State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The State and Local Role in Protecting America’s Environment

Due to its power, media attention, and symbolic importance, we pay a great deal of attention to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA plays an important and unique role in keeping our environment clean, although most of the heavy lifting in American environmental protection is done by state and local governments. EPA sets policy, subsidizes state and local programs, oversees states, and conducts scientific research, but state and local governments do the day-to-day work of environmental protection. A quick look at a few numbers may provide perspective. The U.S. EPA has a staff of about 15,000 people and an annual budget of $8 billion. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has a staff of 3,000 and a budget of $1.4 billion. New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection spends about $1.5 billion a year and has a staff of 6,000. And there are 49 other states and thousands of local governments in America.

When writing about this issue last year, I reported on the results of a study published by the Environmental Council of the States and observed that:

“According to their report, state environmental agency funding rose from $12.2 billion in 2013 to $14.9 billion in 2015. But most of that increase was in California where the budget grew from $2.9 billion to $4.9 billion. With California excluded, state funding only went up from $9.3 billion in 2013 to $10.0 billion in 2015. Federal support for states other than California during this part of the Obama administration dropped by 3 percent from $2,557,856,937 in 2013 to $2,493,785,970 in 2015. Remember that the Obama Administration was not immune to the right-wing attack on environmental regulation that has dominated the budget making process for years. EPA lost 1,600 staff during the Obama years.”  

State funding was greater than federal funding and did not always include all the costs of environmental protection, many of which are funded locally and by state agencies not called “environmental.” One of the most expensive state and local services is water supply, followed by sewage treatment. These are organized differently by different states, cities and counties, and so comparisons across states and localities are not always straightforward. For example, New York City’s Water Board controls an annual budget of about $3.8 billion, and about $1.4 of the city’s annual $1.5 billion environmental protection budget comes from the water authority. Almost $1.8 billion of the $3.8 billion Water Board budget is debt service that pays the costs of the bonds used to build the city’s extensive water infrastructure system. The revenues for the system come from water bills paid by property owners in New York City.

Functions such as water supply, sewage treatment, and garbage disposal are non-optional, critical environmental services typically performed by America’s local governments. People expect these services to be performed, but also recognize that rules and regulations are required to ensure that people don’t dump their garbage in the streets or release toxics into our water supply. Environmental protection is not simply regulations that tell businesses what they need to do to avoid damage to the planet, but rules to ensure that effective environmental services can be provided to residents and businesses everywhere. Businesses in many cities are required to pay for garbage removal by highly regulated waste haulers. Rules on property upkeep, sidewalk cleanliness and disposal of hazardous materials are set and enforced by local governments.

It is unfortunate that ideologues have painted environmental regulation as the enemy of the free market, or capitalism as the enemy of the environmental protection. We like the wealth and lifestyle made possible through free enterprise, but we also like to breathe. Why should these two goals be seen as incompatible? We have already demonstrated they are complementary. The economies of America, Western Europe and Japan have grown over the past half century as we have applied technology to make our air and water cleaner. Environmental protection is not cheap, but the benefits are far greater than the costs. We can and should do more, and we can do it without harming the economy.

The U.S. EPA is shrinking at the very time we need it to increase its capacity to understand and govern the nation’s environment. But despite that distressing fact, the fundamental environmental functions performed by state, county and city governments will continue to grow. They are growing because our population is growing along with our knowledge of the health effects of pollution–and because we expect government to protect us from knowable dangers. We may not always know what’s in our food or water, but when we see people getting sick, or when we find out that a slow acting toxic like lead is in our water, we demand government act to protect us. Governors, mayors, and county executives get this, and until recently, so did presidents.

Despite the centrality of government’s environmental functions, the federal EPA is routinely and reflexively attacked by the Republican right wing. We saw this in recent Republican primary battles. As Louis Jacobson reported in Politifact this past April:

“The Environmental Protection Agency is not very popular among West Virginia Republicans, who see the agency as threatening the state’s mining jobs through overregulation — at least until President Donald Trump took office. So, during an April 23 debate between Republican primary candidates for a U.S. Senate seat, it was not surprising to hear the agency criticized. One of the candidates, U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, boasted about his efforts to rein in the agency. “I’ve cut a half a billion (dollars) out of the EPA just in the last two years. We’ve cut 3,000 jobs out of the EPA,” he said. (It’s around 29:30 in the video.)”

It turned out that Jenkins was right about the money, but overstated the staff cuts. But the odd part is the assumption that cutting an environmental agency is an accomplishment worth bragging about. In the end it didn’t help him much since Jenkins lost his senate primary to West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, with 29 percent of the vote to Morrisey’s 35 percent.

Environmental politics at the national level was once governed by cooperation and consensus. In 1972, support for cleaning up America’s water was so strong that Congress enacted the Federal Water Pollution Control Act over the veto of then-President Richard Nixon. The Superfund toxic waste clean-up law was passed in December of 1980 following a deal between southern conservative Senator Jesse Helms and northeastern liberal Congressman Jim Florio. In the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government played the lead role in developing the institutions we needed to protect our environment. While a functioning federal legislative branch seems an artifact of the twentieth century, support for a clean environment remains strong today.

While some state governments such as California’s and New York’s have the size and technical competence to provide environmental governance, many others do not. The lead contamination of Flint, Michigan’s water systems should have been prevented by EPA’s Region V office or Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. The cost of providing clean water today is much higher than it would have been if the lead contamination had never happened. Many states struggle to ensure adequate water, sewage and solid waste services. Still, recognizing its small resource base, for decades the federal EPA has actively delegated its regulatory authority to states. This is not new. No one wants to pay the costs of a clean environment. But nature is unforgiving. You either pay to prevent the poison from being released into our ecosystems or pay the much higher price of cleaning it up later.

America is a more crowded place than it once was. We have more people, cars, consumption, and waste. Our waste stream is more toxic and less biodegradable than it was in 1950. Without rules and adequate infrastructure, our communities will become less healthy places to live. State and local governments have no choice but keep our waste out of the ocean and poison out of our water supply. The political pressure to assure a clean environment ramps up every time an environmental health danger is identified and understood. An efficient, equitable and cost-effective way to deliver environmental protection requires a technically competent and well-led federal presence, working alongside active and well-trained state and local partners. We are heading in the opposite direction now. To the extent it can, the vacuum created by a feeble EPA will be filled by states, communities, and corporations.

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5 years ago

The problem with federal regulation it tends to be one size fits all. However if you look a the difference between Edwards Co Tx or De Baca Co NM ( indeed most of NV outside Clark and Washoe counties) and New York County Ny, (Manhattan) you find a vast difference between the degree of regulation needed. The population density of the first two counties is actually less than the 19th century definition of frontier. My solution would be to shut down the EPA take that money as bribes (block grants) to the states to do environmental work. (Since the feds can only make the states do things with bribes). The block grants could include goals. as part of the goal.