EPA in the Crosshairs
Trump's assault on environmental protection targets local labs.
From the May, 2017 issue
When he ran for president, Donald Trump vowed to "get rid" of the Environmental Protection Agency. By the time he was done, he said, there would be only "little tidbits left."
Now he's making good on that promise. Trump's proposed federal budget targets the EPA for a 31 percent budget cut, from $8.3 billion this year to $5.7 billion in 2018. Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney declared that more than enough to meet "the core functions of the EPA."
That depends on your definition of core functions. Trump wants to cut the EPA's science budget by more than 40 percent, curtailing the agency's ability to challenge polluters. "It may move our regulatory system closer to that of Europe," says John DeCicco, a U-M prof formerly with the Environmental Defense Fund. "Basically, good old boys in the industry talking to good old boys in government. This is going to cripple progress. And that is of course the objective." Trump also wants to slash the research budget at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by 26 percent.
Both agencies have major facilities in Ann Arbor--the EPA's National Fuel and Vehicle Emissions Laboratory on Plymouth Rd., and NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory on State Rd. But when we contacted the labs to ask how they'd be affected, we were told they couldn't say.
"They're forbidden from talking to anybody," explains Brad Cardinale, whose U-M lab is funded by NOAA. "I received the direct emails saying 'Do not talk to any reporter about the budget.' But as somebody who's part of the university and a faculty member who works for NOAA, we have considerably more liberty to talk about the implications of the budget."
One implication: the virtual elimination of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Among many other things, GLRI funds NOAA's Harmful Algal Bloom Operational Forecast System, which first detected the poisonous bloom that forced Toledo to shut down its water system in 2014. "If the GLRI goes away,"
says Cardinale, "there will be no protection for the forty million people who drink water from the Great Lakes [region]."
Cardinale, a professor in the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment, thinks it's no coincidence that research is hit hardest by Trump's budget. "The goal of this president is to eliminate factual information and control what people believe," he says. "Facts get in the way. Science is all about generating objective facts so that people can make an informed decision."
Gutting GLRI's budget from $300 million to $10 million would be a job-killer. "There're twenty-eight people that work for me, and 124 total people who work between the university and the Great Lakes lab, the majority funded under the GLRI," says Cardinale. "But if you added up all the people whose jobs are dependent on GLRI, it's tens of thousands of people across the Great Lakes.
"One of the biggest consequences [would be] a brain drain in the Great Lakes," he continues. "If you're a bulldozer driver, you might be OK. But we'll have thousands of high-level scientists out of a job and looking for work."
And then there are the millions of Americans who depend on NOAA's research. Beyond losing the forecasting system that warns thirteen Great Lakes cities of algae blooms, they'd also lose the NOAA satellite system that tracks ice cover on the shipping lanes.
"If you value shipping and commerce on the Great Lakes, you're gonna be screwed," Cardinale says. "Trump's vision is that private companies will take over the satellite and weather services, but even if that could be realized, it would take years if not decades for them to mimic what NOAA already has available. What are people going to do in the meantime?"
GLRE was created in 2010 with bipartisan support. Cardinale says GLRE's mission is "to clean up areas of the Great Lakes that have been chemically polluted, places so bad that they were close to superfund status. There were dozens in Michigan and hundreds in the Great Lakes.
"Muskegon Lake is one of the big success stories," he continues. "Because of industry it had become so polluted that you couldn't fish or swim in it. But with GLRI funding, they've restored the lake."
Cardinale heads the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystem Research (CILER). "It's the study of fresh water," he explains. "We're one of sixteen institutes around the U.S. that link NOAA to a university.
"The primary role is to be a cost savings to NOAA for their research programs. It would be terribly expensive to hire a Ph.D.-level scientist [as a federal employee]. Instead, they work with the universities who can help them hire postdocs and trained researchers" for specific projects.
But a lot of CILER's "funding comes from the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab right down the street," Cardinale says--and about 90 percent of the lab's funding comes from GLRI.
If Trump succeeds in killing GLRI, Cardinale believes, the damage will be serious and long-lasting. "Lake Erie is always on the edge of reverting back to something that catches on fire, and if it reverts back it's going to take us decades [to bring it back] again. And we track the Asian carp. What happens if the Asian carp gets in? You'll never get rid of them."
Cardinale doesn't believe Congress will let the president completely eliminate GLRI. "Trump is so extreme that he's completely moved the goalposts," he says. "He is, almost with surgical precision, eliminating science from almost every agency he's proposing to cut the budget of. Congress values science far more than Trump, and I think our representatives in the Great Lakes are going to oppose this budget." But he doesn't think they'll be able to save all of the restoration funding. "Trump is out to cut science, and there's going to be a big hit, and it's going to be substantial."
For his own lab, Cardinale says, any hit above 30 percent means "we close our doors and lay off over 100 people in Ann Arbor. We don't operate on big margins. And you're not talking about a huge amount of money, about 1.2 percent of the [discretionary] national budget. It's trivial compared with European countries. China is beating the crap out of us with science."
