Critics say both the environment and the economy would be hard hit by losses in funding for Superfund sites and water quality monitoring.
By Colin Woodard, staff writer
The deeper cuts proposed by the Trump administration would slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup activities and eliminate its support for monitoring and cleanup efforts in Casco Bay and for beach water testing across Maine.
When taken in conjunction with previously reported proposals to eliminate federal funding for the University of Maine’s Sea Grant program and the Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, critics say the president’s budget proposals are a serious threat to Maine’s coastal economy, which is dependent on maintaining a clean environment.
Environmental advocates and Maine’s entire congressional delegation are expressing grave concern about the cuts.
“Our coastal and island communities rely overwhelmingly on the marine environment both for natural resource harvesting and tourism, and they have worked for a really long time to ensure that their water quality is improving, that they have safe places to swim and that the marine environment is healthy for the marine species fishermen rely on,” says Rob Snyder, president of the Island Institute, a Rockland-based nonprofit that works to maintain vibrant coastal communities. “These proposals undermine those efforts and threaten their future economic vitality.”
Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, says Trump’s rationale – that environmental regulation threatens jobs – is wrongheaded. “Almost every aspect of what we are seeing in this EPA cut is bad for Maine,” he says. “What jumps off the page is that this is such 1950s thinking: ‘Let’s get rid of all these environmental programs so we can make jobs.’ But in the state of Maine, so many jobs rely on a clean environment.”
Earlier in the budget process, the White House proposed to cut EPA’s budget by 25 percent, including slashing nearly a third of state grant funds for cleaning up abandoned industrial sites, mitigating radon in homes, and protecting air and water quality. But a detailed, 64-page March 21 EPA memo obtained by The Washington Post revealed even deeper cuts: a 31 percent budget cut, layoffs of a quarter of the agency’s staff and the elimination of additional programs.
The EPA did not respond directly to the Maine Sunday Telegram’s questions about the program cuts, instead replying with same general statement it has been using for more than a week: “EPA is evaluating different approaches to implementing the president’s budget that would allow us to effectively serve taxpayers and protect the environment.”
CASCO BAY CLEANUP AT RISK
The confidential memo from the agency’s chief financial officer, David Bloom, revealed the administration is seeking to eliminate the $20.5 million National Estuary Program, which provides about three-quarters of the budget of the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, which funds research and fosters collaboration and data sharing among 50 organizations and municipalities seeking to maintain the health of the bay. The program, the memo said, was a “lower priority” activity to be eliminated so the agency could focus on “its highest national priorities.”
The Casco Bay Partnership – one of 28 similar organizations nationwide funded through the estuary program – funds environmental and ocean acidification monitoring sites in the bay, training for citizen scientists who help monitor and evaluate the health of the bay, and partnerships and data sharing among scientific researchers, environmental groups, sewer district boards, landowners and town governments. It has helped restore alewife and smelt runs, track and evaluate pollution sources, and gotten people from different sectors to sit down together.
“They really get us all together so that our efforts are coordinated and we’re sharing information,” says Ivy Frignoca, the Casco baykeeper at the Friends of Casco Bay. “This impacts not just the health of the bay but human health.”
The partnership’s director, Curtis Bohlen, says that if the cuts go through it would be hard to maintain its staff of four or keep the doors open. “There’s no clear path because most of the other places we would likely go for money are also being cut,” says Bohlen, whose organization has a budget of about $700,000. “You’d be cutting the capacity statewide to do this kind of work, and our state is very dependent on the coastal environment.”
BEACH MONITORING ZEROED OUT
Another program Trump seeks to eliminate – beach protection grants – provides all of the funding for the beach water quality testing in Maine and for the governmental organization that conducts the tests, the Maine Healthy Beaches Program.
The program, created in 2002, built and maintains a monitoring system for 60 public beaches from Kittery to Bar Harbor, issues advisories when disease-causing microorganisms become a health risk, and helps track pollution sources so they can be addressed. A collaboration among the state Department of Environmental Protection and the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, it is entirely funded by an annual $242,000 EPA grant.
