Local Organizations Express Concern Over Future of EPA

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Heller_Alison Branco-Peconic Estuary Program EPA
Alison Branco, Director of the Peconic Estuary Program, at Mashomack Preserve in Shelter Island on Wednesday. Michael Heller photo.
Heller_Alison Branco-Peconic Estuary Program EPA
Alison Branco, Director of the Peconic Estuary Program, at Mashomack Preserve in Shelter Island on Wednesday. Michael Heller photo.

By Michelle Trauring

What started as a rumble has crescendoed into a battle cry. “Science, not silence!” they insist, drawing their line in the political sand.

Actions by President Donald Trump and his administration have forced their hand, they say. And environmentalists everywhere are ready for combat.

Marching in the footsteps of more than 1 million people who rose up for women’s rights around the world last month, environmental activists will send their own message to the Trump White House during the March for Science on Earth Day, April 22, and the People’s Climate March on April 29, one week before the president’s 100th day in office.

The catalyst can be easily attributed to what has been called a “war” against the Environmental Protection Agency — one that has waged for decades, but now has a new voice and vigor. In what some see as an unprecedented assault on the federal agency, Mr. Trump’s position does feed into a longstanding anti-EPA narrative dating back to the Regan administration.

But following the confirmation of Scott Pruitt as administrator of the EPA — a seasoned attorney with an oppositional track-record toward the agency — its future sits at an even more unsettling, heated crossroads, with staunch advocates on both sides of the issues and Congressional aisle pulling the EPA purse strings in opposite directions, some even hoping it will completely unravel.

The trickledown effect will be felt on the East End, but just how severely remains uncertain. While some nonprofits, such as Group for the East End, do not rely on EPA funding, others, like the Peconic Estuary Program, practically live within the agency — an agency whose mission is to protect human health and the environment by developing and enforcing regulations, doling out grants, and funding research projects that seek crucial solutions to environmental problems, according to Dr. Larry Swanson, interim dean of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

“The world is continuing to grow, and as it grows, people put more and more pressure on the environment — terrestrial, marine, atmospheric,” he said. “In order for us to live in harmony among ourselves and also to sustain a world that we want to be able to pass on to our grandchildren, it’s important to have an organization like the EPA to move us in the right direction.

“Their role is, I think, absolutely critical.”

A Series Of Worrisome Events

Within minutes of President Trump’s inauguration, the White House webpage on climate change ceased to exist, creating widespread alarm and setting a new tone for the four years ahead — as seen in its replacement webpage titled, “An America First Energy Plan,” which ignores climate change and emphasizes “eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.”

Within hours, the Trump administration sent an email to EPA employees requesting “all contract and grant awards be temporarily suspended, effective immediately” and slapped a gag order on all press releases and online posts to social media and government blogs.

The grant freeze, which was lifted six days later, is a reportedly routine practice among new administrations, according to U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, a Republican representing the 1st Congressional District — which includes both the North and South Forks — and said it did not have any adverse effect on the East End.

“As far as I know, there was zero negative impact to the 1st Congressional District. It was a freeze that took place for a few days with the new administration coming in, and it was a practice of President Obama when he came in and other administrations,” he said. “I would just share those facts and observations with anyone locally to better understand exactly what took place for those first few days.”

As of now, the EPA is operating according to schedule, reported EPA Press Officer John Martin.

“The EPA completed review of our grant programs, and all grants are proceeding normally and nothing has been delayed,” he said. “This includes environmental program grants and state revolving loan fund grants to the states and tribes.”

Albeit temporary, the freeze was enough to worry environmental institutions nationwide, especially when, eight days later, Florida Republican congressman Matt Gaetz proposed the most extreme change to the EPA yet: to terminate the agency altogether. This bill, HR 861, would redistribute federal oversight and duties to individual states.

