How Trump's Proposed Cuts to EPA Disempower States

by Karen Sokol

April 11, 2017

Last month, President Trump released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, which calls for sharp cuts to many agencies in order to fund increases in defense and military spending. Hardest hit is the Environmental Protection Agency. Already underfunded, EPA will simply not be able to carry out its statutory mandates to keep our environment clean and healthy if subjected to Trump's proposed cut of 31 percent. Rather, the Trump administration asserts that the agency would "primarily support States and Tribes in their important role protecting air, land, and water in the 21st Century." It's hard to imagine how EPA could do that, however, as the budget also slashes federal funding of state environmental programs by almost half

The state grant program exists because of the recognition that states do have an essential role in the protection of our nation's environment but that they simply cannot serve that role without significant federal funding given the immensity and multi-faceted nature of environmental problems. State environmental agencies existed before EPA's creation and before Congress charged it with protecting the environment in various ways. Recognizing that environmental harms were not confined to the borders of any one state, and yet that the sources of those harms necessarily resided within a state (or several states), federal environmental statutes all establish a system of collaborating with states so they can continue to serve their traditional role in protecting public health and safety from environmental dangers.  

The system of environmental protection that has developed since Congress enacted these statutes is an example of the principle of federalism at work – and a highly successful example at that. That is, the federal government works closely with and in support of states in the collective quest to keep our air and water safe, to clean up toxic waste, and to respond to the catastrophic risks of climate change. 

Notwithstanding its nod to state authority, Trump's budget proposal, then, guts state environmental agencies when it guts EPA. The proposal does not in fact recognize states' "important role" in environmental protection. Rather, it requires that states perform the impossible: shouldering the nation's environmental problems essentially alone, with virtually no federal support in the form not only of funding, but also vital expertise (in, for example, disaster response) and equipment (for example, air pollution monitoring).  

In short, President Trump's budget "blueprint" disempowers states and sets them up for failure, thereby depriving all Americans of the most basic health, safety, and environmental protections.

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Karen Sokol is an Associate Professor of Law at Loyola University, New Orleans. Her teaching and research interests include environmental law, torts, products liability, and law and philosophy.

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