April 03, 2019

Udall Questions Wheeler on Crippling Budget Cuts in Hearing to Review EPA’s Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Request

“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.”

“Proposing cuts of this terrible degree show us in clear print what this administration is about: industry comes before public health and environmental protection.”

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, questioned Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler about the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts that would severely damage the agency’s ability to fight climate change and protect public health and the environment in New Mexico and across the country.

Video of Udall’s opening statement is available HERE and questioning of Wheeler is available HERE.

“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,” said Udall. “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.”

As Udall noted, his committee has consistently rejected the administration’s devastating cuts to environmental and public health protection programs, providing strong funding for New Mexico and national priorities. “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,” Udall said.

Highlights from Udall’s questioning of EPA Administrator Wheeler include:

- Called out President Trump for reversing his own budget requests at political rallies: After proposing to cut nearly 90 percent of the Great Lakes Restoration program funding, the president reversed his administration’s decision and promised full funding at a political rally in Michigan.  With Ranking Member Udall’s support, the subcommittee has rejected this request and other drastic budget proposals from the Trump administration for three years in a row.

“The budget request cuts nearly all funding for EPA’s Geographic Programs. These programs have made real, measurable differences in environmental quality of water bodies, such as the Great Lakes,” said Udall. “Last week at a rally in Michigan, the president announced he now supports full funding – $300 million – for EPA’s Great Lakes program – what I consider a remarkable reversal. I have to wonder if the president will make more announcements reversing his budget requests. You testified in the House yesterday that an amended budget request is in progress for the Great Lakes program – is that the correct?”

Wheeler responded that the agency was “talking to OMB about what we need to do to convey the president’s decision.”

“You know the proper thing to do is submit an amended budget request, and we would expect you to do that for any of the others that he’s planning on doing rather than playing favorites and going to particular places that are important in next year’s election,” replied Udall.

- Raised concerns regarding EPA staffing levels and the loss of career expertise: Since the end of the previous administration, EPA has lost 8.5 percent of its employees— the research office alone has lost a staggering 14 percent of staff, and staffing in the field has also suffered. The region that includes New Mexico has lost nearly 12 percent of its field staff. 

“Morale is at an all-time low among EPA’s scientists, engineers, and other experts,” said Udall.  “And the agency’s staffing levels are dropping because, despite Congress rejecting proposed budget cuts, the agency is not hiring new staff when previous staff departs. I see this as an intentional effort to cripple the EPA so badly that the effects last well past this administration. Mr. Wheeler, when you took over as Acting Administrator nearly a year ago, you and I discussed the need for EPA to maintain and cultivate experienced and qualified staff.  You said that one of your personal priorities was to make sure that happened…And we sit here, examining a budget request to cut another 1,800 staff.”

Wheeler replied that the staffing challenge is that the agency is struggling to hire at a rate that keeps pace with a large number of retirements.

Udall responded by noting that, “Labor economists have been predicting baby boomer retirement effects for decades, this isn’t news, your agency has simply failed to plan and prepare to deal with the staffing deficit. My opinion is that you’ve known this was coming, the people in the department have known this was coming, you promised us you were going to be on top of it and you failed on that front.”

- Raised alarm about lack of enforcement of environmental laws that protect Americans’ air and water:One of the fundamental responsibilities of the EPA is to enforce U.S. environmental laws, but under the Trump administration, both administrative and civil penalties in fiscal year 2018 declined to the lowest level since EPA established a dedicated enforcement office 25 years ago.  In 2018, EPA initiated roughly 1,800 civil enforcement cases which is the lowest level in a decade.

“The budget 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,” said Udall.“I know the administration’s party line response is that it is focusing on compliance ahead of the problems rather than after-the-fact enforcement.”

“But the numbers don’t tell that story,” said Udall. “EPA’s own data indicates that the Agency conducted 10,612 inspections in 2018, which is the lowest number in the last decade and less than half of the inspections conducted in the peak year of 2010. With fewer inspections, there are fewer opportunities to identify facilities that are out of compliance.  It really isn’t more complicated than that.”

- Questioned dangerous Methylene Chloride rule: EPA recently finalized its first Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) rule banning specific uses of the chemical methylene chloride, a likely human carcinogen and acutely lethal chemical used in paint strippers sold for consumer and commercial uses. EPA’s ban only covers consumer paint stripping uses of the chemical and excludes commercial uses that leave workers, more than 50 of whom have already been killed due to exposures, without the protection they need.

In 2016, Udall led the bipartisan, bicameral congressional effort on reforming TSCA. The 2016 TSCA reform bill directed EPA to consider risks encountered by “potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations” due to exposures to chemical substances. These subpopulations were further defined to include workers.

“We are now almost three years since the passage of the overwhelmingly bipartisan reform of the TSCA.  I know you are aware of how involved I was in that.  So, you can imagine my disappointment when the very first chemical regulation you took –methylene chloride – was a watered-down rule that walks back protections for workers,” said Udall.

“EPA recently finalized a ban on all consumer uses of the chemical methylene chloride in paint strippers. Inexplicably, the ban failed to cover workers as the original proposed ban did – despite the fact that the vast majority of the more than 50 deaths from this chemical have occurred in the workplace,” said Udall. “In fact, I’ve met with the mother of Kevin Hartley, who died at age 21, while at work using a methylene chloride-based stripper he had been trained to use. We know that people are dying using these strippers on the job.”

“In finalizing the consumer ban, EPA found unreasonable risk of ‘acute human lethality.’ That means that EPA has already found that this chemical in paint strippers and coating removers poses an unreasonable risk of acute human lethality.  Is that correct?” asked Udall.

Wheeler said he “believed that was correct.”

“The answer is clearly yes.  EPA found that this chemical in paint strippers and coating removers poses an unreasonable risk of acute human lethality. And the EPA is aware that workers have died using this product on the job, is that correct?” Udall pressed.

Wheeler discussed a new EPA program for a federal “training and certification program” for workers using Methylene Chloride.

“I understand that you have a pre-proposal to consider measures that ‘could address any unreasonable risks that EPA could potentially find to be presented by methylene chloride when used for commercial paint and coating removal.’ But we know that EPA has already found that there are unreasonable risks of human lethality from methylene chloride and we know that workers are at risk. To me, it’s clear that workers, as well as consumers, need protection. I know that Kevin Hartley’s mother Wendy would agree. This is not the TSCA reform we all spent so much time and effort for,” said Udall.

Udall also asked for EPA’s commitment to support the New Mexico Environment Department’s efforts to clean-up PFAS groundwater contamination. More information on Udall’s PFAS questioning is available HERE

Video of Udall’s opening statement is available HERE and questioning of Wheeler is available HERE.