Trump budget axes funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup // Richmond Times Dispatch

March 16, 2017
In The News

President Donald Trump’s first proposed federal budget, dubbed “America First,” includes some $54 billion in defense spending increases to be “offset by targeted reductions elsewhere,” including the elimination of all $73 million in federal funding that helps pay for programs in Virginia and other states to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The potential loss of the bay cleanup money has united congressional Republicans and Democrats from Virginia, Maryland and elsewhere in opposition and stunned the foundation that has spearheaded the “Save the Bay” effort for decades.

The money slashed from the bay cleanup is part of $427 million cut from “geographic programs,” such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, from the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, which is overall facing a reduction of 31 percent, about $2.6 billion, from its 2017 funding levels. About 3,200 EPA positions and more than 50 programs are on the chopping block.

“Very basically, this just makes no sense. And to be absolutely frank, we are in disbelief,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker told reporters in a conference call Thursday. “The EPA role in the cleanup of the bay is nothing less than fundamental.”

Baker said the budget proposal, if approved by Congress, would “slam the door” on a recovery that has been a model of federal and state cooperation but remains “very fragile.”

“It’s been bipartisan, it’s largely noncontroversial and it’s working,” he said.

Though leaked budget documents published about two weeks ago by some media outlets showed that the Trump administration intended major cuts to the EPA, including cutting the bay program from $73 million to $5 million, the final budget proposal still came as a shock.

“We thought that somehow (the proposed cuts) would not be maintained, that smarter minds would prevail and that (the cuts) would not be part of the official budget of the president of the United States,” Baker said. “It’s an insult to all who have worked to try to save the Chesapeake Bay.”

New EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who joined a lawsuit challenging total maximum daily loads for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment established by the EPA for the bay, told a Senate committee in January that he would support the federal role in overseeing the bay cleanup, including funding programs that do just that.

An EPA spokesman did not respond Thursday to a request for comment on the budget proposal.

Since 1983, the EPA has been the lead federal partner to work to reduce agricultural and other pollution in the bay, a relationship that has achieved resurgent crab and oyster populations, renewed growth of the underwater grasses that shelter them, and decreased “dead zones,” or areas of oxygen-deficient water. About two-thirds of the federal funding goes to direct pollution-reduction grants to farmers and municipalities. The rest goes to monitoring the bay’s water quality.

Such programs contribute to a massive economic impact on fisheries, tourism and environmental research, Baker said.

President Ronald Reagan mentioned the cleanup in his 1984 State of the Union address, calling it a “long, necessary effort to clean up a productive recreational area and special national resource.”

Stripping the federal funding, Baker said, could mean the bay could “revert to a national disgrace.”

“Clean water is not a luxury; it is a right that no American should have to fight to achieve,” he said. “We will fight with every fiber in our bodies to see that Congress rejects this bay budget.”

A host of other environmental groups condemned the proposed budget, which cuts the EPA as a whole by 31 percent from its 2017 funding level and eliminates 3,200 positions.

“The president’s proposed budget would mean an end to a coordinated Chesapeake Bay restoration effort,” said Hilary Harp Falk, mid-Atlantic regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation and co-chair of the Choose Clean Water Coalition. “With no federal funding for the Chesapeake, projects that are reducing flooding, improving communities, bringing back fish and wildlife, and cleaning drinking water will come to a halt.”

In a statement, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said there’s bipartisan agreement that the president’s budget is a “nonstarter.”

“I hope that my colleagues in the Senate will work across the aisle on a budget that charts a different road map, which makes the investments to help Virginia families get ahead that are absent from President Trump’s budget proposal,” he said.

Last month, 17 members of Congress, including Reps. Robert Wittman, R-1st, and Scott Taylor, R-2nd, Virginians who represent communities on the bay, sent a letter to Trump urging the inclusion of the $73 million for the bay cleanup in the budget proposal. Virginia Reps. Barbara Comstock, R-10th; Bobby Scott, D-3rd; Gerald Connolly, D-11th; Donald Beyer, D-8th; and Donald McEachin, D-4th, also signed the letter, along with members from Maryland and elsewhere.

“Without continued collaboration among stakeholders, this progress would be threatened,” they wrote. “We must ensure that this important work continues and that federal funds continue to be available to support this effort.”

Scott Weldon, a spokesman for Taylor, said the congressman does not support the reduction in funding and would work to restore it during the budget process.

In a statement, Wittman called the bay “a regional and national treasure that must be protected.”

Wittman said Congress’ passage of his 2014 Chesapeake Bay Accountability and Recovery Act, intended to increase coordination and transparency within Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts, shows there is “wide support for a federal role in maintaining the environmental health of the bay.”

“I will continue advocating for the Chesapeake Bay program funding,” he said.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Trump’s budget is more about “keeping misguided political promises than creating opportunity for Americans or making them safer.”

Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, will lead a rally Saturday in Williamsburg against the proposed cuts.

”There has been tremendous progress in the clean-up of the Chesapeake Bay area over the last several years, which has benefited both our environment and our local industries,” he said in a statement. “We must continue to build upon that success, which would go to waste if President’s Trump’s proposed cut is realized.”

And Eric Schaeffer, a former director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement, said the federal agency’s enforcement authority plays a crucial role in negotiations among the six states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, particularly those like Pennsylvania that contribute a significant portion of the agricultural pollution but lack bay frontage.

“They’re not going to do that absent some pressure most of the time,” he said. “That’s where EPA comes in. ... It’s kind of a mix of jawboning, financial help and some enforcement. ... If you’re EPA, you’re not showing up just because you’re bringing lunch.”

Schaeffer said the proposed budget cuts to the EPA would barely cover the cost overruns on the nearly $13 billion aircraft carrier under construction in Newport News from which Trump delivered his speech on increasing military spending this month. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said last summer that the cost of the ship, to be called the Gerald R. Ford, had ballooned by about $2.3 billion over its original price tag.

“It’s not enough to pay for waste,” Schaeffer said of the cuts. “They’re so disproportionate.”