A temporary freeze on grants and a halt on communications at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have left Northwest tribes, state agencies and nonprofits uncertain about the future of their environmental programs, which rely on hundreds of millions of federal dollars.
That freeze was in place for several days before the Trump administration lifted it Friday. But regulators at state agencies in Oregon and Washington have received little guidance on changes from EPA headquarters or the White House and are now questioning the future availability of federal money and data.
At one point Thursday, Washington Department of Ecology staff were following news reports as their primary information source on whether their grant funding — about 10 percent of their budget — would still be available. Some employees at Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality have been downloading whole databases from the EPA website for fear they might disappear, according to staff at the agency.
“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety around what’s going to happen,” said Keith Johnson, cleanup program manager at Oregon DEQ.
“A lot of the work we do is long term, long range. You don’t complete things month to month, you complete them over months and years. To have that uncertainty over funding from EPA, I think it’s affecting how people are going about their work somewhat,” Johnson said.
Since 2007, the EPA has distributed more than $1.3 billion via grants for work in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, according to an EarthFix analysis of federal spending data. That figure excludes contracts and other forms of assistance.
Over 75 percent of all grants go toward state government, primarily to environmental and health agencies. But those grants also pay for education, fish and wildlife work and improvements to local infrastructure, which was a Trump campaign promise.
Last year, Oregon’s Infrastructure Finance Authority used EPA grants to finance $22.7 million worth of new projects aimed at improving drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in small Oregon communities. Allison Pyrch, a geotechnical engineer with the firm Hart Crowser, has done seismic resiliency work on some of those projects.
“My fear is, if EPA grants are halted for any long-term period, that we don’t have that funding available to seismic resilience studies like this in other areas,” Pyrch said. “The Obama administration was very forward in their support for resilience studies. The new administration, I’m not sure where they stand on that.”
A freeze on federal grants could be particularly harmful for the Northwest’s American Indian tribes. Collectively, tribal organizations have been awarded more than $159 million in grants from the EPA since 2007, which is the region’s highest total after state governments.
That money has gone toward air quality monitoring on reservations, surveys of contaminated buildings and habitat restorations along rivers running through tribal land.
Chuck Sams, spokesman for Eastern Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, said his staff is reviewing all its EPA contracts and grants to see what’s at stake if the Trump administration does make cuts. He doesn’t know whether he should be concerned.
“So far it’s just a freeze. We’re waiting to hear from the administration,” Sams said. “We think it’s just being reviewed. We don’t know if that’s what he’s saying or not. It’s just not clear.”
What is clear to him is that the Trump administration is behind schedule compared with the transition to the Obama administration. The Trump administration does not yet have key appointees in place for tribal affairs, but has issued an executive order to expedite construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which tribes and environmentalists have been protesting over concerns it would contaminate the water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
“I expect it will be 3 to 6 months before it shakes out. That’s disconcerting, but we’ll see,” he said. “Anytime there’s a change in administration there’s concern about things changing. But we’ve fought with every administration since 1855. It’s just to what level we’ll have to fight.”
Conflicting accounts of what’s happening at the EPA, along with orders for increased secrecy at federal science agencies under President Donald Trump, have exacerbated the uncertainty. Directions to the EPA on communications have been called a gag order by some, while others consider it a temporary halt on communications not uncommon for any administration.
EPA communications have tightened at an agency that was already considered secretive under the Obama administration. The communication about Trump’s plans for the EPA in the early days of the administration have been filled with uncertainty.
On Wednesday Trump’s EPA transition spokesman Doug Ericksen, a Republican state senator from Ferndale, Washington, told NPR scientific work at the agency could undergo review from political staff. Asked by EarthFix about the internal review plans Friday and whether they violated the EPA’s scientific integrity policies, Ericksen offered no details and said it was not currently happening.
Libertarian think-tank leader Myron Ebell, who headed Trump’s transition team at the EPA, told the Associated Press on Friday he expected the administration to cut the agency’s staff of 15,000 by half, at least. Ericksen, asked about staff reductions the same day, said he was aware of no plans for staff reductions.
Ericksen said whether the EPA should be scaled back was “not a question for me to answer at this point in the transition.”
Ericksen said he was not aware of any plans to reduce EPA grants in the future, but many in the environmental community fear the grant freeze was an early signal of significant cuts to the program.
Courtney Flatt and Ken Christensen contributed to this report.