As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to drastically reduce the size and scope of the Environmental Protection Agency. A memo by the White House Office of Management and Budget indicates that’s still the plan. The memo outlines a proposed 25 percent cut to EPA’s $8-billion budget, including reductions in state grants for clean air and water programs.
David Hess, who was secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) under two Republican governors in the 1990s, says that’s a big deal: Nearly a third of the DEP’s budget comes from the EPA.
“There are a whole lot of different programs that EPA money pays for, including things like stream restoration and watershed restoration, air quality, air pollution reduction, water pollution reduction, and regulating underground storage tanks,” Hess says.
LISTEN: An Already Lean DEP Faces the Prospect of Deep Cuts
Hess says the DEP already has fewer resources than it needs to do its job. The department has been operating with reduced staff, and its share of the state’s general fund has been cut by 40 percent over the last 14 years.
“The people that do inspections and permit reviews and ensure our environmental laws are enforced — [that] staff has been reduced by 22 percent. If you squeeze the other end and reduce the amount of federal money coming in, the department simply can’t support even the staff it has. The department has been in triage mode, really, for the last decade.”
It’s simple math, Hess says: There simply aren’t enough people working at DEP to keep up with the tens of thousands of permit applications and inspections it has to handle every year. In fact, late last year, DEP received a letter from the EPA admonishing the agency for failing to conduct the minimum number of inspections of drinking water systems across the state. And Hess says it’s not just the environment that loses out if DEP doesn’t review permits in a timely manner. It also holds up business and development.
“On the one end of things, if people don’t get permits, they don’t do their projects. If they don’t do their projects, jobs aren’t coming in, factories aren’t expanding. So it can have a major economic impact. On the other end of the scale, if instead of inspecting places once a year or once every two years, you inspect once every five or six years, the temptation is going to be that [businesses] don’t think this is important anymore. So things could slide, and that has a real impact on the environment.”
“The department has been in triage mode, really, for the last decade.”
He says slashing regulations isn’t the answer either.
“We shouldn’t be looking at 140-character solutions to this issue,” Hess says. “In the Ridge and Schweiker administrations, [we had] an initiative to comb through every single policy and regulation to determine what was still valid and what could be thrown out — to improve efficiency without getting rid of protections. But nobody wants to do that today. The easiest solution is to cut a budget from X to Y, and that will solve all our problems. Things aren’t that simple. I certainly agree with people that things can be simplified, but it’s got to be simplified and streamlined without getting rid of protection.”
David Hess served as Pennsylvania’s DEP Secretary under Governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker. Reid Frazier also contributed to this story.