Update: An aide to Rep. Scott Tipton says the freeze won’t affect clean-up of the Gold King Mine spill. Also, the EPA reportedly has been ordered to remove the climate change page from its website.
The Trump administration’s reported freeze on the Environmental Protection Agency’s external spending could have widespread effects in Colorado, where government, universities, large corporations and small businesses collectively rely on tens of millions of dollars from the federal agency.
As the story unfolds, organizations large and small are scrambling to determine what it could mean for them. The potential impacts are limited not just to obvious environmental programs, such as the cleanup of the Gold King Mine spill, but also to the small local nonprofits and businesses that serve the EPA’s offices here in Denver.
The suspension may threaten the state’s ability to carry out its environmental work, according to Governor John Hickenlooper. In all, the federal government reports the EPA has awarded nearly $200 million in grants and contracts since October 2014, which marked the beginning of the 2015 fiscal year, where the primary work is done in Colorado.
What we know so far:
As ProPublica reported on Monday, the new leadership of the EPA has ordered a temporary suspension of the agency’s grants and contracts. What’s unclear is whether the new freeze merely stops the agency from taking on new spending or whether it will disrupt existing grants and contracts.
Donald Trump’s nominee to head the agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has not been confirmed yet. He’s perceived as a close ally of oil and gas interests, and he has repeatedly sued the EPA in his attorney general role.
The Associated Press has reported that the freeze affects “new” grants and contracts, but ProPublica reports that ongoing work is “temporarily suspended.” We may not know for a while, as the administration has banned EPA employees from talking to reporters, according to AP.
The Associated Press was eventually able to get a little information out of Doug Ericksen, the communications director for Trump’s transition team at EPA.
“We’re just trying to get a handle on everything and make sure what goes out reflects the priorities of the new administration,” he told the AP.
Ericksen clarified that the freeze on EPA contracts and grants won’t apply to pollution cleanup efforts or infrastructure construction activities.
Who it impacts:
In either case, we’re working to assess the role and impact of this funding in Colorado. Recent EPA grants here include the $2.2 million that Colorado State University received in 2014 to support a water-cleaning science project and $260,000 that Sen. Cory Gardner announced would aid in the cleanup of the Gold King Mine spill.
Federal contracts and grants can be viewed at usaspending.gov. In the previous fiscal year, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment received $17.6 million in grants from the EPA, while the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority received $25 million. The authority provides low-cost financing for water and wastewater infrastructure projects. The city of Durango recently received loans of $62.2 million to rehabilitate a wastewater treatment plant through an EPA-funded state program. It’s possible work like this would fall under the exemption for environmental clean-up and infrastructure construction.
The EPA’s contracts, meanwhile, include a huge range of work that the EPA pays external companies to do. Take Bayaud Enterprises, the Denver nonprofit that provides employment and support for people with disabilities and other barriers to employment. Bayaud also runs the city’s employment program for homeless people.
Bayaud did more than $500,000 of contract work for the EPA last fiscal year, placing disabled people in mailroom jobs and other positions at the agency’s downtown Denver headquarters. That work has not been interrupted, but the nonprofit remains unsure of what happens next.
Nationally, the EPA has more than $6.4 billion in contracts in place with some 600 companies. The services handled by contractors range from hazardous waste handling and water quality testing to software and engineering services. Aerospace company Lockheed Martin, with a major presence in Colorado, has done $373 million worth of work for the EPA since fiscal year 2008. The engineering firm CH2M Hill did more than $11 million worth of work for the EPA just in fiscal year 2016, including $117,000 worth in Colorado.
An internal email obtained by ProPublica shows that even the EPA’s own employees don’t know what’s happening. However, the suspension of work seems to be widespread.
“Right now we are in a holding pattern. The new EPA administration has asked that all contract and grant awards be temporarily suspended, effective immediately. Until we receive further clarification, this includes task orders and work assignments,” one officer wrote, according to ProPublica.
Why it matters:
Jessica Goad, a spokeswoman for Conservation Colorado, said the order appears to go much further than what’s happened with previous changes of administration. It also reinforces fears that basic science research will become politicized. Before taking office, officials with Trump’s transition team sought the names of government employees who had worked on climate change.
“Certainly presidents always take some sort of pause with a new administration, but this seems to be far more than with previous administrations,” she said. “It’s not just the freezing of grants, but the total blackout of communications. This seems to be an effort to politicize the work of the agency. That’s what’s concerning. This is an agency that does some of the best science of the country, and they’re being told not to communicate that to the public.”
Jeff Hart, a retired EPA administrator who lives in Denver, said he can’t be sure grants or contracts were never suspended during previous changes in administration. Hiring freezes, which are also in effect, are much more common. However, the impact will depend a lot on how long it takes for things to get back to normal.
“If you’re talking about a matter of days, that’s one thing,” he said. “If it’s weeks or longer, then that would be something that I have never seen.”
The exemption for environmental clean-ups — particularly if it covers emergencies — is important, he said, but the day-to-day work of the agency is important too. Hart, who represents an organization of former EPA employees called Save EPA, said one fear is that the administration could be trying to undermine the agency’s effectiveness to justify reducing its role.
“If that hampers an agency’s ability to do their job, it undermines people’s trust in government,” he said. “There is one political strategy that has been described as making government small enough you can drown it in a bathtub. There are certain politicians that want to starve government until it becomes ineffective, and then that demonstrates government is bad and you can get rid of it.”
How Colorado’s agencies are reacting:
Colorado State University has almost $5 million in active EPA grants funding projects that involve some 700 faculty, although most of that money has already been received, according to Alan Rudolph, vice president for research at the school.
He said that the university understands that funding can change in the year-to-year government cycle, but staff are worried about the idea that existing funding would suddenly be stopped.
“If those were frozen, that would be of great concern to us,” he said. The university is in regular contact with program officers at the EPA, but even those employees can give little sense of what’s to come as the new administration takes power.
Changes at the EPA also could significantly affect some Colorado governments’ environmental activities.
“We’re still trying to understand the impacts of the order, including if this affects only new grants or current too,” wrote Kerra Jones, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Environmental Health, in an email.
She added that much of the city’s EPA money is routed through the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, which “will be affected much more than us.”
Mark Salley, spokesman for CDPHE, wrote that the department has “received little to no clarification as of yet as to what is even meant by ‘grants and contracts.’ We hope to receive additional information in the coming weeks.”
Late on Tuesday, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued a statement saying that his office had received notice of the suspension that day.
“The communication was ambiguous and did not explain the duration or scope of the freeze. This freeze could potentially impact the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s ability to carry out its federally mandated commitment to protect clean air, clean water and safe drinking water. We have sought clarification from the EPA and have asked for assistance from Senators Gardner and Bennet.”
Erica Meltzer contributed to this story.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly connected EPA funding for a wastewater treatment plant in Durango to the Gold King Mine spill. The plant has no relation to the spill.
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