EPA cancels pollution inspections to stay within GOP-reduced budget Congress moving bill to cut funding 20%

November 25, 1995|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- In the past several weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency has canceled hundreds of pollution inspections at factories, water treatment plants and other sites because of budget cuts imposed by temporary spending legislation.

Senior officials in the agency say the reduction in inspections, which began when stopgap spending bills reduced the agency's budget last month, is likely to intensify in coming months if Congress imposes even deeper reductions in the agency's enforcement activities.

A Republican-backed bill to pay for the operations of the EPA and other agencies would cut spending on environmental enforcement by more than 20 percent. The House and Senate are expected to vote on it next week.

At Frankford Arsenal, an industrial park in Philadelphia, federal inspectors who were tipped off to a possible violation postponed a visit because technicians were unable to pay for travel from a laboratory in Annapolis.

The local fire department visited the scene instead and found drums of PCBs stored there, a violation that was viewed as very serious.

EPA then sent an emergency response official who persuaded the responsible company to correct the problem, officials said.

"Clearly, we are not out in the field as much as we used to be," said W. Michael McCabe, the top EPA official in the mid-Atlantic states, "and if we are not out in the field we are not discovering the problems, and we are not able to correct them."

Republicans said their view is simple: There is not enough money to fix every environmental problem.

"Our objective with the EPA is to first, by way of the dollars, get the attention of this agency," said Rep. Jerry Lewis of Californian, who is the House Republicans' point man on the EPA bill.

"They have grown like Topsy and are placing regulation upon regulation. They are in the enforcement business almost for the sake of it, rather than for what they can accomplish."

The argument over environmental spending will be a prominent feature in the budget talks between the White House and the Republican leaders in Congress.

The two sides agreed last Sunday on a framework for a balanced federal budget in seven years, but the agreement hinged on some conditions.

One was that the budget legislation that emerges provide for spending that President Clinton considers adequate for, among other things, protecting the environment.

Mr. Clinton has vowed to veto the EPA spending bill as it stands, saying the $5.7 billion it provides to the agency for the 1996 fiscal year is not adequate.

That sum is a reduction of 14 percent from the previous year, and the administration's Office of Management and Budget said this week that the legislation was intended "to cripple EPA efforts to enforce laws against polluters."

The bill singles out enforcement for some of the most significant cuts among environmental programs, and several experts said that with less money for travel, laboratory tests, negotiating settlements or pursuing court cases, the EPA's ability to deter potential polluters would probably suffer.

In all, Congress has proposed cutting enforcement spending to $314 million from $395 million, with much of the reduction affecting the toxic waste dumps in the Superfund program to repair the nation's worst pollution sites.

"Obviously the program is in for a very rough time, which is particularly unfortunate, because enforcement is the heart of environmental protection," said Steven Herman, assistant administrator for enforcement at the EPA.

But Mr. Lewis said that if the environmental agency focused its cuts on what he termed "this very comfortable and often high-priced Washington bureaucracy," and protected its field operations, "in my judgment it will have little or no effect."

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