Tennessee at Risk: New Report “State of Risk” Reveals Broad, Adverse Impact on Tennessee Communities and Public Health from Threatened EPA Cuts

Congress to decide fate of critical environmental operations in next 45 days

August 24, 2017
Ben Schneider, 202-841-3763, bschneider@edf.org


State of Risk: Tennessee, a new report from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), catalogues far-reaching and grave threats to air, water and land, and to the people and economy of Tennessee if President Trump’s proposed 30 percent cut to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget is enacted this fall. Such cuts would move the agency funding radically backward to its lowest level since the mid-1970s. The report was released in Tennessee and in Washington D.C. at a news conference.

It provides an extensive overview of the EPA’s footprint in Tennessee and examines how the proposed cutback plans threaten public health as well as commerce and tourism in the Volunteer State. The state and local governments would face a terrible choice: stick taxpayers with the bill, drop other projects or watch their communities slide backward and become more polluted and less healthy.

The EPA has provided $225 million in grants alone to Tennessee over five years, notes the report.

“The President’s plan will eliminate or weaken efforts to cleanup dirty air and water, as well as hazardous waste sites,” said Elgie Holstein, EDF’s Senior Director of Strategic Planning.

“The president seeks to roll back common-sense environmental safeguards that have protected the health and well-being of Tennessee for decades,” Holstein added, “This is not just an assault on an agency. It is an assault on public health and safety.  It impacts the water we need, the land where our children play, and the very air that we breathe.”

Documenting specific local and statewide consequences of the proposed EPA cuts, the report finds that hollowing out the EPA would be disastrous for Tennessee. The Trump Administration and some in Congress are working to push the cuts through in the next 45 days, before the federal fiscal year ends.  

“Washington is so broken right now that the Trump road map could be enacted in a blink of an eye in a backroom deal when Congress returns in September,” said Holstein.

The report provides a snapshot of the environmental needs and programs which a fully funded EPA can continue to remedy and support:

  • Drinking water and swimming would be at risk in Tennessee. EPA has provided more than $3.8 million to help Tennessee monitor the public water systems over the last five years. The Trump budget cuts by 30 percent this program which has provided technical assistance and certified water-testing labs. Tennessee had 23 active projects backed by EPA funds to combat nonpoint source pollution problems in 2017. The Trump administration would eliminate that program as well, which helps control pollutants carried by rainfall runoff into the state’s drinking water, rivers and lakes. Tennessee benefited from more than $12 million in nonpoint pollution grants over the last five years. And EPA and the Tennessee Department of Conservation (TDEC) have been partnering to make more rivers and lakes in the state safe for recreational use. Some 40 percent of the state’s waters are not fit for human recreation, according to TDEC.
  • Breathing would be at risk in Tennessee. With EPA support, all of Tennessee met federal air quality standards for smog and soot in 2016, for the first time in decades. EPA support was critical to reaching this milestone, including millions of dollars in grant funding to monitor air quality, develop air pollution control programs and enforce air quality regulations, including clean-air standards for cars and trucks. Memphis and surrounding Shelby County are still earning a “D” for air quality from the American Lung Association. More than 600,000 Tennessee children and adults are diagnosed with asthma. The Trump budget would cut nearly 30 percent from programs that help states and local communities monitor air quality.
  • Land would be at risk in Tennessee. There are 18 toxic Superfund sites in the state, and 130 brownfield sites ready to be restored and turned into developable land. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s most successful and significant Superfund cleanup projects – like the Copper Mining Basin District in the state’s southeastern corner, once a barren wasteland plagued by more than 50 square miles of contaminated soil and water. Because of the superfund program, multiple partners removed waste and cleaned up pollution, and planted hundreds of trees. The Trump budget would cut Superfund and brownfield funding by 30 percent.

A U.S. House of Representatives committee’s alternate budget would, if passed, partly restore some EPA programs but still leave many major programs unfunded, provide for significant staff cuts and leave intact other parts of the president’s plan to demolish EPA.

Holstein, who formerly oversaw environment and science budgets for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, said Tennessee’s Congressional delegation will find in the new report hundreds of ways in which EPA has been helping the state manage risk.

“Congress can and must stop the madness of these proposed cuts,” Holstein said.  “Anything less than full EPA funding for 2018 would hobble the environmental protections on which Tennesseans and others across the United States rely as the foundation for building a better life.”

Clean, safe land, air and water are not partisan issues, said Dodd Galbreath during a statewide release of the State of Risk report. Dodd served as environment policy managed for both a Republican and a Democratic governor in Tennessee.

“Having been the environmental policy manager for one Republican and one Democrat governor in the state, I know firsthand the challenges Tennessee would face if any of the proposed EPA cuts were to happen,” said Dodd Galbreath, founder and professor at Lipscomb University’s Institute for Sustainable Practices.  “If the White House or Congress suddenly shut off grants and expert help to the states, they could reverse the progress we’ve made in restoring the quality of our water, land, air – and protecting the health of our people.” 

As EPA southeast regional administrator, Heather McTeer Toney managed a thousand employees and a budget of more than half a billion dollars. Even that was not enough to meet demand then; EPA administrator Scott Pruitt now wants to lay off another 3,000 EPA scientists, grant administrators, enforcement experts and staff nationwide.

“EPA is already under siege - running on sharply reduced budgets, with greatly reduced staff,” Toney said. “Any further cuts now would leave Tennessee’s EPA-supported environmental programs gasping for air.”

EPA grants and programs help urban and rural areas alike.

“Our area would be just an unnoticed dot on the map without the support we received from EPA’s Superfund program to clean up the Copper Basin Mining District,” said Ducktown Mayor James Talley. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, EPA and other agencies reached cleanup agreements with the site’s owner valued at approximately $50 million. EPA said the settlement will ensure continued treatment of water from the Davis Mill Creek and maintain the water quality of the Ocoee River.

“Where once there was just dangerous red dust, now there’s an entire outdoor recreation industry popping up around here from the national forest and river rafting,” Mayor Talley said. “Tourism has become the county’s lifeblood, which would not have been possible without clean water and soil.”

Memphis officials also noted the benefits of government collaboration.

“EPA support for Tennessee really hits home,” said Paul Young, director of housing and community development for the city of Memphis and former sustainability director there. “Public health is directly affected by the environment. As we seek to improve health outcomes in this community, our strategy is anchored by improving indoor air quality in housing and mitigating pollution.  The EPA has been a strong partner in these efforts; we need this type of collaboration to continue in order to help our residents.” 

State of Risk: Tennessee is one in a series of Environmental Defense Fund reports cataloguing the impact of president Trump’s proposed cuts to EPA funding. The reports are available at www.EDF.org/EPAcuts.

Tennessee and EDF experts are available to provide further context and comment about the EPA budget; please contact Ben Schneider, bschneider@edf.org, (202) 841-3763.

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