Planned staff cuts at the Environmental Protection Agency, which employs more than 2,000 people in Research Triangle Park, are seen as the beginning of major cutbacks to scientific research and pollution enforcement in North Carolina.
This week’s buyout offer to more than 1,200 employees agency-wide comes in advance of Congress taking up the Trump administration’s proposal to cut the EPA’s budget by 31.4 percent. Congress may not adopt all of the administration’s suggestions, but any cuts approved in the coming months could affect jobs filled by some 700 nonprofit and state employees, most of them in the Triangle, who don’t work for the agency but whose salaries are covered through EPA funding.
“The final product may not look like this,” said Robin Smith, a former state environmental official, “but what’s scary is this is the starting point for the federal budget discussions.”
North Carolina’s EPA-funded jobs include 341 state workers at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, many of whom issue federal permits and monitor violations under the federal Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.
The clean water law controls the quality of treated sewage that can be legally released into streams and rivers by hog processors, wastewater treatment plants and other heavy industries. The clean air law sets legal limits on smokestack emissions from power plants, chemical companies and others.
Smith, the state agency’s former assistant secretary for environment, said the federal government funds half of North Carolina’s permitting and enforcement programs for clean air, clean water and safe drinking water, and the cuts as proposed would remove more than $3 million from the state’s environment programs.
Any EPA funding cuts will likely reduce staff available for monitoring violators and enforcing compliance with the federal laws. But if the cuts are deep enough they could also cause delays in issuing permits for business and industry, she said.
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has shrunk to a quarter of its size a decade ago, from 6,311 employees in 2008 to 4,060 in 2012 and to 1,583 as of this month, although some of those reductions were the result of functions being transferred to other state agencies. The department issued a statement Thursday expressing concern about the scope of activities that would be affected, including cleanups of hazardous substances and toxic waste, as well as reclamation of abandoned underground gasoline tanks.
“We have significant concerns about how the president’s budget would impact the state’s ability to continue protecting North Carolina’s vital natural and economic resources,” the state agency said. “The proposed budget would cut federal programs needed to sustain North Carolina’s fishing industry and coastal economy, provide energy resources for the poor, protect air and water quality and clean up our most dangerous hazardous waste sites.”
The EPA-funded jobs also include more than 350 economists, engineers and scientists working at nonprofit RTI International, a research organization with headquarters in RTP. The nonprofit conducts research through federal contracts and is already pinched by the changes in Washington, as the EPA has halted one RTI research project and delayed issuing contracts on others.
On the canceled contract, RTI was developing a method for collecting data to show how much methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are leaked during oil and gas exploration. Methane is considered to be the most potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change; the VOCs contribute to smog. EPA halted the research 10 months into the 3-year project, and RTI expects to lose about $100,000 in contract funds this year and about $2 million in the coming two years.
RTI had also put in a bid for a $225,000 contract to study energy management at government-owned sewage treatment plants, but the EPA canceled the bid and said the work was no longer required, said RTI spokesman Lindsey Luxon.
In all, RTI receives about $15 million a year for conducting EPA research and holds nine contracts with a total value of $165 million, Luxon said.
The EPA early buyout program could eliminate about a hundred jobs in RTP, where the EPA has more than 2,000 workers, of which two-thirds are federal employees and about a third are contractors. The agency’s acting deputy administrator, Mike Flynn, sent an agency-wide email this week saying the EPA’s buyout program is awaiting final approval later this month and employees who elect to participate will have to leave their jobs by early September.
The agency expects to offer buyouts to more than 1,200 of its 15,000 employees, or about 8 percent of its workforce, and held all-hands meetings with agency staffers this week. Silvia Saracco, local union chapter president of the American Federation of Government Employees in RTP, said EPA employees offered the buyouts could be influenced in their decision by the current political climate.
“Is it truly restructuring or is it trying to stop us from what we’ve been mandated by Congress to do?” Saracco said. “I really can’t speak to that, but anybody else out there can start connecting the dotted lines.”
EPA functions in RTP include the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, whose 300 employees set air-quality standards for the entire country. The office develops Clean Air Act rules that states have to follow to control pollution sources such as ozone, particulates and carbon monoxide.
Saracco said a smaller EPA will shift more responsibilities to state environmental agencies that are ill-equipped to take on more work.
“Everything is going to be pushed down to the state level and the states don’t have the money,” she said. “If we’ve gotten rid of people through early buyouts, who are you going to send?”