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Trump’s budget cripples the EPA’s ability to keep drinking water safe

The EPA’s power to act on crises like lead pollution in Flint, Michigan would be hobbled.

Photo of a new water spiget installed at Benton Elementary School in Portland, Oregon.
Last year a USA TODAY investigation found roughly 350 schools in the US with excessive levels of lead in the drinking water.
Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget outline has proposed an unprecedented 31 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency, which would put funding for the agency at a historic 40-year low.

In addition to gutting climate change programs at the EPA, it calls for severe cuts to the main regulatory arm of the EPA — the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. It also promises to eliminate more than 50 other programs at the agency.

Congress may not stand for such aggressive cuts — we’ll have to wait and see what it does after the administration releases a more detailed proposal in May.

But one area of the EPA’s budget that has survived this round relatively intact is funding for drinking and wastewater infrastructure. Here’s what the budget outline says:

These funding levels further the President’s ongoing commitment to infrastructure repair and replacement and would allow States, municipalities, and private entities to continue to finance high priority infrastructure investments that protect human health. The Budget includes $2.3 billion for the State Revolving Funds, a $4 million increase over the 2017 annualized CR level. The Budget also provides $20 million for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, equal to the funding provided in the 2017 annualized CR. This credit subsidy could potentially support $1 billion in direct Federal loans.

This funding for drinking and wastewater infrastructure is among the only things the Trump administration is prioritizing at the EPA.

But even this isn’t as robust as it might seem.

The budget isn’t actually calling for an increase in funding for water infrastructure. Despite Trump’s campaign promises to fix America’s deteriorating water systems, the current budget proposal provides $20 million for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program (WIFIA), the same amount the program received in 2017.

The budget undermines safe drinking water in rural communities. The only proposed increase to the EPA’s budget is a $4 million increase to state revolving funds, which would bring funding up to $2.3 billion. The problem is, the budget also calls for the elimination of the Department of Agriculture’s $498 million Water and Wastewater loan and grant program, which provides critical funding for clean drinking water to communities with fewer than 10,000 people.

The budget calls the USDA’s Waste and Wastewater loan and grant program “duplicative.” But if this program is cut, the EPA’s state revolving funds will have to stretch already limited state funds, leaving many rural communities at risk. The budget says rural communities can instead receive funding from the private sector or preexisting federal programs, like the EPA’s state revolving funds.

The EPA’s ability to enforce drinking water violations will be hobbled. The budget currently calls for a $129 million reduction to the EPA’s enforcement office, arguing that it’s redundant. But there aren’t actually a lot of overlapping efforts when it comes to enforcement at the EPA. If anything, enforcement and compliance at the EPA needs more funding, not less.

This is particularly true when it comes to enforcing drinking water violations, as few violations currently result in action from the EPA. Analysis from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that the EPA only acted on 11 percent of the 8,000 infractions reported in violation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule. Limiting enforcement only leaves poor, vulnerable communities at greater risk.

“The EPA’s job is supposed to make sure that the states are doing the enforcement the law says they are supposed to be doing,” said Erik Olson, who manages the health program at the NRDC. “But if no one is sending the signal that compliance is expected or that you will face consequences, then there’s a real worry that we’ll see a revival of states competing to allow more pollution to attract industry. Some states won’t do that, of course, but a lot of states might return to that mindset, and it’s very worrisome.”

Lead cleanup programs could be on the cutting block. The budget outline names a few of the 50 programs the administration would like to eliminate, including the Energy Star program and infrastructure assistance to Alaska Native Villages and the Mexico Border. Some of the others would likely involve drinking water. For instance, Reuters has reported on a version of a more detailed budget proposal in circulation that slashes grants to states for lead cleanup by 30 percent.

Trump campaigned on a promise to fix America’s drinking water problems in cities like Flint

Last year, a lead poisoning crisis threw Flint, Michigan, in the national spotlight. It was the worst failure of public water infrastructure America had seen in decades, and the fault of all levels of government — local, state and federal.

Donald Trump campaigned on the outrage of what had happened in Flint. On a campaign stop there, he said: "It used to be that cars were made in Flint and you couldn't drink the water in Mexico. Now cars are made in Mexico, and you can't drink the water in Flint. That's terrible."

And he promised to fix the situation “quickly” and “effectively.” But his budget priorities don’t reflect this.

Andrew Highsmith, a history professor at UC Irvine who studied what happened in Flint extensively, told me, “If you look at the history of the Flint water crisis, the problems didn’t stem from too much enforcement at the federal level, but the opposite — too little.” And that’s exactly what the government would do less of if Congress were to approve Trump’s budget.