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Most US states lack sufficient resources to protect public from pollution, report says

Strapped agencies do fewer inspections, struggle to address industry expansion

by Cheryl Hogue
December 5, 2019

Photo shows Houston, Texas, petrochemical district.
Credit: Shutterstock
The boom in petrochemical plants in states including Texas means underfunded state agencies face a large number of pollution permit applications.

Even as the Trump administration tries to shift environmental protection responsibility from the federal to the state level, most US states lack the funding and personnel they need to fulfill their legal responsibilities to control industrial pollution, says a report by a watchdog group that promotes environmental enforcement.

This means states with lean environmental agencies conduct fewer inspections and face backlogs of—or engage in rubber stamping—companies’ applications to release air and water pollution compared with agencies with more robust resources, concludes the report by the Environmental Integrity Project.

“State regulators are frequently overwhelmed with permit applications for new projects while serious violations of law continue to accumulate at existing facilities with no enforcement response,” the report says. This is especially true in states such as Texas and Louisiana that are experiencing rapid expansion of the petrochemical industry while their pollution control agencies have shrunk, the report says.

Thirty states trimmed funding for their pollution control agencies and 40 states cut staff numbers from 2008 to 2018, the report finds. In many states, these reductions took place at the same time overall state spending increased, adds the report, which relied on budget data from 48 states. Information for Alaska and Hawaii wasn’t available, the Environmental Integrity Project says.

The US Environmental Protection Agency isn’t faring better than most states. The federal government slashed funding for EPA from 2008 to 2018.

The findings come as the Trump Administration is calling for more transfer of responsibility to implement federal environmental protection laws to states, calling this “cooperative federalism.”

The report concurs that the EPA and state agencies need to work together on environmental protection. But, it points out, “neither EPA nor most states have enough funding to do their share.” A notable exception, it says, is California, which boosted funding and staffing at its pollution control agency during time examined in the report.

The document recommends that states provide sufficient money to environmental agencies to hire scientists, lawyers, and other specialists needed to implement federal pollution control laws. “That should be done by increasing permitting fees for industry that most states already collect,” not by collecting more money from the average taxpayer, the report says.

In response to the report, an EPA spokesperson tells C&EN, “The EPA is fully committed to fulfilling our mission of protecting human health and the environment and working closely with our state, local, and tribal partners.”

The Environmental Council of the States, a nonpartisan association of the leaders of US state and territorial environmental agencies, had no staff available to comment on the report.



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