When the city of Toledo temporarily lost access to clean drinking water several years ago after a bloom of toxic algae, the Environmental Protection Agency sent scientists from its Office of Research and Development (ORD) to study health effects and formulate solutions.
The same office was on the front lines of the Flint water crisis and was a critical presence in handling medical waste from the U.S. Ebola cases in 2014.
Thomas Burke, who directed ORD during the last two years of the Obama administration and was the agency’s science adviser, calls the office the nation’s “scientific backstop in emergencies.”
President Trump’s 2018 budget would slash ORD’s funding in half as part of an overall goal to cut the EPA’s budget by 31 percent.
A statement from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt did not directly address the cuts to ORD, but offered a broad defense of the proposed agency budget, saying it “respects the American taxpayer” and “supports EPA’s highest priorities with federal funding for priority work in infrastructure, air and water quality, and ensuring the safety of chemicals in the marketplace.”
ORD has no regulatory authority, but it conducts the bulk of the research that underlies EPA policies. ORD scientists are involved in “virtually every major environmental challenge the nation has,” Burke said. Diminishing the role and input of the office, he said, risked leaving the country “uninformed about risks and public health.”
“In time, you’re flying blind,” he said. “Everything becomes a mystery.”
Trump’s budget, released Tuesday, reflects the president’s wish list. The numbers likely will change by the time it goes through the congressional appropriations process, but the proposed cuts are consistent with the administration’s push against environmental regulation and scientific funding. Many of the cuts fall on agencies involved with climate-change research, including the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.
Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told reporters in a Tuesday briefing that the budget reduces climate science funding without eliminating it.
“Do we target it? Sure,” Mulvaney said in response to a reporter’s question. “Do a lot of the EPA reductions aim at reducing the focus on climate science? Yes. Does it mean that we are anti-science? Absolutely not. We’re simply trying to get things back in order to where we can look at the folks who pay the taxes, and say, look, yeah, we want to do some climate science, but we’re not going to do some of the crazy stuff the previous administration did.”
Much of the EPA’s climate research takes place in the Office of Air and Radiation, which is separate from ORD. But ORD studies the strategic, long-term effects of climate change, including the effects on agriculture and the oceans, Burke said.
Christine Todd Whitman, a former EPA administrator who worked for George W. Bush from 2001 to June 2003, said the proposed ORD cuts are more drastic than anything she can remember.
Whitman said she expects Congress will restore much of the funding, but she worries about the message behind the budget.
“A budget to me was always a policy document,” she said. Regardless of what Congress does, this administration’s policy “indicates to me [that] they’ll be looking for other ways to … stifle the research and slow it down,” she said.
OMB and the EPA did not return requests for comment about the ORD cuts.
ORD is one of several EPA programs listed under a section of the budget called “2018 major savings and reforms.” The others include EPA enforcement (24 percent cut); Superfund, which cleans up toxic waste sites (30 percent); categorical state grants (45 percent); and funding for watershed protection, energy efficiency and voluntary climate programs, which would be eliminated.
The budget states the ORD reductions would allow the EPA to “focus on core Agency responsibilities … At lower funding levels for the Office of Research and Development, the Agency would prioritize intramural research activities that are either related to statutory requirements or that support basic and early stage research and development activities in the environmental and human health sciences.”
Whitman and Burke said ORD already does that — and halving the budget would make it virtually impossible to meet EPA’s regulatory mandate.
ORD is “the backbone of the scientific research that goes on,” Whitman said. “Every regulation promulgated by EPA is based in science.”
Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he worries Congress will use the budget to justify serious but less drastic cuts to the agency. This administration’s philosophy seems to be “if you don’t measure it, you don’t have to be held accountable for it.”
ORD also helps regional EPA offices. Michael Mikulka, president of AFGE Local 704, a union representing scientists, engineers and attorneys at EPA’s Region 5 office (in the Great Lakes area), said he relies on ORD’s Cincinnati lab for advice on toxic waste cleanup. “If their staff is cut significantly, there would be less people to advise us.”
Burke said ORD was always going to be a target. The office came under fire from environmentalists in 2015 when it released a draft study that said hydraulic fracturing had no “widespread, systemic impacts” on drinking water. After considering comments from the EPA’s independent Science Advisory Board, the report authors reversed their findings, concluding there was insufficient evidence to support their previous statement. This time, the report was widely criticized by the oil and gas industry.
ORD is also home to the IRIS (Integrated Risk Information System) program that sets exposure guidelines for chemicals. The program has been criticized for dragging its feet and bowing to the interests of the chemical industry.
“I’m very concerned the IRIS program will be zeroed out,” Burke said. “There’s an endless challenge by polluters to delay the science.”
But aside from a few high-profile issues, much of ORD’s work takes place under the radar. The office has laboratories all over the country, working on air pollution, ocean acidification and vehicle emissions.
One of ORD’s lesser-known responsibilities is dealing with homeland security. “God forbid, if we have to clean up a water supply after a terrorist activity, it [would be] in this office,” Burke said.
Whitman said the EPA was tasked with cleaning up the Hart Senate Office Building in 2001 after then-Sen. Tom Daschle received an envelope containing anthrax powder. Whitman remembers asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a safe standard of anthrax exposure. The CDC didn’t know, she said, so ORD did the research and set it at zero.
“These are the kinds of things you lose” when you de-fund the “national nerve center of the science challenges facing not just the EPA, but all the states and all the communities,” Burke said.
This story first appeared in ProPublica on May 24, 2017. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.