President Donald Trump’s proposal to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31 percent would mean an easing up on the EPA’s at times heavy-handed enforcement and push environmental groups to reset their priorities.
The spending cuts – which are light years from a forgone conclusion – would also put pressure on state government to decide what programs are important enough to fund from Montpelier.
“EPA cuts don’t necessarily mean that Vermont is going to be without regulation,” said Matthew Hardin, an attorney who handles Energy and Environment Legal Institute cases in Vermont. “The cuts mean to a certain degree the EPA will getting out of the way and the state regulators can jump into that void and do whatever they want to do.”
Hardin noted the EPA’s “well-written history on being sort of overbearing” when it comes to working with state and local regulators.
“So I think this can definitely be a positive thing if you cut an enforcement budget,” he said. “It facilitates a shift toward collaborative enforcement that works with companies and works with state officials, as opposed to coming in with a hammer and saying ‘you must do this’!”
Vermonters looking for answers might notice a difference, as well.
Hardin said that contacting local representatives regarding environmental efforts is always going to yield more interaction than trying to get in contact with EPA representatives in Washington.
“Money is finite”
Those on the receiving end of EPA grants take a different view, of course.
“People are going to be faced with slower response times, higher permit fees, and potentially less regulatory oversight for some programs that are pretty core to public health,” said Julie Moore, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
Moore said she expects a 45 percent cut in state assistance grants to enforce federal standards such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. She said one of Vermont’s biggest chunks of EPA money is a revolving fund that helps the Department of Environmental Conservation maintain municipal wastewater and drinking water facilities.
DEC’s Supervisor of Water Infrastructure Finance Program, Terisa Thomas, said the program received more than $6.5 million from the EPA in 2016 for managing wastewater and more than $8.3 million for drinking water. She said for every $5 from the EPA, the state matches $1.
Moore contended that with or without spending cuts, many of the regulatory standards remain the same. “Because these programs have been delegated to the state, any concerned environmental group could turn around and sue the state for the failure to implement a program,” Moore said.
While lawsuits from environmental groups are commonplace – often encouraged by the EPA – it’s not necessarily the case that the existing regulatory regime will remain in place.
Along with the proposed budget cuts, the Trump administration has already begun rolling back federal regulations and will certainly continue that effort.
“There’s discussion about changing the enforcement budget and the enforcement mechanisms,” Hardin said, “so that there might be more collaborate mechanisms as opposed to draconian enforcement.”
If the cuts lead to better priority-setting, everybody can win, according to Hardin.
“I think the problem is that money is finite and taxes cannot be increased forever,” he said. “So we have to say not just what you want to do with money, but that it’s better than any other use for which that money can be put. Not just other things the government can do, but better than what the private citizens can do with it.”