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Oregon DEQ Prepares For Big Staff Cuts Under Trump


A portion of President Donald Trump's first proposed budget, focusing on the Environmental Protection Agency, and released by the Office of Management and Budget, is photographed in Washington, Wednesday, March 15, 2017.

A portion of President Donald Trump’s first proposed budget, focusing on the Environmental Protection Agency, and released by the Office of Management and Budget, is photographed in Washington, Wednesday, March 15, 2017.

Jon Elswick/AP

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality expects to lose more than 30 people in the agency’s core programs protecting air and water quality because of President Trump’s proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency budget, according to an internal DEQ memo.

If the preliminary numbers hold true, those cuts would further weaken an agency already struggling with staff and funding shortages. The DEQ’s water and air quality programs have been criticized for lengthy permit backlogs and heavy metals pollution in Portland that went undetected for years.

According to DEQ’s analysis, which assumes a 45 percent reduction in funding to states based on the Trump administration’s budget proposals, starting in 2018 the state agency could lose:

- 14 employees who study and regulate water quality

- 11 employees who monitor air quality and issue permits

- Four employees in agency management

- Three employees who oversee hazardous waste handling

The Trump administration’s budget blueprint would reduce funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent — the biggest percentage drop of any agency in the discretionary budget. That includes funding for state programs and grants that flow through states to nonprofits and local governments.

Trump’s budget is both preliminary and scarce on details. Funding for the EPA and other environmental programs ultimately depends on Congress.

DEQ has asked the Oregon Legislature for a small amount of money, “but this reduction would probably make things worse,” agency director Richard Whitman said.

“Resources on the state side are in bad shape in this particular budget cycle. There’s not an expectation that general fund money will be available,” he said.

The loss of 11 air quality employees would be significant for an agency that in recent years has come under criticism for conducting too little air monitoring, failing to respond to citizen complaints and taking too few steps to reduce the public’s risk from air toxics.

Whitman said there is adequate state funding to continue the work of Cleaner Air Oregon, an initiative in response to the scare over toxic air in Portland that aims to create health-based regulations for air pollution.

Clean air advocate Mary Peveto said she worries those rules will be ineffective without enough staff to make sure polluters abide by them.

“We already knew without these cuts that enforcement by our agency was problematic,” said Peveto, director of the Portland-based Neighbors for Clean Air. “These cuts are just doubling down on that reality.”

Oregon’s water quality program, which would lose more than a dozen people, currently has one of the country’s worst backlogs of expired water quality permits, which means wastewater plants and other facilities are allowed to pollute at levels that may violate current protections for the state’s waterways.

Whitman expects Trump administration cuts elsewhere would worsen this and other aspects of water quality.

A significant reason for the backlog, besides staff resources, is DEQ’s reluctance to demand costly wastewater infrastructure upgrades from small cities and towns without the funds to pay for them. Despite campaign promises to improve the nation’s infrastructure, Trump’s budget blueprint keeps EPA funding for wastewater infrastructure relatively stable while eliminating a $500 million Department of Agriculture loan program for rural water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades.

“There’s a clear, obvious, very callous disregard for the weakest and the poorest among us in those figures,” said Mark Riskedahl of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center said about the Trump administration budget. NEDC is one of two groups currently suing to force an update of old water quality permits in Oregon.

“So many environmental problems and environmental issues, the burdens of those are disproportionately felt by people who are in low income communities and communities of color,” Riskedahl said. Trump has also proposed cutting the EPA’s environmental justice program.

The DEQ analysis also projects reductions for programs that deal with runoff pollution and with farm and forest lands along Oregon’s coast.

Oregon has been out of compliance with federal standards to protect coastal water quality in recent years.

The EPA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oversee a program to control coastal water pollution and protect endangered marine species like salmon. In 2015, they pulled $2 million in annual federal funding from Oregon after deciding the state’s coastal water pollution rules didn’t adequately protect fish from logging impacts.

Trump’s budget blueprint calls for cutting that coastal program so much that Oregon’s noncompliance with it would essentially become moot, Whitman said.

The proposed reductions would also lead to likely slowdowns for the Portland Harbor superfund cleanup. Trump’s budget blueprint would cut EPA’s superfund program by $330 million.

While the cleanup itself is to be paid for by dozens of parties that are legally responsible, the process relies on EPA oversight. Without staff at the federal level to approve and implement the cleanup, Whitman said many of the steps could stall. A greater burden is expected to fall to states, but DEQ currently lacks the staff to take on that workload without slowing the cleanup.

Other states are also taking stock of what staff and programs they might lose because of the proposed EPA budget.

“We’re still lacking details from the federal administration on what exactly this means for Washington,” Washington Ecology Spokeswoman Sandi Peck said. “But we are doing assessments in all of our environmental programs on what it could mean and preparing for budget drills.”

Ecology receives about $48 million per year from the EPA, most of which is passed on to communities.

“Our own employees are very interested in knowing what this means also,” Peck said.

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