President Donald Trump’s first few weeks have left Washington disoriented and environmentalists worried.

The president’s pick to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is a close ally of the fossil-fuel industry who says that scientific climate-change evidence is “far from settled” and that the agency’s staff and budget should be shrunk.

In Congress, things are just as unsettled. One recently introduced bill seeks to terminate the EPA. Lawmakers have begun dissolving new rules on methane emissions and stream protections from coal debris. And after months of intense protest and delays, the Dakota Access pipeline is moving forward.

“There’s a lot of emotion. Things are scary right now for folks who aren’t supportive of these policies,” said Michelle Pautz, an associate professor of public administration at the University of Dayton.

But despite Washington promises of sweeping change, Ohio’s environmental policies probably will remain intact, officials say.

“Our day-to-day operations have not changed,” said Heidi Griesmer, spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA. “I don’t want to guess on what the (Trump) administration might do. At this point, we have not received any information to indicate what would be changing.”

Pautz said that by design, bureaucracy’s sluggishness will dampen the speed of any radical changes.

“How much of this is appropriate levels of worry and concern? We don’t know,” Pautz said. “Whatever comes, there’s going to be a lag effect. Nothing about our government is quick; that’s how the country was intended to operate.”

Federal-state agency relationship

The U.S. EPA was created 46 years ago under President Richard Nixon and now operates with an annual budget of more than $8 billion. It is supposed to enforce laws that protect endangered species, guide hazardous-waste disposal and ensure clean air and water.

The agency also oversees state-level counterparts that carry out the work of issuing permits and monitoring drinking water, among other duties.

Grants from the federal agency cover about one-fifth of the Ohio EPA’s budget, Griesmer said. In 2016, the state agency received nearly $37 million from the federal EPA, which also provided the Ohio Water Development Authority with $97 million in grant funds.

In recent years, the Ohio EPA also has received about $1.5 million in federal funding from other sources, including the Defense, Energy and Homeland Security departments.

“From Columbus to Cleveland to Marietta to everywhere, we have a lot of money from the federal government that funds clean drinking water,” said Trent Dougherty, legal director for the advocacy group Ohio Environmental Council.

Annual grants are awarded each October, Griesmer said, so the agency currently is using funds provided under the Obama administration. The next renewal period is in the fall.

The U.S. EPA also provides a small slice of the federal funding used to support research at Ohio universities. Last year, the federal agency awarded $1.2 million to Ohio State University and about $500,000 to the University of Cincinnati. Ohio University and Case Western University received a little less than $100,000 each from the EPA.

Dougherty said research projects, stream monitoring and hazardous-waste disposal programs are not going to disappear overnight. But if the U.S. EPA’s funding stream dries up, state and local agencies will be left to fill financial gaps.

“It is going to be harder and harder to fund these issues,” he said. “That’s a question that’s wide open.”

Tension could arise if and when budgets and personnel are cut faster than regulations are rolled back. Rollbacks often run into lengthy legal battles.

“All of that work still has to get done; it just has to get done with less resources and less people,” Pautz said. “The administrative burden could potentially go up.”

Beyond the funding, the relationship between the state and federal authorities has been tense in recent years. In fact, Ohio has sued the U.S. EPA over regulations it said overreached.

‘Not all doom and gloom’

Even if federal minimum standards are ratcheted down, states can decide to maintain current protections.

“The state of Ohio is free to put Ohio first,” Dougherty said. “We have the ability to go above whatever Washington does; it’s not all doom and gloom.”

Randy Edwards, a spokesman for the advocacy group Nature Conservancy, said he’s confident that people rally around the environment, even in times of historic political division.

“It is still unclear as to what happens next,” he said. “We’re all in a wait-and-see mode. It’s very early on.”

Uncertainty could actually galvanize grass-roots activism, said Pautz, pointing to the 1980s, when major environmental groups enjoyed a spike in membership and donations during the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

The Sierra Club has reported attracting 30,000 new monthly donors since Trump’s election and a 700 percent increase in fundraising. Local environmental groups say they’re also seeing a jump in volunteers and members.

Ultimately, Pautz said, U.S. EPA regulations and funding probably will be de-emphasized and streamlined to accommodate industries. But they won’t be eliminated.

“All of that is on the table,” she said. “Let’s not forget the Cuyahoga River used to literally catch on fire. I think you would be hard-pressed to find someone completely bent on dismembering environmental regulation.”

Source: Columbus Dispatch

By Marion Renault
The Columbus Dispatch

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