President Trump's proposal to slash 31 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency's budget could eventually be magnified in a sort of double whammy to clean air and water safeguards in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Over the years, the states have slowly cut their own funding of environmental budgets, relying on the federal government to fill in the gaps. Now much of that support might vanish — and neither state has the money to suddenly step up and plug holes.
"All we know at this point is that it appears to be very bad," said David Hess, a former Pennsylvania DEP commissioner, in his assessment of the potential impact of EPA cuts on the state. "It's a very nasty situation. The DEP is caught in this squeeze."
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's funding from general state coffers for 2017-18 is almost 40 percent lower than 15 years ago. Though the state-funded portion of the budget would increase slightly under Gov. Wolf's proposed budget for the year that begins July 1, the DEP has shed 16 percent of its workforce since 2002, bringing the number of employees to about 2,689.
Over the same 15 years, federal money to Pennsylvania for environmental programs doubled to $218 million, up from $109 million in 2002-03, according to an analysis of budget data. So a big paring back by the federal government could have big consequences for some programs.
Most observers, including Hess, said the Trump plan, if adopted as is, would surely hurt. He said federal cuts in grants to all states would be about $482 million. In addition, the plan calls for $332 million in cuts for Superfund site administrative costs for the states. There are no details, however, on how each state would fare.
"It's a fairly dire situation," Pennsylvania State Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware) said in anticipation of Trump's announcement.
In Pennsylvania, "I think the problem is, right now you're dealing with a budget that's been fairly atrophied over the past 16 years," he said. "In my mind, they do not have a staff to meet their mission. Even now, without federal cuts, they are not properly resourced."
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, has watched the budget process in Trenton for decades. He testified before the legislature this week, outlining a decline in NJDEP funding from state sources.
He, too, says the state has been pulling money away from its environmental department for years, so that it "is relying even more on federal dollars." Gov. Christie's proposed budget contains a slight decrease for next year.
"The EPA pays about half if you look at everything," Tittel said Thursday. Local environmental groups were prepared for a sizable cut in Trump's budget. But the announced reduction was even bigger than expected – and that doesn't count cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other federal departments that help with environmentally related programs in the state.
"I was shocked by the level and depth of the cuts. We're talking cutting core programs for air and water," Tittel said, and … "in the process, it's going to have a devastating effect on lives."
Many states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, don't have much recourse other than higher fees or taxes if the federal money dries up. State environmental departments are funded through a mix of state and federal funds and fees.
Harrisburg is already facing a $3 billion shortfall, so it has little room to maneuver. Wolf is proposing $1 billion in spending and savings cuts for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The state has already been warned by the federal EPA — under the Obama administration — that its staffing is insufficient to meet requirements for inspecting public water systems under federal safe drinking water standards. Nationally, each inspector is responsible for 67 water systems on average, according to Patrick McDonnell, the DEP's acting secretary. Pennsylvania's average is 149.
Testifying at a recent state budget hearing, McDonnell was upbeat about what the department had achieved.
"Nonetheless, we continue to struggle with our daily workload due to these staff shortages," McDonnell said. In a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Thursday, he warned that Trump's budget "would have an immediate and devastating effect on my state's ability to ensure that Pennsylvania's air is safe to breathe, our water is safe to drink, and our economy prospers."
McDonnell's department grapples with administering complex programs that deal with methane emissions for the oil and gas industry, pipeline permitting, storm water management, sewage, hazardous site cleanups, and old mine sites. It also is part of a six-state, multi-organization effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Indeed, the Trump blueprint would eliminate all federal funding for the ongoing cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehanna River, which flows through Pennsylvania, is a significant contributor of pollutants that dump into the Chesapeake estuary, and Pennsylvania — as well as Delaware — has long been a partner in the bay cleanup effort, which is led by Washington.
"This just makes no sense. We are in disbelief," Chesapeake Bay Foundation president William C. Baker said in a statement. "The EPA's role in this clean up is nothing less than fundamental," he said, and eliminating the program "will slam the door on the bay's nascent recovery, a recovery which is still very fragile."
Trump's budget proposal has to make its way through Congress and could face significant changes. The Chesapeake Bay cleanup program, for one thing, goes back for years and has a lot of grassroots support.