Cardinale himself could fall back on his SNRE appointment. But "I would lose something that I love: trying to make the Great Lakes healthy and prosperous for society based on sound science. When you call up Toledo and tell them to shut their water intake valves, you really feel like you're doing something important."
The Trump budget would also eliminate the fifty-year-old Sea Grant program, which Cardinale describes as "one of the most successful programs out there. Ask a fisherman, and they'll tell you the value of Sea Grant."
"We have educators who live in coastal communities, In Traverse City, the Detroit area, Bay City, Alpena, Grand Haven, Sault Ste. Marie, and Marquette," explains Michigan Sea Grant director Jim Diana, also an SNRE prof. "The idea is for them to connect with the coastal communities, so they can tell us their problems and what we can do to help them out. A lot of the small coastal communities don't have people who understand environmental impacts well, and we can assist them." Sea Grant also plays a big role in developing tourism, "where we'll bring together communities from all across a region."
If Congress approves Trump's budget, Diana says, "more than three-quarters of our money would go away." That would effectively end the program, leaving twenty-three Sea Grant employees in Ann Arbor to look for new jobs. Like Cardinale's CILER, Diana says that even if a future Congress restored the cuts, restarting Sea Grant "would be difficult. You'd lose virtually all your staff. Most people would find other jobs. It would be devastating even if there were a six-month cut."
Like Cardinale, Diana suspects the budget won't "pass the way it is. We talked to ten different [congressional] offices from Michigan, and every one was unanimously in support of Sea Grant, of the GLRI, of EPA, and the whole congressional delegation said they were going to sign a letter saying that.
"That's powerful, because in Michigan we've got nine Republicans and five Democrats, and the Republicans are going to make the difference. And if you go across the Great Lakes, you'd find largely the same thing."
But like Cardinale, Diana doesn't think the Great Lakes delegation can fully protect the programs that protect the lakes. He wouldn't be surprised, he says, if some program was chosen for elimination as "a sacrificial lamb. I would see a reduction in the GLRI. The Trump administration is so anti-EPA that I think they're gonna get hit pretty hard."
When we emailed Chris Grundler, director of the EPA's Ann Arbor lab, to ask about potential cuts, he replied, "Unfortunately, I am not able to discuss prospective budget matters with you. Honestly, we don't know what is happening at the moment so we cannot have an intelligent conversation, and it would not be wise to speculate."
The lab is locked down so tightly that even U.S. rep Debbie Dingell couldn't get in when she asked in April. But according to the Washington Post, the administration wants to cut emissions staffing here in half, from 304 positions to 168.
"The emission lab on Plymouth Rd. is unique," says John German, who spent thirteen years there and is now with the International Council on Clean Transportation. It's the only EPA lab "that has their laboratory side, where they do all the testing and enforcement, [and] also has people there who write the regulations and do the rulemaking."
That gives the rule-making staff here the "scientific and engineering expertise that enables them to write regulations that will stand up against court challenges," the U-M's DeCicco adds. "That lets them call bullshit on the industry that's giving them bullshit.
"Regulated industries always want to hide their capabilities and their costs," DeCicco continues. "Then they can plead 'this is not feasible,' 'it costs too much,' and 'this is going to put Americans out of work.' This is a very effective lobbying line that any regulated industry has used. But the EPA lab is not dependent on the dog-and-pony shows they get from automakers."
German suspects the administration hasn't thought through the implications of slashing the EPA workforce. Trump wants to undo Obama-era rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions, "but those standards are on the books," German explains. "If you want to roll the standards back, you have to go through a whole new set of rulemaking. And if they fire everybody, who's going to do the ruling?"
Trump may also overestimate the EPA's importance in a global industry. "Even if the U.S. roles back standards, Europe and China are not," German points out. "Manufacturers are increasingly moving to global platforms and global technologies. There's also California, where they have the ability to set their own standards, and they are clearly indicating that they are not backtracking at all. So does a manufacturer make two different fleets: one for California and one for the rest of the U.S.?"
DeCicco doubts Trump will shut the Ann Arbor lab--"it would entail too much political cost. But the political cost to [the administration] of cutting an already lean bureaucracy further is very small. Our delegation would fight closing the lab, but they're not going to fall on their swords to protect [its] budget."
And just as eliminating GLRI would imperil the Great Lakes, slashing the EPA's staff would endanger air quality. The lab's role "goes beyond writing regulations," German notes. "They also oversee all the inspection and maintenance systems, and they do the enforcement. The latest is the VW scandal, but there have been six previous 'defeat device' cases that they've found and enforced."
VW sold polluting cars in the U.S. for six years before German's group caught them--and even then, it took the EPA eighteen months to get the cars off the market.
"That's the part that I'm the most worried about," German says. "If the people at the top levels of EPA had said that they were not interested in investigating and following up on this arcane matter of shutting off defeat devices," the company's cover-up could have succeeded.
And that would have meant dirtier air. "If the Trump administration decides it wants to cut back on enforcement," German warns, "emissions will go up."
[Originally published in May, 2017.]
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