Environmental and Public Health Safeguards Under Siege in House Spending Bill

The House-passed fiscal year 2011 spending bill would stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from limiting greenhouse gases from certain sources, halt standards for air and water pollution, and set other conditions on the agency that will complicate its efforts to protect the environment and public health. Other health and safety agencies are also targeted in the bill.

House Republicans have attached several riders to a spending bill that would fund the government for the remainder of fiscal year (FY) 2011. These provisions attack EPA's authority, including its ability to regulate climate-altering carbon pollution. A continuing resolution that is currently funding the government is set to expire March 4, and Congress must extend or replace it to avert a government shutdown. The House passed a replacement bill, H.R. 1, on Feb. 19. FY 2011 began Oct. 1, 2010. (See a related article from this issue of The Watcher for more on the continuing resolution.)

Conservative lawmakers and opponents of public protections have been trying for months to undercut EPA greenhouse gas limits, especially those covering major stationary sources such as coal-fired power plants and oil refineries. The original House spending bill included a provision prohibiting the EPA from implementing those standards and from writing any new ones, and a similar but broader amendment was also attached.

The bill also sets restrictions on the study of carbon pollution and climate change. One amendment to the bill would stop the Obama administration's plan to establish a Climate Service at the Department of Commerce, and another would end U.S. funding of the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The legislation would also prohibit the EPA from using funds to complete several high-profile standards for air pollutants other than greenhouse gases, including standards that would cut mercury pollution from cement kilns and set new limits on particulate matter.

An amendment by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) would restrict EPA’s options under a proposed rule dealing with toxic coal ash. EPA proposed a rule that gives options for addressing coal ash, including designation as a hazardous waste. The rule drew controversy when the White House reviewed it in 2010. McKinley's amendment would prohibit EPA from designating coal ash as hazardous waste, which is exactly what industry wants. The spending bill would also prevent the EPA from enforcing water pollution standards in the Chesapeake Bay.

EPA is not the only environmental agency targeted in the continuing resolution. An amendment successfully attached to the bill would prohibit the Forest Service from implementing its Travel Management Rule, which determines trail and road openings and closures in national forests. The bill would also require the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove certain populations of the gray wolf from the endangered species list.

The legislation also defends mountaintop mining, a practice long disdained by environmentalists for its destructive impact. One amendment to the bill would prohibit the Department of the Interior from restoring a buffer zone around streams located near mined areas, a protection removed during the Bush administration. Another would prohibit the EPA from denying mountaintop mining permits under its Clean Water Act authority.

Beyond environmental issues, the bill prohibits other regulatory activity intended to protect consumers, including the creation of a Consumer Product Safety Commission database that allows the public to report hazardous products and read the reports of other consumers. The database is required under 2008 product safety legislation that passed both the House and the Senate with broad bipartisan support.

Other prohibited regulatory activity includes Federal Communications Commission rules on net neutrality and Department of Education standards to ensure for-profit colleges are serving students' interests. The bill also includes amendments that would stop the Obama administration from spending money to implement any aspect of the health care reform law passed in 2010.

The new continuing resolution would also make dramatic budget cuts at major health, safety, and environmental agencies, including the EPA, which would see a cut of approximately $3 billion – almost 30 percent of its current budget – including a major cut to the agency's greenhouse gas registry program.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would be hit particularly hard. The House bill would strip OSHA of $99 million, about 20 percent of the agency's budget. The cut would likely lead to a drastic reduction in safety inspections and investigations into workplace injuries and fatalities.

The bill would return funding at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service to 2008 levels, when it employed 235 fewer inspectors and other staffers than it does now. The $88 million cut has raised concerns that meat packing and processing facilities could be unintentionally affected. Under federal law, facilities cannot process or package meat without USDA approval. Without a sufficient inspectorate, slaughterhouses may have to reduce production, putting private-sector employees out of work and raising meat prices for consumers. This, in turn, could disrupt key parts of the economy. The USDA estimated that the budget cut would cause roughly $11 billion in economic losses.

The impact of the spending cuts for any agency would actually be greater than the percentages indicate. Because agencies have been operating for nearly five months under larger budgets, the cuts would have to be applied over the remaining seven months.

Senate leaders have criticized the cuts in the House bill and would prefer a short-term extension of the current continuing resolution in order to negotiate a compromise. President Obama has threatened to veto a spending bill such as the one passed by the House. All sides have said they want to avoid a government shutdown, but there are few signs that congressional leaders are willing to compromise.

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