April 03, 2019

Udall Opening Statement at Hearing to Examine EPA’s Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Request


WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, delivered the following opening statement at an Appropriations Committee hearing with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler to examine the EPA’s fiscal year 2020 budget request: 

Administrator Wheeler, welcome to your first Appropriations hearing as EPA Administrator.

It sure is a different day from when we sat here one year ago with your predecessor.  So I first want to acknowledge your efforts to restore basic communication with Congress.  While we have our disagreements, I do appreciate that today we can focus on the mission of the EPA.

Now, it’s no secret that I opposed your nomination to lead the EPA.  I just don’t think it’s in the best interest of this country for a former industry lobbyist to be in charge of agencies that regulate their former clients – on environmental policy or anything else.  A lobbyist who has advocated for easing and even dismantling protections for public health and the environment. 

While you’ve promised that your previous work poses no conflict of interest with your current position, your actions and leadership indicate that public health and the environment do not come first in your decision-making.  But, Mr. Wheeler, you have been narrowly confirmed by the Senate, and today you testify before us as the administrator of the EPA.  And after nearly a year of experience as acting administrator.  Now it’s time to examine the record.

I’m relieved that your predecessor is no longer dominating the news cycle with daily scandal. But the bottom line is that I don’t see much of a change in terms of policy.  I’m deeply troubled that as acting administrator, and now as the confirmed administrator, you are continuing to implement this administration’s devastating environmental agenda.

First and foremost, this administration has abandoned all efforts to fight climate change, and you’ve personally doubled down on that by denying climate change is even a major crisis. 

Administrator Wheeler, climate change is a major – and very real – crisis.  In fact, climate change is by far the most pressing crisis of our time. 

People are losing their homes, their land, their farms. We now have a new kind of refugee – “climate refugees” – displaced from their homes by catastrophic weather disasters, like drought and floods. 

In the west, we have less precipitation. Rivers and reservoirs are running at historic lows. Dry conditions are creating more wildfires. 

Look at the historic, devastating floods in the Midwest happening as we speak.  In Puerto Rico, the official death toll from the destructive Hurricane Maria was 2,975 American lives.

The planet, and the people living on it, are suffering.  Especially those who can least afford to adapt.

Yet, instead of recognizing reality, right out of the gate, this administration began an all-out assault on efforts to fight climate change.  By blocking common sense proposals to limit emissions from power plants, by halting efforts to control methane from oil and gas operations, by weakening fuel economy standards, and by walking away from the Paris climate accords.

If you do not change course, this will be your legacy.  And I don’t think history will look upon this record very kindly. 

And it’s not just climate change policy that is so devastating. It seems there isn’t one rock unturned at the EPA where this administration hasn’t taken an opportunity to roll back public health and environmental protections to benefit corporations and industry.

Just recently, the agency dramatically scaled back proposed limits on a deadly chemical in paint strippers.  While the chemical will be taken off the shelves in home improvement stores, the people who face the most risk – workers exposed to this neurotoxin every day – still have zero protections.

At the center of this administration’s “action plan” to protect the public from PFAS and related chemicals, which are associated with cancer, autoimmune diseases and even resistance to vaccines, is a vague promise to start thinking about setting health standards sometime soon.  Meanwhile, an estimated tens of millions of Americans are drinking water that contains these substances at levels much higher than what independent scientists and even the Centers for Disease Control consider to be safe.  And that’s not to mention impacts like the farmers in New Mexico who are being forced to destroy hundreds of thousands of gallons of contaminated milk and euthanize thousands of cattle.

EPA also recently declared that it is no longer “appropriate and necessary” to limit mercury and other toxic air pollution – pollution that is known to poison fetuses and children.  EPA’s decision paves the way to undermine basic public health standards.  That’s why it immediately drew bipartisan opposition in Congress.

And, contrary to a court order, EPA recently decided to let the hardrock mining industry shirk financial responsibility for the environmental cost of doing business – even though damages from abandoned mines have cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

The non-partisan Government Accountability Office just recently reported that EPA political appointees directly interfered with EPA scientists’ important work related to evaluating the hazards of chemicals we come in contact with every day. 

And we’re still waiting for EPA to make good on its promise to take care of people and farmers – including New Mexicans and members of the Navajo Nation – who were harmed by the Gold King Mine spill.  Another promise broken.

When it comes to the budget, it’s just one more of the same.  The administration – for the third year in a row – proposes devastating cuts to the EPA. 

It’s unconscionable to me that the agency responsible for protecting public health would propose to scale back on the very scientific research that helps us identify threats and understand how to minimize them.  But this budget requests a cut of 43 percent to EPA research.

The budget also proposes a cut of 12 percent to the enforcement of laws designed to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe. The proposed cut to enforcement even includes criminal activities like illegally dumping sewage into drinking water sources.  I fail to understand how we need less investment in keeping environmental cops on the beat. 

The budget exposes the administration’s rhetoric about deferring to state-led environmental efforts is as completely phony.  The budget proposes to cut more than a third – a total of $1.5 billion – from states and tribes.   

Yet another fake promise from this administration is infrastructure funding.  A quick look at the budget request shows an $875 million cut to water infrastructure. That’s more than a 30 percent cut.  

I’d like to talk about these proposed cuts today.   But to be honest, I’m tired of the now-commonplace responses from representatives of this administration in our budget hearings. We hear repeatedly, year after year, that they would be – quote – “happy to work with Congress on final spending levels.”  It’s a wink and the nod that the budget request isn’t really real.  But that, I submit to you, makes a mockery of our process. 

Budgets are statements of policy priorities.  And proposing cuts of this terrible degree show us in clear print that what this administration is about. Industry comes before public health and environmental protection.  There is no wink or nod – or announcement at a rally – that can undo that.

I continue to be thankful that this committee has stuck together – I really appreciate working with the chairman on priorities that the American people really care about, and doing things on a bipartisan basis – and rejecting these drastic proposals.

But the agency is still suffering.  Morale is at an all-time low among EPA’s scientists and other experts.  And staffing levels are waning because – despite Congress rejecting budget cuts – the agency is not hiring new staff when previous staff depart.   

I know, Administrator Wheeler, you have a lot to say today on your funding priorities for EPA – important things we can all agree on like improving the health of school facilities and reducing lead in drinking water.  But I want to be clear that these shouldn’t – and won’t – distract the American people from the failures of this administration to fight climate change and protect public health.

I look forward to our discussion today.  Thank you, Madam Chair, for those very kind comments early on, and I look forward to working through this budget process with you.