EPA Funds-Freeze Spotlights Alabama’s Precarious Environmental Budget

However temporary it was, the Trump administration’s freeze on federal grant awards at the Environmental Protection Agency alarmed Alabama environmentalists still reeling  from a recent gasoline pipeline leak and fatal explosion in Shelby County.

The Alabama Rivers Alliance’s program director Mitch Reid said, “Federal money isn’t extra money for us, it’s absolutely fundamental to the maintenance of clean water in Alabama. Any way you look at it, this throws a wrench in the steady state operation of water protection in Alabama.”

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) relies on a suite of grants and contracts from the EPA to carry out its programs in water and air quality, solid and hazardous waste management, and others.

The federal government’s contribution to ADEM is about $60 million, or nearly 40 percent of the department’s $154 million budget, for 2016.

The Alabama legislature budgeted $280,000 from the general fund in 2016, down from $830,000 in 2015, according to Gov. Robert Bentley’s 2017 Executive Budget. The state appropriation  amounts to less than 1 percent of total funds received by ADEM for 2016. Moreover, the General Fund appropriation is earmarked to administer one program, the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) program.

ADEM Budget

Most of the rest of ADEM funding is from permits, fees, and fines earmarked for inspections and other programs. In 2016, in addition to funding ADEM operations, the agency was required to send $1.2 million from fees and permits to the General Fund, the department’s director, Lance LeFleur, said last year in a report to oversight group, the Alabama Environmental Management Commission.

EPA, ADEM Comments  

The EPA’s regional office in Atlanta confirmed Thursday  via email that its staff and the Administration’s transition team are reviewing grants and contracts and the agency is “continuing to award” funding during the review.

EPA Region 4 external affairs officer James Pinckney added, “The goal is to complete the (review) by the close of business on Friday, Jan. 27.”

Lynn Battle, ADEM director for external affairs, said, “Everything is going to be back to normal.”

Nevertheless, Reid said his advocacy group, in response to the potential funding loss, has initiated a program on its website “asking people to contact President Trump and remind him and other elected leaders that clean water is not something we can afford to put off for a couple of months while they get organized.”

Beth Stewart, executive director of the Cahaba River Society, said, “When the Colonial Pipeline incidents happened, EPA was a lead federal responder. EPA contracts with firms to help ensure that these kinds of accidents and leaks don’t become environmental disasters.”  Stewart’s group is a member of the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

Local communities now spill  responders

Last year a lack of resources led ADEM to call on local communities to become the primary responders to oil and hazardous materials emergencies. “The department is continuing to divert costs of its inadequately funded emergency response program to other agencies,” ADE LeFleur reported to the oversight group.

The director said that, to divert costs from ADEM, local governments would be the primary responder to oil and hazardous waste spills under changes he was recommending to the state’s Master Emergency Operations plan.

“When local communities exhaust their emergency response resources they would then contact the State Emergency Management Agency or ADEM for possible additional resources,” LeFleur said, according to his report posted on the ADEM website.

In the nation’s capital, some staffers whose departments are under the freeze order told the New York Times that they remained worried about President Trump’s policies but blamed the transition team’s late start for this week’s reviews and freezes on grant programs.