environmental justice office had 22 staff, far too small to provide meaningful assistance to thousands of environmental justice communities and received less than half the funding requested by the Clinton administration 20 years earlier. Just $ 1 for every $ 1,500 in the agency’s budget went to environmental justice; the grant program was 1 / 2,000th of the size of the total grant budget of the EPA.
The lack of safe and affordable drinking water and waste water infrastructure for low-income and indigenous communities and communities of color is another national problem – or shame – that has persisted because of inadequate resources. More than 9 million households get drinking water through lead pipes and service cables, and even in the 21st century, many rural people don’t have full indoor plumbing, including a shocking 6 percent of indigenous reservation households. Water quality issues plague systems serving more than 44 million people; A quarter of those who have been tested privately have recently been diagnosed with contamination. Even those lucky enough to be served by safe water systems may not be able to afford it, with up to two-fifths of the residents of some cities living in neighborhoods where water bills exceed 4 percent of household income and are therefore considered prohibitive.
Diminishing resources also prevented the agency from increasing aid to states that are more than dependent on EPA funding 25 percent of their operating budgets. States faced a decade of harsh cuts to their own environmental programs, with 40 states eliminating it 5,700 jobs in the environment. But the EPA was unable to increase its funding for state programs to mitigate the effects of the cuts.
Inadequate and diminishing funding make it impossible to prioritize the protection of our people and the environment. Even if EPA has spending flexibility, it can generally only find money to address one problem by diverting it from, and possibly neglecting, another problem. This makes it vital for Congress to provide EPA with sustainable, adequate funding to do its job – now and in the future.
David F. Coursen is a former EPA attorney and member of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit organization of EPA alumni committed to protecting the agency’s progress toward clean air, water, land, and climate protection.