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Connecticut environmentalists vow to fight Trump EPA plans

March 4, 2017

President Donald Trump’s plan to gut the federal Environmental Protection Agency and dismantle clean water and air rules is prompting environmentalists to gear up for a legal and political battle not seen in a generation.

“They are planning massive cuts and the impact would be significant,” said Roger Reynolds, legal director for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and Save the Sound.

“We will fight this,” Reynolds said, referring to lawsuits against the federal government and political activism to reverse Trump’s course. “We have made an awful lot of progress. This is an attempt to unravel that.”

A variety of news reports last week, many citing unnamed sources, revealed Trump administration plans to cut billions from the EPA’s budget and slash thousands of workers from its workforce. Trump last week signed an executive order directing the EPA to overturn a rule protecting clean water and signaled intentions to dismantle another rule protecting clean air.

The impact of those actions could reach deep into Connecticut, placing at risk grant money for state environmental cleanup initiatives and eliminate federal staff who issue permits for remediation and redevelopment of contaminated properties, and oversee cleanup of polluted property.

Federal funds account for 25 percent of the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection’s $176 million annual budget, with $31 million coming directly from the EPA.

The $95 million in EPA grants pledged to re-mediate and redevelop the Raymark Industries Superfund Site in Stratford is surrounded by questions, along with future efforts to further improve Long Island Sound.

A range of climate control initiatives could also be scrapped, including partnerships with local governments, climate change research and funding to help companies produce more energy efficient products.

“The threatened reduction in funding for EPA is a ‘big deal’ and something that causes serious concern in Connecticut,” said Dennis Schain, a spokesman for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“We need to see further details about exactly what cuts may be put in place and how they would be accomplished, but there is no doubt that without a strong, vibrant and properly funded EPA there could be risks to the quality of life we enjoy,” Schain said.

Cuts and consequences

Environmentalists and state regulators agree that Connecticut’s environment has steadily improved over the decades, thanks in part to the EPA.

Rivers that once turned strange colors are now clear and filled with fish. Long Island Sound is again swimmable, and progress is being made in reducing the man-made nitrogen that robs the waterway of oxygen and chokes off life.

“Forty years ago, the Connecticut River and Housatonic Rivers were very contaminated, but today they are a center of economic development and tourism,” said Chris Collibee, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “The eagles and fish have returned and so have people that come to witness them.”

Numerous news organizations last week reported Trump administration plans to cut the EPA’s annual budget to $6.1 billion — a more than $2 billion reduction. As many as 5,000 of the agency’s 15,000 workers could be eliminated, leaving less staff to research climate change, issue permits and enforce existing law.

“It’s been decades since the EPA’s budget was that low,” said Donald Strait, president of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and Save the Sound.

“Such a cut would devastate the agency’s ability to fulfill its core functions,” Strait said. “We urge the administration to rethink this approach, and allow the EPA to continue protecting American’s air and water.”

Reynolds said the impact of fewer EPA staffers and funding would mean less grants for cleanup projects and longer wait times for permits for construction and remediation projects seeking to return contaminated properties to tax generating use.

“Everything will get locked,” Reynolds said. “Businesses won’t get the permits. If [EPA] can’t process permits, things can’t move forward. The Stratford cleanup hangs in the balance. You hear different things on different days. But we do know there will be substantial cuts.”

Glenn Pricket, chief external affairs officer for the Nature Conservancy of Connecticut, said “deep cuts in environmental programs that protect the health of our families, communities and businesses would undermine the administration’s goal of enhancing our nation’s security. We all rely on healthy lands and waters for jobs, food, security and prosperity.”

The $31 million in federal funding for DEEP goes a long way to protect the state’s environment.

“These funds support a wide range of staff and programs on the environmental quality side of our agency,” Schain said. “There are also many special efforts we are involved in with EPA, such as the Raymark Remediation in Stratford, where EPA has developed and approved a cleanup plan.”

Collibee said the governor opposes the EPA reductions, noting proper environmental management leads to economic growth. “We urge [Trump] to not undo all the great work the EPA has helped to accomplish, not only here in Connecticut but nationally,” he said.

Brooks and wetlands

The EPA has long been criticized by the farming, gas, oil and coal industries over regulations deemed bad for business, and many within those sectors backed Trump’s candidacy.

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s EPA administrator, sued the EPA 13 times over regulations he viewed as overly burdensome.

Despite pledging to “promote clean air and clean water” during his address to Congress last week, Trump signed an executive order to rollback a clean water rule known as Waters of the United States put in place by former President Barrack Obama.

Trump called the rule “one of the worst examples of federal regulation” and said “EPA’s regulators were putting people out of jobs by the hundreds of thousands and regulations and permits started treating our wonderful small farmers and small businesses as if they were a major industrial polluter. They treated them horribly. Horribly.”

Many disagree with Trump’s assessment and say the clean water rule is an essential tool that protects large and small waterways.

“The Waters of the U.S. regulations were designed to bring protection to parts of the nation where it is lacking,” Schain said. “The president’s executive order leaves the door open to continued pollution and contamination of smaller water bodies and tributaries across our nation.”

The rule resulted from a U.S. Supreme Court decision that empowered the EPA to regulate pollution flowing from rural brooks and wetlands because contaminants in those waters, as they travel through streams and rivers and into oceans or waterways like Long Island Sound, can impact a much larger ecosystem.

“These small waterways flow to the Connecticut River, the Hudson, the Pequonnock, the Thames and eventually to Long Island Sound,” Strait said. “We must fight these ill-advised attempts to roll back protections every step of the way.”

Another Obama-era EPA rule targeted by Trump for removal limits climate change damage by setting stricter caps on greenhouse gas emissions from coal and gas powered plants.

The smog from Midwestern plants is carried by prevailing winds to Northeastern states such as Connecticut, endangering public health and prompting officials to declare “bad air” days when concentrations rise to dangerous levels.

“It is unconscionable to turn our back on the Clean Power Plan’s well-crafted approach,” Schain said.

Still, environmentalists said overturning the EPA rules is not as easy as signing an executive order.

Creating a rule, or removing one, can take years of research and scientific proof, and require public hearings and detailed environmental impact statements. Final EPA rules are also often backed by court decisions upholding their validity.

Reynolds said it could take years to dismantle the rules targeted by Trump.

“These are final rules,” he said. “There will be [court] challenges. But it’s highly unlikely it could occur in a presidential term.”