President Trump’s order to freeze Environmental Protection Agency grants and contracts has Maine municipalities, contractors and state agencies bracing for potential funding delays and future shortfalls.
EPA grants are funding millions of dollars in environmental cleanup and assessment work in communities across Maine, and the agency’s research and service contracts and grants to entities in Maine in the 2017 fiscal year total $2.2 million, half of it to the state Department of Environmental Protection, according to a federal spending database. Other recent grantees have included private companies such as IDEXX in Westbrook, which provides specialized equipment and testing services to the agency, and Rockland-based Penobscot Bay Media, which has a contract to provide geospatial maps and analysis for a regional EPA office serving four mid-Atlantic states.
The EPA funds a wide range of activities in Maine, from the cleanup of contaminated industrial properties and Superfund sites to state clean air and water programs to testing services and research and development work by private firms. It is unclear which of these contracts and grants will be affected and for how long, and if the programs they belong to will be cut back in the future.
Current grantees are having difficulty determining whether their funding will be affected because Trump also placed a gag order on agency communications. But statements from the administration appear to indicate that existing grants and cleanup projects will not be affected.
The directive to EPA employees, emailed shortly after Trump’s inauguration Friday, said the new administration “has asked that all contract and grant awards be temporarily suspended, effective immediately,” The Washington Post reported. “Until we receive further clarification, which we hope to have soon, please construe this to include task orders and work assignments.”
EXISTING CONTRACTS APPEAR UNAFFECTED
Scott Morelli, the city manager in Gardiner, said its environmental consultant had reached out to the agency and been told its $600,000 grant to clean up asbestos, lead-based paint and other contaminants at the former T.W. Dick steel fabricating plant would not be disrupted. “It was a little scary, because we’re halfway through the work on site,” Morelli said. “But he indicated to me that because these were existing contracts that were already in place, it wouldn’t be affected.”
Other cleanup grantees were still trying to find answers.
The Saco-based Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission had yet to hear any word of how the freeze might affect its $1.3 million in grants that are helping fund the environmental cleanup at three former industrial sites in southern Maine: the Pepperell Mill and Lincoln Mill complexes in Biddeford and the 12-acre Prime Tanning site in downtown Berwick.
“We haven’t gotten any guidance on whether the freeze applies to us, so we’re in a wait-and-see mode,” said Paul Schumacher, the commission’s executive director. “We’re getting bills that need to be paid for all three projects, and these are multimillion-dollar redevelopments with business and development plans, so obviously there’s need for some clarity.”
City officials in Portland also were unsure Thursday how the freeze might affect an $800,000 grant that funds a loan program for property owners to address contamination, but by the end of the day were able to contact EPA staff who advised them that the grant would not be subject to the freeze, said Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director.
Bath has had one of the most active brownfield programs over the past decade, with $15 million in funding to assess and clean up former schools, underground oil tanks and industrial shorefront for redevelopment. “That’s more than the city of Boston,” said Scott LaFlamme, the city’s economic development director.
Brownfield sites are properties that contain pollutants or hazardous substances that must be cleaned up before the land can be reused.
Bath also has been in the dark about whether its current $200,000 grant might be affected, although the city’s environmental consultant also thinks they will be in good shape. “Programs that are in the highest risk of having funding issues are those that have been dormant and haven’t done a lot of work,” LaFlamme said. “We have had a very active brownfields program and so we should be safe. But we’re in a holding pattern like everyone else.”
SEVERAL BROWNFIELD PROJECTS IN MAINE
Other notable brownfield projects in Maine that could be affected by the EPA freeze include the former Maine Energy Recovery Co. property in Biddeford, the Old Town Canoe site in Old Town and the Wood Island Life Saving Station in Kittery.
The Maine DEP receives 27 percent of its funding from the EPA, most of it to support federally delegated clean air and clean water programs. Department spokesman David Madore said via email that department officials “have been monitoring the situation and contacted the EPA to seek guidance regarding the issue.” He said preliminary information they had received suggested the freeze would not affect DEP.
Gov. Paul LePage’s office did not respond to inquiries.
The DEP’s counterpart in Vermont receives 40 percent of its funding from the EPA, and its commissioner told reporters there that she was “gravely concerned” about the freeze and potential changes going forward.
In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper said the freeze might impact the ability of its DEP “to carry out its federally mandated commitment to protect clean air, clean water and safe drinking water” and complained of the ambiguity of the Trump administration’s statements in the freeze and how long it would last.
Myron Ebell, a prominent climate change skeptic who oversaw the EPA for the Trump transition team, told ProPublica – the non-profit investigative news organization that broke the story – that the administration was “trying to freeze things to make sure nothing happens they don’t want to have happen, so any regulations going forward, contracts, grants, hires, they want to make sure to look at them first.”
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: