Mar. 9, 2017
On June 3, 2016, a Union Pacific train carrying thousands of gallons of Bakken crude oil derailed in the town of Mosier, Oregon. The derailment sparked a fire, which burned about a quarter acre of land, and sent some 42,000 of crude oil spilling into the soil, wastewater system, and — in small amounts — Columbia River.
And that’s where Richard Franklin — on-scene coordinator for the EPA’s Region 10 office, which includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho — came in. Franklin arrived in Mosier shortly after the first responders and helped coordinate on-scene response to the spill, using his years of experience and expertise working in on-scene disaster management to put into motion a local response plan that had been crafted by the regional office some years prior.
“It would have been much more confusing to not have that guidance, and the frankly, the experience of that person in knowing how to move the response quickly and responsibly,” Jim Appleton, Mosier fire chief, told ThinkProgress. “I cannot imagine going through that type of an incident, anywhere, without having a competent on-scene coordinator from EPA.”
But the regional expertise that helped Mosier respond to the derailment and spill could be in trouble, facing shrinking budgets and an administration that appears hostile to their continued existence. Earlier this week, InsideEPA detailed how the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had asked the EPA to devise a plan for eliminating two of the agency’s 10 regional offices. According to the report, OMB is asking the EPA to submit a comprehensive plan by June 16 — about three months after Trump’s budget is expected to be made public — for eliminating two regional offices.
reports of Trump’s proposed budget suggest he could be interested in cutting the already under-funded EPA by nearly a quarter — cuts that would require scaling-down, if not eliminating completely, some regional offices.
And those cuts, former EPA officials told ThinkProgress, would come with costs of their own — potentially crippling state and local government’s ability to quickly and effectively respond to environmental disasters, from oil train derailments like Mosier to massive oil spills like Deepwater Horizon.
The Trump administration has also proposed an 11 percent budget cut to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which oversees the federal response to emergencies such as hurricanes and tornadoes. With cuts to FEMA funding, the ability for regional EPA offices to respond to environmental emergencies becomes all the more pressing.
Responding to local emergencies is an important function of the EPA’s regional offices, but it’s not their only function. The offices also serve as hubs for local and regional environmental enforcement — overseeing Superfund cleanup projects, approving local air quality plans, and dispersing the money that goes to state, local, and tribal governments from the federal EPA. Regional EPA offices also employ experts in federal environmental law, making sure that local governments are complying with keystone environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
“Having folks with the technical expertise and skills to oversee those at the local level, close to where the issues are, is critically important,” McLerran said. “The farther those are away, the more problematic it is.”
And beyond cutting local environmental services, cutting back regional offices could take a financial toll as well — it would likely require the government to walk away from leases on facilities and laboratories in the regions that are eliminated. And, according to Blumenfeld, similar attempts to save costs by centralizing certain functions of the EPA’s regional offices have already proven costly, pointing to an attempt to put all the human resource work for EPA’s regional offices in four hubs around the country.
“It was an absolute disaster that ended up costing more money because the response times were extended,” Blumenfeld said.
Longer wait times for human resource staffing might be a costly inconvenience, but longer wait times for responses to environmental disasters — from the Mosier oil train derailment to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — could threaten the health of people who live in these communities.