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Former EPA Regulator Decries Proposed Trump Cuts

An aerial view of Lake Champlain
Peter Hirschfeld
VPR file
In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new regulatory guidance to clean up Lake Champlain. Retiring EPA official Stephen Perkins says it would be "devastating" for water quality if the funding was discontinued.

A former regulator at the Environmental Protection Agency says budget cuts proposed by President Donald Trump would have a “devastating” impact on efforts to reduce the flow of pollution into Lake Champlain and other Vermont water bodies.

The Trump budget would take a broad axe to a number of key federal agencies. But it’s the Environmental Protection Agency that stands to lose the most under the president’s plan.

Stephen Perkins, who retired from his EPA post a month ago, has some unique insights into the effect of Trump’s EPA budget on the New England waterways he spent his career trying to regulate. He says the proposed spending reductions pose a potentially severe setback for the water quality movement in Vermont, which receives millions of federal dollars annually for cleanup efforts in Lake Champlain and other polluted water bodies.

On a cloudless spring morning in Medford, Mass., Perkins stood on a dam that separates Upper Mystic Lake and Lower Mystic Lake. It’s only about three miles away from downtown Boston, but the clear water and grassy banks of the Mystic Lake offer a sanctuary from the urban bustle nearby. 

The dam has been here since 1865. And until recently, it made life tough for the herring that return from the Atlantic Ocean each spring to spawn in the freshwater inland.

A fish ladder constructed a few years ago has made that journey easier. Perkins lives in nearby Lexington and belongs to the Mystic Valley Watershed Association, which is monitoring the herring population. He’s among the volunteers who come here to count the herring as they cross past the dam, and into their preferred spawning grounds.

“And so when they start to run, you’ll just see these finger like shadows dart across the white board, and we’ve got a little counter in our hand, and click, click, click, click while they go,” Perkins says. “This is how I make my connection to the watershed visceral. I’ve done so much of my work about this watershed in an office, and here I can touch it.”

That office he’s referring to is the EPA’s Region 1 Office of Ecosystem Protection, in Boston. Perkins - he’s about to turn 65 - retired his post on March 31, after a 37-year career with the agency.

"I know how to take a 5 percent cut. I don't know how to take a 30 percent cut, or a 25 percent cut." — former EPA regulator Stephen Perkins

No federal regulator has had a more intensive role than Perkins in creating the pollution reduction guidelines that now govern Lake Champlain.

“He’s the guy,” says Kilian, director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Vermont, one of the leading environmental watchdogs in Vermont.

Kilian’s organization has waged numerous legal battles over Lake Champlain cleanup during Perkins tenure.

“(Perkins) navigated through that entire time period, and all of the different pressures and activities that EPA was doing, and he led that effort,” Kilian says.

All of which gives Perkins a useful perspective on the impact of Trump’s proposed budget cuts on a Lake Champlain cleanup plan more than a decade in the making. Freed from the constraints of being federal employ, Perkins is now able to offer his unvarnished thoughts on the budget proposed by the president that he served under just a few weeks ago.

Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Stephen Perkins, seen here last month at the Mystic Dam in Medford, Mass., says Vermont's clean water efforts hinge on receipt of state and federal funding.

“So you know, this is my now private citizen view here - it would be devastating to not have access to those funds,” Perkins says.

In June of 2016, the EPA issued new regulatory guidelines that limit the amount of pollution that can legally flow into Lake Champlain. If adhered to, scientists say, it’ll begin to curb the most ecologically damaging symptoms of that pollution, such as the toxic blue-green algae blooms that have become common place during summer months.

But that’s only if it’s adhered to. And Perkins says the Trump budget cuts, if enacted, threaten efforts in Lake Champlain and other water bodies in Vermont, New England, and the rest of the country .

“I know how to take a 5 percent cut. I don’t know how to take a 30 percent cut, or a 25 percent cut,” Perkins says.

And the president’s budget calls for a 31 percent cut - that’s $2.4 billion - to the EPA alone. That doesn’t include proposed reductions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that also support water cleanup.

Perkins says he figured Trump’s budget would go after EPA. But he assumed the cuts would be less draconian.

“And instead they shot for the moon on the first go round? It’s just crazy, and I think strategically foolish,” Perkins says.

First on the chopping block is what’s known as Section 319 funding.

“The president’s budget zeroes out the 319 program. Zero. It’s not a reduction. It’s elimination,” Perkins says.

That alone would see Vermont lose $1 million a year. But Perkins says that federal money is used to deploy an additional $2 million in state money, money he thinks could also be jeopardy if there are no EPA-funded staffers to direct the program.

"It would be devastating to not have access to (EPA) funds." — Stephen Perkins

He’s also worried about the $2 million dollars a year that Vermont gets from the federal Section 106 grant, which is slated for a 30 percent reduction. Then there’s the zeroing out of the federal basin program, which would mean a loss of $4.4 million annually in money that goes directly to water quality efforts in Lake Champlain.

“So the basin program’s in peril if the president’s budget were to come to pass,” Perkins says.

Perkins, however, does not think that budget will come to pass. He says the Trump budget gores sacred cows in red states too. And he says strong bi-partisan opposition to the plan will likely mitigate, though not avert entirely, the financial losses that Vermont would suffer under Trump’s vision.

But Perkins says the financial risks aren’t only at the federal level. A report released by State Treasurer Beth Pearce earlier this year pegged the state’s share of unmet cleanup costs for Lake Champlain and other polluted waters at $1 billion over the next 20 years.

Vermont lawmakers have come up with a way to fund those efforts through July of 2019. But they’ve put off, again, a decision on longer-term funding sources.

Perkins says cleanup effort in Lake Champlain and elsewhere hinge on the Legislature coming through in 2018.

“It’s going to depend on the availability of funding, for the state to be able to help folks, and for the feds to be providing enough money to go along with those state programs,” Perkins says.

Perkins says the reason that money is so critical is that the “implementation plan” to meet the state’s pollution reduction efforts deals with private-sector entities - like farmers and developers - over which the state and federal government lack easy recourse for noncompliance.

“If the state doesn’t have the will to put up the money to make sure the practices get done, the farmers or others who are having to do this are just going to push back like crazy, right? They’re going to say, you have to give me some incentive to do this,” Perkins says.

Perkins’ career at EPA may have come to an end. He says he is not ready to give up work on water quality.

“I’m trying to find my own voice in doing this stuff,” Perkins says. “And then I haven’t figured out exactly how to aim my ire or use my expertise or find the right fusion to the two to address things in Washington.”

Perkins isn’t the only newly departed EPA regulator to have sounded off against Trump’s budget proposal. Mike Cox, a former climate change adviser for EPA’s Region 10, left the agency at almost exactly the same time as Perkins.

On Cox's final day on the job, he sent a letter to EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt, saying he and other staff “are becoming increasing alarmed about the direction of EPA under your leadership.”

“The policies this Administration is advancing are contrary to what the majority of the American people, who pay our salaries, want EPA to accomplish, which are to ensure the air their children breath is safe; the land they live, play, and hunt on to be free of toxic chemicals; and the water they drink, the lakes they swim in, and the rivers they fish in to be clean,” Cox wrote.

Perkins says he’s not sure yet what kind of role he’ll play in trying to counter any efforts to roll back clean water protections in Washington, D.C.

For now, Perkins he says he’ll adopt the think globally, act locally adage, volunteering his time and expertise for the Mystic Valley Watershed Association.

And the self-described “eternal optimist” says he thinks the future for Lake Champlain and other water bodies is brighter than it may seem at this moment, because he doesn’t think Congress, or the public will abide cuts of the magnitude Trump has proposed.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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