As Hurricane Irma closes in on Florida, Texas is still reeling from the effects of Harvey. But it's now clear that the devastation from the storm has gone way beyond flooded homes and wind-damaged buildings: In Houston, flood waters have damaged at least 13 Superfund sites, all heavily polluted areas contaminated with hazardous waste. A hurricane-related leak at a Valero refinery shot a "potentially hazardous plume of a carcinogenic substance" into a neighborhood, while other storm damage caused more than 1,000 tons of hazardous chemicals to flutter through the air.
Traditionally, the EPA has played a key role in helping to clean up those kind of effects from a big storm. But President Trump's proposed budget, which Congress will soon vote on, would cut the agency's funding by 31 percent — a move that experts say would be "disastrous" for residents in storm-prone areas like Florida.
"It's a shocking abdication of responsibility when we look at the amount of need that is out there in connection with the storms and recovery," Elgie Holstein, senior director of the Environmental Defense Action Fund, told reporters in a call Wednesday. "Right when we need the EPA the most, the president would propose taking the EPA workforce back to a level we have not seen since the mid-1980s."
When a storm like Irma hits, EPA workers are dispatched to the area to monitor air quality, ensure water safety, evaluate sewage spills, and secure contaminated sites. Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator for New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, remembers dealing with a crisis at a New Jersey sewage treatment plant that lost power during Hurricane Sandy.
"We had billions of gallons of raw sewage entering Newark Bay," she told reporters during the Wednesday afternoon media call. "For Hurricane Sandy, the EPA is still working on rebuilding, and I'm extremely concerned about what's unfolding today in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands."
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Among the proposed cuts to the EPA are a 35 percent reduction to programs helping state and local officials prevent and respond to chemical releases at industrial facilities; a 40 percent reduction in funds for programs that inform communities when pollutants are released into the air and water (such as the risk-assessment team at the Crosby chemical plant); and a complete elimination of the Office of Environmental Justice, which works with low-income and minority communities that often bear the brunt of natural disasters.
Those cuts come after the EPA has already had prior budget cuts and buyouts that have left the staff at its lowest level in decades, which former officials say does not bode well for Irma relief efforts.
"The thing that is scary to me right now is because of the massive budget cuts, the EPA is not going to have the funding or the personnel to do this effectively," said Heather McTeer Toney, a former EPA regional administrator for the southeast region, which includes Florida.
The House of Representatives could vote on the agency's budget as early as Thursday, though it's unclear if Trump's proposal will have the support it needs to pass. As of this week, EPA workers remain in the Houston area monitoring emissions and other pollution.