Environmental Protections Threatened by Sequestration and Funding Cuts

polluted water

Federal agencies have started feeling the impact of the across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, that went into effect March 1. Plans to furlough employees and cut programs are underway at many of the agencies charged with issuing and enforcing public health and safety standards. For the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these additional funding cuts will further drain already decreasing resources and impair the agency's ability to protect our air, water, and health.

Sequestration will also cut domestic spending on things like education, national parks, air traffic control, and consumer safety protections. These arbitrary, across-the-board cuts were triggered by a law Congress passed in 2011 requiring automatic cuts of about $1 trillion if the government could not agree on a plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion by March 1.

Bob Perciasepe, EPA's acting administrator, warned employees that despite EPA's internal efforts to cut spending, furloughs would be an inevitable effect of across-the-board budget cuts. He described the consequences for the public in a Feb. 6 letter to the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, writing that sequestration will force the agency to make cuts that "will directly undercut [EPA's] congressionally-mandated mission of ensuring Americans have clean air, clean water and clean land." The letter cited numerous potential impacts, including:

  • Reduced air quality monitoring
  • Reduced research and chemical risk assessment activities
  • Limits on state and tribal assistance that would impede states' ability to ensure clean water and meet public health standards for drinking water
  • An estimated $100 million loss in hazardous waste clean-up commitments and cost reimbursements to the government
  • Reduced capacity to conduct compliance and enforcement activities, meaning 1,000 fewer inspections in FY 2013

Sequestration will also have a significant impact on states that receive grants and other assistance from EPA to run enforcement programs and perform inspections. The White House Council on Environmental Quality estimated that sequestration will require a $154 million reduction in federal funding for state environmental programs and warned that this will "severely undermine" environmental protections.

Environmental enforcement has already suffered from budget cuts in recent years. Congress cut EPA's budget by 18 percent between 2010 and 2012. The National Journal recently reported that these cuts have impaired the agency's clean-up efforts. For example, between 2010 and 2012, the volume of contaminants removed from U.S. waters fell by half. During the same period, the amount of hazardous waste removed from the environment decreased by 7.4 billion pounds.

The EPA is only one of the many agencies who fear sequestration will unduly limit needed resources and threaten agencies' ability to complete mission-critical work. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), sequestration cuts will cost 750,000 jobs this year and reduce economic growth by 0.6 percent. Sequestration cuts over the next decade will reduce economic growth even further.

Instead of allowing these cuts to weaken public protections and the economy, Congress can repeal the sequester provision of the Budget Control Act of 2011. In light of the dramatic reductions sequestration holds for federal efforts to ensure clean air, clean water, safety from toxic and hazardous chemicals, and other safeguards, Congress should move forward with repeal.

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