Mr. Martin denied comment, saying, “We don’t comment on proposed legislation,” while Mr. Zeldin has taken a stance against the bill. “My position has been to improve the EPA, not to eliminate it,” he said, pointing to last year’s proposed 17-percent cut to the EPA that was defeated. “I don’t see a proposal to go further passing at this point in time,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped early critics from speaking out, claiming the impact would be undoubtedly catastrophic.

“Let’s take sewage, for example,” Dr. Swanson said. “If we don’t have a national overview of how we handle our sewage waste, it will fall back on the states. And the states will probably step up to the plate and create their own rules and regulations, but they’ll all be different. What we do in New York State may be all well and good for New York State, but it may have downstream effects on New Jersey. Those kinds of issues of states having to handle all the regulations and so forth on their own is going to lead to confusion and inconsistency with how we treat the environment.”

To Mr. Zeldin’s knowledge, HR 861 is sitting at a standstill in the House of Representatives, and says any additional rumblings of proposed local cuts are unfounded.

“I’m not aware of any grantee of federal dollars in the 1st Congressional District currently on any chopping block in Congress. I can’t speak for other levels of government or other branches of the federal government,” he said. “As far as Congress goes, I am not aware of any specific environmental mission that is currently on the chopping block.”

“It doesn’t mean that any of us should ever rest on our laurels,” he added. “It’s critically important that we’re always fighting to educate and advocate — and if concern results in advocacy and education on behalf of a specific mission, that really helps ensure that they don’t see a lost of funding. Being concerned can be a very positive force if used for a reason to find new members in the House and tell them about what you’re working on.”

Hoping For The Best, Preparing For The Worst

Despite reassurances from Mr. Zeldin, local environmental leaders are reading the tealeaves, and they don’t like what they’re seeing. Myron Ebell, former head of President Trump’s EPA transition team, recently told the Associated Press to expect a proposed $1 billion cut from the agency’s approximately $8 billion budget.

Aaron Virgin, vice president of the Group for the East End, said he’s heard of EPA cuts coming down the pike of at least one third, discouraging him from applying for any federal grants — a process he describes as “onerous” — in the near future. In years past, the Group had applied for one to three grants annually, and typically secures 30 to 60 percent. But with no security in place, Mr. Virgin decided against putting in the time and effort.

“Any cuts to the EPA, in terms of grants, we are not going to be impacted by in 2017. Our budget is in place, it is secure and it’s not relying on EPA grants,” Mr. Virgin said. “The Group’s been around for almost 45 years and we learned back in the Regan administration, when there were draconian cuts to the EPA, our board and our leadership realized we could not rely on government grants. We know that things can happen very quickly. When you rely on that much funding from one source and then something changes, forget it.”

He paused, and added, “We’re very concerned, locally, about the Peconic Estuary Program.”

As is Dr. Alison Branco, director of the 25-year-old program that manages the protection of water quality in the Peconic Estuary — the bay located between the North and South Forks, and one of 28 designated estuaries of national significance.

About two thirds of the program’s annual operating budget, about $600,000, is funded by a grant from the EPA, which is contingent upon a one-to-one match from New York State and Suffolk County. Starting last year, the Peconic Estuary Program received $200,000 and $125,000 from the state and county, respectively, which typically funds water quality monitoring and one on-the-ground project. The remainder of the required match — approximately $275,000 — will be made up with an in-kind match consisting of other projects occurring with state and county funding within the Peconic watershed.

If the federal grant dried up, it would be “difficult” — but possible — to salvage the program between state, county and local funds, Dr. Branco explained. “We would certainly try, but who knows what would happen,” she said. “Projects that are already underway should be fine, but a lot fewer future projects will happen. Even the ones that aren’t directly funded by the EPA grant are planned and administered by staff who are funded by the EPA grant.”

Outside of the EPA employees who head up and serve on the Peconic Estuary Program committees, the program’s three full-time staff members are all funded by the federal grant, Dr. Branco included, she said, although none of them are officially employed by the EPA.

