EPA Chief Points to Staff Shortage in Request for $11.2B Budget

The agency’s priorities include hiring another 1,000 employees, rebuilding water infrastructure and ensuring environmental and economic justice for underserved communities.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan speaks during a press briefing at the White House in May. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan spoke at length about the need for a $11.2 billion budget for the 2022 fiscal year during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

“EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment,” Regan testified. “To achieve these goals, we must have resources to help all communities across the nation who are on the front lines of protecting public health and cleaning up pollution.”

Regan said about 50% of President Joe Biden’s proposed new funding for the EPA would go to state and tribal assistance grant programs, and place-based programs – those reflective of San Francisco or Chesapeake Bay cleanup, for example – would also receive an increase in funding under the request.

Safe drinking water, through the replacement of archaic pipes and investment in deteriorating wastewater treatment facilities, is a key focus of the agency’s budget request. Regan said investing in public water infrastructure is a win-win for public health and economic development, noting $3.6 billion would be set aside to boost state-revolving loan funds, programs that help localities foot the bill for infrastructure projects related to clean water.

Staffing is another challenge at the EPA, Regan said. In 2008, the agency had over 18,000 employees – now, that number is around 14,000. The proposed budget includes funds to hire another 1,000 employees.

A significant amount of those employees had left within the past four years under former President Donald Trump, Regan said. Even with the new hires the agency would still be considerably understaffed in comparison to past administrations.

“With this increase, we will still have a significantly reduced workforce,” Regan said. “On top of that, like many agencies, we have a workforce that is in transition, an aging workforce, what we hope to do with this 1,000 employees is replenish the capacity that we’ve lost but also build the capacity that we need for future activities to protect our air water and land.”

Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who also chairs the subcommittee, noted that about half of the EPA’s workforce would become eligible for retirement within five years. Rebuilding a younger team is an important goal for the agency to strive towards, Merkley said.

West Virginia GOP Senator Shelley Moore Capito noted that some agency employees went to the southern border when Biden asked for additional help handling immigration cases.

Regan said that was true, but their tenure helping out as volunteers only lasted for about two months before they returned to regular EPA duties.

“Yes, the employees that want to take 30 to 60 days to volunteer for the humanitarian crisis, they have the ability to do so,” he said. “And we have a structure in place where they work with their management to be sure that their duties are covered or don’t interrupt the timelines for what we’re on the hook to deliver.”

Another $100 million in the proposed budget would be directed at combatting air pollution and greenhouse gasses, Regan outlined, through air quality grants to states, tribes and localities. Another $30 million would study the impacts of climate change on individual health and the environment.

About $75 million would go towards accelerating studies on perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, “forever chemicals” that linger in water for decades and are linked to cancer and other diseases. The research will be used to inform the EPA’s regulatory process for addressing these chemicals.

The budget would also invest $936 million towards accelerating environmental and economic justice initiatives that will Regan said create jobs, cleanup pollution and secure environmental justice.

“Much like climate change, environmental justice underpins all of our work,” Regan said. “The pandemic ignited a perfect storm for communities of color and low-income communities who already bear the highest burdens of pollution, suffer the highest rates of mortality from heart and lung disease, and recently Covid-19 as well.”

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