Esperanza Stancioff, a professor with the UMaine cooperative extension and an adviser to the program, says the system would be unlikely to survive if the cuts go ahead. “There is no way the state of Maine could ever run this program, and I don’t know how these beach areas would afford the monitoring,” she says. “We have three labs set up that process samples and give reports. They don’t have any.”
That will have health implications, says Dora Anne Mills, former director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Without this ongoing testing, people don’t know when the beaches are unsafe, so they just assume they are from a sanitation standpoint,” says Mills, now a vice president at the University of New England. “When it gets very warm and the beaches get very crowded, they become much more susceptible to bacterial contamination.”
The EPA memo described the $9.5 million beach protection grants as a “mature program” that would be eliminated to transfer funding responsibilities back to state and local governments.
HAZARDOUS CLEANUP FUNDS SLASHED
In early March, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt stated his support for the agency’s premier contaminated site cleanup programs: Superfund, which manages cleanup of the most serious toxic sites, and the Brownfields program, which provides grants to towns and cities to remediate old industrial sites so they can be redeveloped. The Brownfields program has helped many Maine communities clean and redevelop old mill sites, including the Pepperell and Lincoln Mill complexes in Biddeford, the Prime Tanning mill in Berwick, and the former Old Town Canoe site in Old Town, while Superfund is helping remediate 16 Superfund sites in Maine, including the former Callahan Mine in Brooksville, the Loring Air Force Base in Limestone and Brunswick Naval Air Station.
But the March 21 memo shows severe cuts are still on the table for both programs, with the Brownfields’ grant program cut from $47.7 million to $33.3 million. Superfund’s enforcement budget would go from $31.8 million to $1.9 million under the proposal, while its remediation budget is reduced from $372 million to $219 million.
These cuts would undermine the Maine’s ability to clean up and reuse hazardous waste sites, says Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, who joined 12 other state attorneys general in a March 30 letter to the Senate and House appropriations committees opposing the EPA cuts, which are the most severe of any agency.
“When we know who the polluters are and they are available, we can bring them to the table and negotiate payment of cleanup costs of these sites,” Mills says. “It’s the cases where they disappear, file bankruptcy and have gone belly-up where we expect the federal Superfund and Brownfields to help.”
The proposed Superfund cuts will slow down cleanup efforts at places like the Callahan Mine site on a Penobscot Bay estuary. “That’s a festering, contaminated, submerged mine and studies have sown contaminated fish and sediments that need attention,” says Didisheim. “Superfund is a notoriously slow program because these cleanups are complex, but if you cut funding, you’re just going to slow it down further, and that’s not in the interests of anybody.”
Sean Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation said that would not only be bad for public health and natural resources, but that it also doesn’t make sense economically. “Superfund has been successful not just in cleaning up sites but in spurring redevelopment in communities that had an industrial presence,” he says. “You can always make government programs more efficient, but you don’t do that by just cutting its budget. That’s not governing; that’s just political ideology.”
CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION CONCERNED
Maine’s congressional delegation has repeatedly expressed unanimous concern with many aspects of the proposed EPA cuts, and reiterated those concerns in written statements Friday to the Maine Sunday Telegram.
In a joint statement, representatives of Republican Sen. Susan Collins and independent Sen. Angus King said the senators had seen the benefits and “understand the vital role that EPA programs and funding play in supporting a clean and safe environment and in encouraging economic development of once hazardous sites.” They would “continue to advocate for the continuation of these programs during the appropriations process in the Senate.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said the cuts to the beaches, estuary and Superfund grants “are shortsighted and especially harmful for Maine.
“All these programs are on the front lines of EPA’s mission to protect human and environmental health,” Pingree wrote. “I think there’s wide support for these kinds of initiatives and I will certainly be fighting for them on the Appropriations Committee.”
Brendan Conley, spokesman for Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who represents Maine’s 2nd District, said “the Congressman opposes extreme cuts to Superfund and the Maine Healthy Beaches program and the full elimination of the National Estuary Program.
“The Congressman 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,” Conley added. He “will thoroughly review all proposals with an eye toward efficiencies and policies which work in achieving the goal of a safe environment.”
The Maine DEP declined to comment for this story, and Gov. Paul LePage’s office has said it won’t comment on proposed budget cuts before receiving formal notice of them from Washington.