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Four Of Six Chesapeake States Cut Environmental Budgets, Despite Bay Cleanup Promises

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)

During the last decade, when the Chesapeake Bay region states publicly promised to increase their efforts to clean up the nation’s largest estuary, four of the six states quietly cut funding for the state environmental agencies responsible for carrying out that cleanup.

Among the worst offenders, according to an examination of state budget documents by the Environmental Integrity Project, was Pennsylvania, the state that contributes by far the most pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Governors and lawmakers in the Keystone State cut funding and staffing at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection by about 15 percent between 2008 and 2018, even as the overall state budget grew by 18 percent over this time.

That meant the state agency tasked with reducing sewage, farm runoff, and industrial pollution into Bay tributaries eliminated about 400 of its 2,700 pollution control jobs.

David Masur, Executive Director of PennEnvironment, an environmental advocacy organization, said there is no question the cuts hurt Pennsylvania’s efforts to clean up the bay, which were already behind schedule.

“From soup to nuts, when you make steep cuts in revenue at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and then lose staff and expertise, not surprisingly, your ability to run the agency and protect the environment is chopped off at the knees,” Masur said.

In Maryland, the budget of the Maryland Department of the Environment remained about the same over this decade, when adjusted for inflation, although the state agency eliminated about 5 percent of its workforce between 2008 and 2018.

New York and Delaware were worse – cutting the budgets of their state environmental agencies by more than 30 percent over this decade, according to state records. 

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation eliminated 690 positions, or 29 percent of its workforce between 2008 and 2018. The Delaware Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Environmental Protection cut 68 jobs, or 21 percent of its total.

Farther south, Virginia trimmed the budget of its Department of Environmental Quality by 6 percent, but its staffing remained similar.

The cuts in the Chesapeake Bay region were part of a national pattern. The Trump Administration has told the public not to worry about its regulatory rollbacks and cuts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because states would allegedly pick up the slack. But at the same time, 30 states have cut the budgets of their own environmental agencies, often more than EPA.

Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said that, across the country, 40 state environmental agencies cut more a total of than 4,400 pollution control jobs between 2008 and 2018, or about 10 percent of the total.

“Some of those cuts were extreme,” said Schaeffer, former director of civil enforcement at EPA. “Thirty-eight percent in Illinois, 35 percent in North Carolina, 32 percent in Arizona, 30 percent in Louisiana. And when we talk about these cuts in workforce, we’re talking about losing the engineers, the scientists, the lawyers, and their support staff, who review and approve environmental permits, monitor air and water quality, inspect plants to make sure they’re complying, and manage the cleanup of contaminated sites.”

Many of these states – under both Republicans and Democrats – have cut their environmental agencies under the argument that weaker government oversight will boost the economy. But in reality, the opposite often proves true.  Industries can’t expand if understaffed and backlogged state environmental agencies mean that they can’t obtain construction permits. And nobody wants to build a home or open a business next to a polluted waterway that reeks of sewage.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.