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Washington Watch

Bush Administration Plans Even Bigger EPA Cuts For '08
Everything from Libraries to Laboratories Face Chopping Block

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is preparing for a new even larger round of budget cuts for the 2008 Fiscal Year, according to an internal memo released last week by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These new cuts are being readied even as Congress is still reviewing administration proposals to reduce EPA spending by a record $100 million in FY 2007.

The June 8, 2006 memo from the EPA Chief Financial Officer, Lyons Gray, to agency leadership, calls for pinpointing "larger savings" as part of a series of austerities spread over the next 5 years. The agency's fiscal reduction package includes:

* Closure of Laboratories and Libraries. The plan calls for closing 10% of EPA's network of laboratories and research centers in which much of the agency's basic and applied science concerning pollution monitoring, toxicological effects and other public health issues is conducted. By 2011, the laboratory network, comprised of approximately 2000 scientists, would shrink by 20%;
* Staff Buy-Outs. The plan gives EPA regions freer hands to carry out personnel reductions targeted at higher ranking ("GS 12 to GS 15") scientists, analysts and managers. These cuts would be in addition to anticipated attrition which should be substantial, with 35% of EPA staff becoming eligible to retire during the next three years; and
* Reduced State and Tribal Oversight. Additional savings would accrue from reducing the "regulatory burden" on, and reporting requirements for, state and tribal environmental agencies.

The memo calls identified reductions "disinvestments" and concedes that they will undoubtedly have "long-term consequences." Agency budget cuts now being debated in Congress for the fiscal year that begins this October 1 have raised concerns that EPA is already losing its ability to maintain coherent scientific, regulatory or enforcement programs.

"EPA planning is now driven entirely by external fiscal targets without regard to the effects upon public or environmental health," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "The Bush administration seeks to ‘disinvest' in environmental science, pollution control and global sustainability."

In his memo, Mr. Gray attempts to sugarcoat cuts by describing scaled-back operations as "centers of excellence."

"The Bush administration is trying to spin this lobotomy as a diet plan for a trimmer, shapelier EPA," Ruch added. "In fact, it is a plan to cut and run from historic standards of environmental protection under the guise of deficit management."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility also compiled outside reviews by the agency's Inspector General , concluding that the Environmental Protection Agency is already unable to reliably assess the state of the environment or gauge its own effectiveness. And this is before the pending Bush administration budget cuts.

The overwhelming consensus of these reviews was that inadequate information and fragmented scientific work precluded meaningful evaluation of both EPA’s present structure as well as possible reorganizations. Troubling findings cited by the Inspector General include –

“EPA does not have the data to support its positions on the state of the environment or to measure the success of its programs”;
“EPA’s information systems have incomplete and untimely data”; and
EPA lacks a “clear identification and prioritization of the most important scientific questions to be addressed.”

“Right now, EPA is flying blind,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the agency is spending millions on a public relations campaign to burnish the “corporate image” of its science program even as it cuts research support. “EPA scientists describe a deliberate attempt by its current leaders to ‘dumb down’ the agency and marginalize research so it cannot be applied to any topic of controversy.”

While the deficiencies found in the reports summarized by the Inspector General have roots in earlier administrations, the actions of the Bush administration almost seemed designed to aggravate them:

Investment in EPA science has steadily decreased to the point where the chair of EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board believes that the agency no longer fields a coherent scientific research program;
EPA is slashing its network of technical research libraries; and
Suppression of politically inconvenient scientific findings and rewrites of technical reports for non-scientific reasons have become commonplace.

“While Congress is not known for being a fact-based institution, it needs to reinvest in environmental information and research before it wades into any attempt to reshuffle the deck chairs at EPA,” Ruch added. “The question is whether there is sufficient political support behind rebuilding EPA’s basic scientific capabilities.”