Lawmakers Criticize Bush EPA Budget Proposal
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, March 8, 2007 (ENS) - The Bush administration's plan to cut some $500 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget shortchanges vital environmental programs and is unacceptable, members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee told the agency chief on Wednesday.
EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson endured a litany of criticism during the budget hearing, with committee chair Barbara Boxer leading the charge.
Boxer, a California Democrat, called the budget proposal "shocking," highlighting a $400 million cut to wastewater treatment projects, a $35 million cut to air pollution monitoring and a $7 million cut for the toxic waste cleanup program.
"This budget sends an unmistakable message to people who are concerned about our health and a clean environment - you are not a high priority," said Boxer, who questioned Johnson's commitment to the agency's mission to protect public health and the environment.
"I don't think an EPA administrator should sit back and take the kind of cuts to programs that you are taking and you in essence are endorsing," Boxer said. "Your job is to fight for the environment."
Johnson defended the $7.2 billion spending plan and said it provided the agency with ample resources to meet it goals.
"Our air water and land are cleaner than they were a generation ago and with this budget that progress will continue," Johnson told the committee.
The EPA chief highlighted increased spending for enforcement activities and for water security and decontamination programs.
The budget reflects "EPA's evolving role from guardians of the environment to also guardians of our homeland," Johnson said.
Johnson's remarks did little to convince Boxer or other members of the committee.
"I am really enraged by this budget," said Senator George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican.
Voinovich honed in on the $400 million cut to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides states low-interest loans to pay for sewage treatment plant upgrades.
Federal studies estimate needed upgrades and repairs to the nation's wastewater infrastructure of more than $300 billion over the next 20 years.
The budget plan is "woefully inadequate," Voinovich said, as it fails to give local communities the help they need to upgrade infrastructure and meet stricter federal clean water standards.
"What we have is a ticking time bomb ready to blow up if we continue to ignore these nationwide needs," Voinovich said. "Either you have to back off with these orders ... or we have to come up with the money to help these people pay for this. You can't have it both ways."
Johnson said the level of the loan fund is more than $3 billion, "the highest it has ever been," adding that the "infrastructure challenge is everyone's challenge."
Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, criticized the administration for repeatedly proposing reductions to programs - like the water loan fund - knowing that Congress will reinsert the money.
EPA continues to use "these budgetary tricks to create the appearance of fiscal responsibility," Inhofe said.
Democrats on the panel pressed Johnson on several other issues, including reductions for EPA programs on environmental justice, climate change and brownfields, as well as to EPA's Energy Star program.
"When something is working you don't tend to cut back on it," said Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat in reference to the reduction in funding for the Energy Star program, which encourages the purchase and use of energy efficient products and practices.
Throughout the hearing Johnson repeatedly defended the plan as adequate for meeting the agency's responsibilities and as part of the administration's broader goal of reducing the federal deficit.
"This budget does continue to deliver environmental results while meeting a balanced budget for our nation," Johnson told the committee.
Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, asked if the Department of Defense was also "committed to balancing the budget."
"We are being told that cutting this budget is good for Americans and I don't believe it," Lautenberg said.
Boxer and Johnson engaged in a heated exchange regarding the administration's plan to combine EPA's children's health office with its environmental education office. The proposal also calls for eliminating $8 million in funding for environmental education
"This undermines the mission of the children's health office, which is to single out children's health because of the particular threat to children posed by environmental pollutants," Boxer said.
Boxer noted the administration's controversial plan in 2005 to allow pesticide testing on children, adding, "I understand why you might not want an office of children's health."
"Senator, we still have an office of children's health," Johnson said, interrupting the California Democrat. "I have to correct the record."
Johnson said the children's health office was not being undermined, adding that "our entire agency is continuing to work to make sure we are protecting our nation's most vulnerable populations."
Boxer said Johnson was missing her point.
"The fact is that we wanted an office of children's health where the only thing done in the office was worrying about children's health," she said. "You've combined it. Period. End of quote. That's a fact."
"It is still an office - that is a fact, senator," Johnson replied, drawing a rebuke from the committee chair.
"I don't need you to talk now because I'll give you your chance in many other hearings," said Boxer, who closed the hearing by scolding Johnson for not admitting that the proposal cuts EPA's budget.
"When you testify you don't even admit to that," Boxer said. "This is the second time you have done this in a hearing and it is disingenuous."