It’s the Infrastructure, Stupid

Posted on June 7, 2017 by Gregory Bibler

On May 23, 2017, President Trump issued his Fiscal 2018 budget proposal.  EPA’s press release, issued the same day, declared:  “EPA Budget Returns Focus to Core Statutory Mission.” https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-budget-returns-focus-core-statutory-mission  EPA made clear that “returning” to the “mission” means reducing the size of the agency.  EPA’s budget would be cut by 31 percent, compared to the Fiscal 2017 enacted budget, and its current workforce would be cut by 25 percent.  The President proposes to cut 600 more positions than indicated in his March 16 budget proposal (which was abandoned with surprisingly little fanfare when the President signed the Fiscal 2017 enacted budget on May 5). 

But there is at least one bright spot in the President’s new budget proposal.  Funding is to be preserved for programs “supporting the President’s focus on the nation’s infrastructure.”  “Infrastructure,” according to EPA, includes improvements to drinking water systems.  Toward that end, the budget includes $2.3 billion for State Revolving Funds and $20 million in additional appropriations for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program.

The President is sticking by his campaign promise to help communities like Flint, Michigan finance improvements needed to reduce lead in drinking water, particularly in homes and schools.  Providing funding for these particular programs stands in contrast to the overall tenor of the budget, and the campaign’s promise to eliminate “wasteful” EPA grants. 

Revelations in Flint triggered widespread and, as it turns out, legitimate concerns about the effectiveness of existing regulatory programs to protect against lead contamination in drinking water. http://www.goodwinlaw.com/-/media/files/publications/attorney-articles/2017/eba-winter-journal-2017flint-inspires-renewed-vigi.pdf It has been more than 30 years since Congress enacted the Safe Drinking Water Act, and more than 25 years since EPA adopted the Lead and Copper Rule (“LCR”).  After Flint, increased lead testing in schools, and greater scrutiny of data already being collected by public water systems, revealed that elevated lead levels continue to be a pervasive problem in U.S. cities and school buildings (including more than half of the 300 public school buildings tested in 2016 in Massachusetts).

In October 2016, in the waning days of the Obama administration, EPA issued a white paper that announced that the LCR and its implementation are in urgent need of overhaul.  The LCR is a protocol for testing and treatment, not a set of numerical standards.  EPA stated that more prescriptive requirements that are more effective and readily enforceable need to be adopted.  Notwithstanding the Trump administration’s current war on environmental regulation, EPA has stated that it intends to formulate more stringent and clear requirements.  Meanwhile, in December 2016, Congress actually succeeded in amending the Safe Drinking Water Act to replace the moribund school drinking water provision, which was declared unconstitutional in 1996, with a new provision that, among other things, established a voluntary school lead testing grant program.

It is apparent that, on the issue of safe drinking water at least, the Trump administration has accurately measured the political mood.  Despite draconian cuts proposed to almost all of EPA’s budget and staffing, the administration has recognized that improving the regulation, testing and treatment of drinking water in schools and public water systems is politically expedient, and may do more good than harm.  It is good policy and good politics.