The Trump administration’s proposal to impose deep cuts on the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget is raising fears that it would devastate Maine’s environment and undermine its economy.
The preliminary White House plan would trim the EPA’s budget by 25 percent. It would cut nearly a third of state grant programs that fund the cleanup of abandoned industrial sites as well as protect air and water quality, and it would eliminate grants that help Maine and other states mitigate radon, conduct beach water quality tests and buy cleaner school buses.
“These cuts would be devastating to environmental protection in Maine,” said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state’s most politically active environmental group. “We’re a state that depends very heavily on the health of the environment as a core foundation of our economy, so these cuts are cuts to our economic prospects, really.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District, said the cuts would have “a huge impact on our local communities,” especially by reducing funds for towns and cities to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and drinking water supplies, and clean up former mill and industrial sites via so-called “brownfields” grants. All three programs face 30 percent cuts in the proposal issued by the Office of Management and Budget.
“These are things most municipal governments can’t afford to pay for, and these grants from the EPA are often the only way they get fixed,” Pingree said. “I have a hard time believing my Republican colleagues want to go back to their constituents and say they cut all these funds vital to their municipalities but on the other hand they have these big spending plans for building a wall, tax cuts and infrastructure.”
U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said he found media reports about the cuts “deeply troubling,” particularly in the brownfields program, which has provided revolving loans that have helped clean up numerous Maine properties so they could be redeveloped, including the former trash-to-energy plant in Biddeford, the Old Town Canoe factory in Old Town and the T.W Dick complex in Gardiner.
“Brownfield grants, as well as other sources of EPA funding, have played a critical role in revitalizing unused and contaminated sites across Maine for years, often in rural areas with limited economic alternatives, turning once-lost properties into thriving centers for new economic opportunities,” King said in a written statement. “To severely cut these funds would be a shortsighted move, would hurt Maine, and would set back economic development and environmental preservation efforts.”
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, the only Republican to vote against the confirmation of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, also supports the brownfield grants. “Senator Collins believes it would be a mistake to eliminate this important program,” spokeswoman Annie Clark said via email. “In addition to improving safety and protecting the water we drink and the air we breathe, these investments spur economic investment and create new opportunities for growth and development.”
Paul Schumacher, executive director of the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission, is overseeing $1.3 million in grants to clean up the Pepperell Mill and Lincoln Mill complexes in Biddeford and the former Prime Tanning mill in downtown Berwick. In his and many other communities, he said, the EPA grants are distributed via rotating loan programs with tremendous economic returns.
“The money is paid back, it created jobs, revitalized neighborhoods and cleaned up environmentally contaminated sites, so I think it’s hard to argue with that,” he said, adding that many of these redevelopment projects wouldn’t happen without them because they are often the first pieces of capital that go into the projects, before traditional funders are comfortable.
“We’re sort of hoping that people out there at whatever level of government realize that this is not just throwing grant money out there. It leads to a lot of private investment.”
Last year, the EPA estimated that the return to communities on its brownfield cleanup investments was 17-to-1.
The cuts would also severely affect the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which receives more than 20 percent of its funding from the EPA, most of it to support federally delegated clean air and clean water programs. The proposed cuts include 30 percent reductions in state grants for air quality, water pollution control and addressing pollution that doesn’t come from a specific facility.
Didisheim said the DEP has already experienced severe cuts, with its staff shrinking from 460 in 2004 to 372 today. “The money that’s coming from EPA funds almost 100 of those staff members, so any deep cuts will devastate all manner of environmental protection in Maine,” he said. “It’s like a wrecking ball, and there’s zero evidence that these cuts are necessary for job growth.”
David Littell, who was DEP commissioner under former Gov. John Baldacci, said the cuts appeared to undercut Trump’s declared aim to shift environmental responsibilities to the states.
“If the focus of the administration is to rely on states to perform clean air and clean water functions, you would expect to see funding for these functions to increase, not decrease,” he said.
Littell noted that one of the programs slated for elimination, the diesel emissions reduction grants, is popular with Maine school districts, which use them to upgrade to cleaner, more efficient buses. “Kids in a schoolyard with a bunch of buses idling inhale the fumes, so there’s a real public health benefit,” he said.
Another program to be cut by 30 percent – the nonpoint source pollution grants – has been used by the DEP to help private landowners fix dirt roads that erode into lakes or ponds, Littell said. “It’s been a very popular inducement to provide some matching funding to help road associations and owners fix these roads,” he said.
DEP spokesman David Madore said via email that the department had not received “any formal documents or directives” from the EPA regarding the proposed cuts, and therefore he was “uncomfortable commenting further.”
Sean Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation says he’s concerned about the proposed 11 percent reduction in EPA enforcement that’s part of the budget proposal. “EPA is the agency that’s overseen Maine’s enforcement of programs like the Clean Water and Clean Air acts and to keep the state honest in its enforcement actions,” he said.
Gov. Paul LePage’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the proposed cuts, while a spokesman for the EPA’s regional office in Boston declined to comment.
Kirsten Hebert, executive director of the Maine Rural Water Association, said she fears that a 30 percent cut to EPA drinking water grants may harm her organization’s ability to advise people on how to test and treat their water for safety and compliance. Her group provides technical assistance to hundreds of summer camps, campgrounds, small businesses and schools that have wells providing drinking water to 25 or more people.
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“If this program were to be cut in such a way where we could no longer provide meaningful assistance, I would hate to see our summer camps opening for the season without knowing if their wells are safe and clean,” Hebert said. “We need to know that we are providing safe water to kids and tourists.”
Asked for a reaction to the proposed cuts, Brendan Conley, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican who represents Maine’s 2nd District, did not comment directly on them. He said via email that Poliquin knows Maine’s environment is “important, not only for our families to grow and thrive but also for Maine’s economy, especially our tourism economy.”
“There is no budget currently before Congress,” Conley wrote, “but the Congressman will thoroughly review all proposals with an eye toward efficiencies and policies which work in achieving the goal of a safe environment.”
The White House also is seeking to essentially eliminate several regional marine and aquatic cleanup programs in other parts of the country, including a 97 percent cut to the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a 93 percent cut to the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound restoration programs, a 78 percent cut to Gulf of Mexico cleanup and a 100 percent cut to the cleanup of San Francisco Bay.
The Trump administration has also proposed severe cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including an elimination of federal funding for the University of Maine’s Sea Grant program, the Wells Reserve in southern Maine, and the Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in southern New Hampshire.
All of the proposed cuts outlined by the OMB are subject to negotiation, first between the EPA and the White House, and later within Congress, which must pass the budget.
Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation fears that they may get worse, not better, during the process.
“The trajectory we’re on is that it will get worse,” he said. “I’m really concerned that EPA is going to take more than its fair share of the brunt of what (the Trump administration is) trying to do to pay for building their wall and some of their other asinine ideas.”
Colin Woodard can be contacted at: