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After Norfolk derailment, Biden wants more funding for the EPA

Ali Budner Mar 16, 2023
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Ohio EPA Emergency Response looks for signs of fish and also agitates the water in Leslie Run creek following a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Michael Swensen/Getty Images

After Norfolk derailment, Biden wants more funding for the EPA

Ali Budner Mar 16, 2023
Heard on:
Ohio EPA Emergency Response looks for signs of fish and also agitates the water in Leslie Run creek following a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Michael Swensen/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Tucked into President Biden’s 2024 budget is a big boost for the Environmental Protection Agency. The White House is proposing $12 billion to fund the agency — nearly 20% more than the EPA’s budget this year.

The agency hasn’t seen a significant increase in funding for more than a decade. But the recent derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, has some people demanding more from the EPA.

When many environmental disasters happen, the EPA is the agency that local residents and officials turn to.

“We really depend on EPA’s expertise for all kinds of things,” said Eric Schaeffer, who directs the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. “Including responding to toxic accidents like the one in Ohio. And you need people to do that.”

Schaeffer also led the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement in the late ’90s and early 2000s. He says the EPA’s budget has been pounded over the last decade.

“[The] EPA’s lost more than two thousand of its staff,” Schaeffer said. “That means fewer scientists, fewer engineers, fewer toxicologists.”

That translates to fewer personnel to respond during a crisis like the one in East Palestine. It also means the agency is behind on a long list of environmental impact assessments and other day-to-day regulatory tasks.

“There is such a backlog that very little of this is ‘oh additional money we can do all these amazing additional things,’” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School.

Wagner says the new funds could be used to pay for what the EPA should already be doing “and simply can’t because of lack of staff and lack of resources.”

President Joe Biden has said the agency needs more funds in part to help implement recent legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which pushes federal money to the local level.

“And in order to spend the money we need the regulatory capacity to do so,” Wagner said. “EPA is the lead agency for these environmental reviews and it takes money and staff to speed up that process.”

The White House budget is aspirational and it’s unlikely Congress will fulfill it. But, many environmental economists are hoping at least some of the money comes through.

“Enforcing rules is expensive,” said Max Auffhammer, a professor of international sustainable development at the University of California at Berkeley. He said EPA regulators are kind of like parents.

“As any parent knows, if you don’t pay attention, things tend to go awry,” Auffhammer said. “And a hungry parent is worse at enforcing rules.”

In the wake of ongoing environmental disasters like East Palestine, former EPA official Eric Schaeffer said he believes there may now be greater bipartisan appetite to fund the agency’s work.

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