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EPA cuts could be costly to Lebanon, state

By Steve Ahillen • Updated Mar 17, 2017 at 2:00 PM

(TNS) – Proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency could shut off the spigot that funds many drinking water projects in Tennessee.

Booming Lebanon is an example of a community that could be hurt.

“Getting these projects done in the next two years is not a want; it’s a need,” said Jeff Baines, commissioner of public works in the Wilson County city. Lebanon’s population jumped from 20,235 in 2000 to 30,262 in 2015, and the growth shows no signs of slowing.

To keep up, the city has been spending millions to update its water and wastewater facilities using the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund loan program, directed in Tennessee by the state’s Department of Environment and Conservation.

Funds for the program accounted for 75 percent of the $48 million TDEC got from the EPA in 2016, according to TDEC spokesman Eric Ward. TDEC’s overall budget is $365 million.

EPA cuts from $8.2 billion to $6.1 billion are being considered in an early draft of President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, which is expected to be presented to Congress in May. The draft also mentions possibly cutting 3,000 EPA jobs, which is 19 percent of the agency’s staff.

Although specific targets are in flux, the possibility of a reduction in funding for the drinking water fund appears to be on the table.

That would be bad news for Lebanon and other cities trying to keep up with infrastructure demands. On Wednesday, Baines said he signed off on the completion of an $8 million water treatment expansion project that had taken two-and-a-half years and was constructed with money loaned by the drinking water fund.

“We are a hot spot for growth in the state and the nation,” Baines said. “These structures and upgrades have to come with it. We need a better water supply. We need better water treatment.”

Loans from the drinking water fund are paid back to the state with interest to then be loaned again. Baines explained that, though these are loans not grants, the rates often are much better than other loans available and sometimes principal forgiveness is offered.

On a priority ranking list on the state’s website, tn.gov, are listed 21 such projects awaiting funding approval.

Oak Ridge in Anderson County is seeking $6 million for water intake improvements. Bell Buckle in Bedford County needs $460,000 for distribution system replacement. Troy in Obion County wants $525,000 for distribution system improvements. And, Lebanon has four project requests totaling well over $6 million.

Without that EPA funding for projects like those in Lebanon, the added costs might be deal-killers.

“We submit these requests in February and hear back about this time of year,” Baines said. “We are very appreciative of everything EPA and the state folks have done. We don’t expect to get all four projects approved, but they are needed. If we are rejected, we’ll have to try to get a bank loan or perhaps go through the Tennessee Municipal League.”

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander likely will be in an influential, if not pivotal, position after Congress receives the President’s final budget proposal.

He is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, and the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

He said it is too early to comment on the prospect, but hinted that President Trump has better targets for cuts.

“He hasn’t presented his budget yet,” Alexander said. “That was a leak from a source, so I’m not going to comment on his budget until it’s presented.

“I will say that I think it’s a mistake for the President or anybody else to pretend to deal with the federal debt problem by reducing funding for national defense, national parks, national laboratories and the National Institutes of Health. All of those programs are in the one-third of the budget that’s under control. They’re not adding to the debt.

“We need to deal with the mandatory spending, which is one reason why this healthcare debate is so important. Because one part of the mandatory spending that is out of control in Medicaid. Putting Medicaid on a budget -- growing but on some kind of budget over the next 10 or 15 years -- is an important opportunity.

“I’m not going to be voting for budgets that pretend to deal with the national debt by reducing the part of the budget that’s already under control.”

Questions to Sen. Bob Corker were answered by his communications director, Micah Johnson.

“Sen. Corker will carefully review the president’s budget proposal when it is finalized, and (he) believes we can reduce federal spending while still working to protect the environment,” Johnson said.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, was more forthcoming.

“I think it’s terrible,” Cohen said. “I think the EPA serves a wonderful purpose of keeping our air and water pure and fresh. We have more pollutants than ever from exhaust and chemicals in our society, and it’s never going to get better unless there is constant monitoring and enforcement of standards.

