Legislators Grill EPA Chief on FY 2009 Budget Cuts

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill had two questions for EPA Chief Stephen Johnson during a Feb. 27 hearing: Why is the Bush administration slashing the budget to cut funding for vital programs that remediate Superfund sites, combat global warming and improve water infrastructure, and why isn’t the EPA doing something about it?

Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chastised Johnson for “being satisfied” with President George W. Bush’s FY 2009 budget request, which would provide EPA with $7.14 billion to fund its programs.

This is a $330 million or 4.4 percent decrease from FY 2008’s budget. According to Committee Chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the cuts include over $270 million dollars from EPA programs that would clean up and restore lakes, rivers and streams. In addition, resources for cleaning up contaminated toxic waste sites would be hard hit as the proposed budget represents a 16 percent decline in the total Superfund budget since FY 2002, she said.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., also pressed the issue and noted that 10 years ago, more than 80 sites were cleaned up each year. The Bush administration only finished cleaning 24 sites in 2007, he claimed.

“This budget shows no commitment to getting the Superfund program back on track,” he said.

Another area of concern Senate committee members took issue with was the $133.1 million cut the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Funds would incur. Such a cut would be devastating, lawmakers said, as communities use them to prevent water pollution. Additionally, Bush’s FY 2009 budget shortchanges the Leaking Underground Storage Tanks (LUST) Trust Fund, which helps pay for cleaning up leaking underground tanks that pollute drinking water supplies. The proposed budget would cut that funding by $29.8 million.

Moreover, the proposed budget provides no funding for a greenhouse gas registry, which allows the federal government to track sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Johnson: “This is My Budget and I Defend It”

“I feel we have squandered the opportunity to make the EPA budget more cost effective and efficient,” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said to Johnson. “I hope you spend the final year of this administration carefully examining EPA programs to determine which are truly environmentally beneficial and cost effective and which are wasteful.”

Johnson, on his part, explained the agency’s budget reduction by recognizing "the challenge of managing in a time of tight fiscal constraints."

However, Johnson claimed, “this is my budget and I defend it.” He boasted that the proposed 2009 spending plan proposes “the largest enforcement budget ever” – an increase of $9 million for a total budget of $563 million.

"This budget represents government at its best," Johnson said. "It helps EPA meet our environmental goals, while being responsible stewards of taxpayers' dollars."

Johnson didn’t sound as confident when he deflected questions from Boxer and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., about the possibility of the White House influencing Johnson’s controversial decision to reject California’s request for a waiver, which would have allowed the state to impose stricter greenhouse gas emissions standards on cars and light trucks.

Johnson Mum on White House Input

Boxer repeatedly asked Johnson for e-mails that would reveal information about the discussions Johnson had with White House officials regarding the emissions waiver. Johnson acknowledged that he talked to officials about the subject but refused to say if they provided any input. He also said he was working with the White House to make such e-mails available to Sen. Boxer.

Johnson's testimony comes one day after internal documents released by Boxer revealed that EPA officials had urged Johnson to approve the waiver, saying that a denial could compromise the agency's integrity.

“You have to find a way to get this done,” said staff members from EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality in a memo to Johnson, which is posted on Sen. Boxer’s Web page. “If you cannot, you will face a pretty big personal decision about whether you are able to stay in the job under those circumstances. If you are asked to deny this waiver, I fear the credibility of the agency that we both love will be irreparably damaged.

Boxer said that the documents “paint a picture of an [EPA] in crisis.”

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