“Grant-funded positions are always tough to get back into an operating budget. Somebody, some entity — either the state, or the county, or a local government — would have to take on employees, which in civil service is a pretty long-term commitment,” she said. “Funding short-term, on-the-ground projects is easier, but funding the base of the program — the staff, the outreach program, the monitoring — is really difficult, which is why it’s always been funded by the federal grant.”

Citing strong bi-partisan support of the program in Congress, Dr. Branco said she remains cautiously optimistic about retaining funding — adding that within the EPA, there are certainly efficiencies that could be had, but also areas where three times the money wouldn’t be enough.

“The EPA does so many things for us that are so important — keeping the water we drink and the air we breathe clean enough for us to eat it and breathe it. It’s pretty essential, as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “The EPA doesn’t know what the future looks like for them. We’re hearing all the same reports everyone else is hearing nationally about cutting back, but we don’t have any concrete information — if we should expect cuts, or what kind of cuts to expect. We’re planning for the worst because it’s better to be prepared. Planning for the worst, but hoping for the best.”

Dr. Swanson has adopted a similar tact, and describes the direction the EPA is headed as “largely uncertain.” Research conducted by the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences — including that by Dr. Swanson on nitrogen contributing to aquatic hypoxia — is oftentimes partially if not completely funded by EPA grants and nonprofits such as the Peconic Estuary Program, as well as its neighbor, the Long Island Sound Study.

General uneasiness is already causing him to look elsewhere, he said.

“We have to seek out alternative means of research support and I think this depends on how the EPA may refocus what they want to do,” Dr. Swanson said. “There may still be funding available, but we don’t know what direction the agency’s going to be taken. It may color the kind of research we do in the future.

An Eye On The Bigger Picture

Looking forward, Mr. Zeldin said improvements to the EPA are needed, including hiring “the best and brightest minds where specific areas of the EPA mission — such as having clean air and clean water — require a deep understanding of the challenges facing our environment, and identifying the most efficient and appropriate path toward enacting good policy.”

But the meaning of “good policy” is subjective, and Mr. Virgin noted that, to aspiring environmentalists, an EPA that is getting “cut at the knees” may not be the most attractive prospect.

“People like myself, who have an environmental background, are going to look and say, ‘Hmm, I could work for a not-for-profit, or the private sector doing consulting, or, I love my country, I want to work for the EPA,’ and they might think twice about it,” he said. “So you might not get the best people making the best decisions, which is something a lot of people don’t think about. It doesn’t show up in the budget ledger.

“If you come right out of college and you’re real hungry to do some good work, it just sounds demoralizing to work for an institution or organization where the budget keeps getting cut, the staff hiring is frozen and you’re told to do more with less,” he continued. “It’s just one of those things. It’s something that will incrementally wear on a group.”

The stance Mr. Trump has taken against the science surrounding global warming, for example, does not help matters either, Mr. Virgin said. During last year’s campaign, the candidate blamed environmental regulations for stifling economic growth and dismissed climate change as a “hoax” fabricated by China — a statement Mr. Pruitt has said he does not support, though he did not blame human activity for climate change, or say that the country must cut back on its use of fossil fuels.

“That’s not in anybody’s best interest,” Dr. Swanson said of appointing an EPA administrator who denies global warming. “We can all sit around and argue whether it’s human induced or not. The issue with climate change is the evidence for it is overwhelming and it’s important for us to understand what we can do to slow it down. The EPA is extremely important in that whole debate. You don’t have to get into the debate of whether it’s human induced or not. Climate change is real and we’ve got to learn to live with it.

“The really important thing is to consider the very big picture,” he continued. “We have to learn how to live in harmony with the environment, and the EPA plays a key role in helping us to understand how the environment functions and to try to put limits on what we do and don’t do, so that we can all live and breathe fresh air and deal with climate issues and sea level rise. And if we don’t have the basic understanding and we don’t have the regulatory framework to guide us, then we’re going to be living in chaos.”

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