“When people live in urban areas that are near industrial pollution sites and other runoff ... and children are dying because of pollution, we certainly should not be cutting back in that area. ... It is criminal to take these funds away.”

An email was sent to Gov. Bill Haslam’s office for comment, but a spokeswoman said the governor was traveling and could not be reached for comment. She suggested contacting TDEC spokesman Ward.

Ward also emphasized that it is much too early to speculate on what a major EPA cut could mean to specific projects in Tennessee or even the state in general, but explained how vital the money is to Tennessee.

“Federal funding, in addition to permit fees and the state general fund dollars, will continue to be critical for the funding of our technical program staffing,” he said.

“Current federal funding levels enable us to achieve our goals to protect human health, promote a cleaner, safer environment and operate efficiently and effectively in our program work. Federal support will also be critical to TDEC’s continued efforts to help Tennessee communities build and upgrade critical drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, as well as our efforts to clean up contaminated properties through our brownfields remediation program.”

Not all EPA funding flows to Tennessee through TDEC. The federal government website usaspending.gov shows $6.2 million EPA dollars coming into the state this year. A list of direct recipients includes Oak Ridge Associated Universities, the city of Chattanooga, the Knox County Department of Air Quality, United South and Eastern Tribes Inc., and Vanderbilt University.

The Environmental Council of the States, which is a national nonprofit association of state environmental agency leaders, and the Southern Environmental Law Center are among organizations that have sent letters asking the President to reconsider thoughts of cutting EPA funds.

“EPA is extremely important as a backstop to compliance (on environmental regulations),” said Amanda Garcia with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The purpose of environmental law is to protect the public and environment from the effects of pollution; and, when we don’t have the funds to make sure they are adequately enforced, the burden will fall on the citizens, which is not how these laws were originally set up.”

The EPA plays a large role in hazardous site cleanup through both superfund and brownfields funding. Whether that funding would be included in cuts is uncertain.

When stories first broke on possible EPA cuts, those areas were expected to be the hardest hit – some stories saying that would be cut out altogether. Shortly after the stories came out, however, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt assured a group of mayors gathered at a Washington, D.C., event that he did not want any funding cut for superfund or brownfields programs.

“Cleanup grants are important to Knoxville and other cities across the country because they are leveraging tools that help to close gaps where other funding sources are not available,” Wallace said.

Pointing to the Sanitary Laundry property as an example, she added, “The federal funding from EPA was critical to improving the property by removing pollutants, stabilizing the structure and being able to put the property out for a request for proposals for reuse.”

On its website, EPA shows a list of 17 superfund sites in Tennessee. A superfund site is any land judged by EPA to be contaminated with hazardous waste and a candidate for cleanup funding. They from range from a defense depot in Memphis to a dump site in Lewisburg to a paper mill in Harriman.

Scott Banbury, Sierra Club’s conservation programs coordinator for Tennessee, said Tennesseans have reason to worry.

“Compliance monitoring (on environmental regulations) is coming largely out of federal dollars coming in, and we are pretty alarmed when we see a 30 percent reduction in federal control,” Banbury said.

He said it is too early to tell exactly where federal cuts would hit.

“I would personal love it if there was some mechanism by which the state comptroller can estimate what we are expecting,” he said. “The commissioner of TDEC can put out what he usually expects to get from the (federal) government, but they have not addressed this recent development, this draconian slashing by Mr. Pruitt.”

That said, he cited the TDEC budget breakdown from 2016-17 and pointed to numerous areas he suspects could take devastating hits.

“Wastewater and drinking water treatment is almost entirely funding by the federal government -- $57 million with only $3 million in state appropriation. That is going to mean somebody is not going to have the benefit of federal dollars,” he said.

He cited the various waste management areas.

“A lion’s share of what they have to work with beyond the permit fees is federal money. A 30 percent cut there is pretty alarming to us,” he said.

“The people who are going to suffer from cuts to our environmental programs are going to be the most vulnerable,” he said. “People with respiratory illnesses, children with asthma, people with antiquated water treatment systems that need improvements. To some extent, our children and grandparents are going to be most sensitive to air and water qualities.”

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