Union Chief Strikes Back at the ‘Insanity’ of Trump’s Budget Cuts at the EPA

In a Yale e360 interview, John O’Grady, head of the employees’ union at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, rips into the Trump administration for its budget-slashing proposal that he says is aimed at destroying the agency that safeguards the nation’s air and water. 

The Trump administration’s proposed budget contains drastic cuts to many government departments, but few are being hit as hard as the Environmental Protection Agency, which is slated for a funding reduction of 31 percent. A host of programs would be significantly pared back, including the enforcement of pollution laws, climate change research, the cleanup of Superfund sites, and the repair and construction of facilities that provide clean drinking water to U.S. towns and cities. The list of programs that would be completely eliminated includes the cleanup of the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay,  the Clean Power Plan, the Energy Star energy efficiency program, and the Office of Environmental Justice.

John O'Grady.

John O'Grady.

John O’Grady is president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents roughly 10,000 EPA employees nationwide. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, O’Grady rails against the proposed cuts, saying they will lead to dirtier water and air across the country. “We’re going to have Flint, Michigan, multiplied by some factor of 10 or 100,” says O’Grady. He maintains that while pollution may be less visible today compared to decades ago­ — “We don’t see rivers catch on fire now, we don’t see valleys filled with drums of chemicals” — the need for the EPA is no less great.

O’Grady says the true intent of the Trump administration is not to streamline the EPA, but to destroy it.  “I believe that [EPA Administrator Scott] Pruitt is in place to deconstruct the agency,” says O’Grady. “These individuals and the administration and those that support them in Congress are dead set on rolling back environmental and human health protections to the 1960s.”

Yale Environment 360: Could you give me a feel for who your rank-and-file membership is? What’s the range of their positions? What do they work on?

John O’Grady: Our members include attorney advisors in all of the 10 regional offices, environmental engineers, environmental scientists, on-scene coordinators, project managers who clean up hazardous waste sites, inspectors who go out and inspect plants and take samples, whether it’s air, water, or land. We cover basically the gamut of every program that EPA is responsible for.

e360: The 31 percent cut the EPA would sustain would be the biggest cut of any federal agency. Mick Mulvaney, the President’s budget director, has said, “The core functions of the EPA — in fact beyond the core functions — can be satisfied with this budget.” What’s your reaction to that?

O’Grady:  He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I believe that this budget cut is meant, as [Stephen] Bannon [White House chief strategist] has pointed out, to deconstruct the agency. I believe that Mr. Pruitt is in place to deconstruct the agency. These individuals and the administration and those that support them in Congress are dead set on rolling back environmental protection and human health protections to the ’60s.

‘I believe that this budget cut is meant, as Mr. Bannon has pointed out, to deconstruct the agency.’

e360: You issued a statement on the proposed budget in which you said, in part, “The US EPA is already on a starvation diet with a bare-bones budget and staffing level.” What did you mean by that?  

O’Grady: If you go back to 1999, we were at 18,110 employees. Today, we’re at about 15,000 employees, which is way too little. You have to remember that we have more environmental regulations today than we’ve ever had to deal with. We cover the entire United States, including Alaska, Hawaii, and U.S. territories. Not only is our staffing level down to 15,000, but our budget has been flat for years. If you factor in inflation, our budget has actually been going down. We don’t have enough money to effectively deal with the degradation of drinking water plants throughout the United States. You have to remember that there are over 5,300 drinking water facilities throughout the U.S. that are at or near failure, and I mean failure. We’re going to have Flint, Michigan, multiplied by some factor of 10 or 100. We have a number of wastewater treatment plants that are at their maturity. They were built back in the 1970s and ’80s. They need to be reconstructed and improved. We have sewer lines and we have drinking water lines that are failing across the country.

The problems that we’re facing today are less noticeable than what we saw when the agency was initially formed.  We don’t see rivers catch on fire now. We don’t see valleys filled with drums of chemicals. But we have things like Flint, Michigan happening, which means you draw a glass of water out of your tap and it looks clean, but it’s filled with toxic contamination. People have to realize that. You need someone out there to make sure the states are doing their job. You need someone out there to make sure that we’re getting the money to these municipalities that need to rebuild.

e360: The EPA has released a statement in which the new administrator, Scott Pruitt, said that he’s “committed to leading the EPA in a more effective, more focused, less costly way as we partner with states to fulfill the agency’s core mission.” Are there not any areas of EPA that should be cut, that are inefficient or redundant?

O’Grady: States have very fine environmental departments, but they’re understaffed. Not only that, but their best employees tend to leave and go to companies, corporations, consultants, and the EPA because they don’t get paid very much. Then you tack onto that this idea that we’re going to cut EPA’s budget by 31 percent. We already partner with the states. We’re their technical resource. We are their enforcement experts. We especially make sure that the playing field is level throughout the United States. What we saw before EPA came into existence were states that were more stringent and states that were less stringent. We level that playing field. We also deal with pollution, which respects no state boundary.

e360: Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has also said, “You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it. I guess the first place that comes to mind will be the Environmental Protection Agency.” So what is morale like now among your rank-and-file?

O’Grady: It’s so low you need a ladder to get out of the gutter. We’ve been beat up for years now. We’ve been beat up by Congress during the Obama administration. Under President Obama, our staffing levels sunk to 15,000. We have been constantly assailed by oversight committees and individuals in Congress who say absurd things about us. We take our responsibilities seriously. We take our mission seriously. What are they talking about draining the swamp? Why don’t you get rid of the lobbyists? Why don’t you get rid of all the excessive contractor fees? I would also suggest maybe we need to get rid of some of the people in Congress. They are not serving the general welfare of the American people. They are not serving the common good.

‘We’re trying to stave off this insanity about going after a tiny agency that does immediate good.’

e360: Yale e360 recently interviewed William K. Reilly, the former head of the EPA under President George W. Bush. He says he’s alarmed at the choice of Scott Pruitt to run the agency and had this for “the many fine civil servants” at the EPA: “I would not advocate that committed people leave. We need them now more than ever.” Does that sound like good advice to you?

O’Grady: First, I’d like to say thank you to Mr. Reilly. Secondly, sure, it’s good advice. But I have people that I represent who are young moms and dads with children, or they have children that are going to college, and they are extremely concerned. Some will look at other jobs. Others will hope for the best. We’re going to represent them. We’re going to try to stave off this insanity about going after a tiny agency that does immediate good. For example, for people that like to fish and hunt, we keep those areas pristine. Children with asthma, we make sure that the air is controlled and that their asthma is not aggravated. We make sure that you can turn the tap on and drink clean healthy water. These people are rolling back all those protections. We’re going to stay because we believe in the mission.

e360: When you say that there are some at EPA who are looking for other jobs, is that because they fear that their jobs are not safe, or is that because they disagree with the new direction that Scott Pruitt wants to take the agency in?

O’Grady: I think it’s both. I think the first reason is the most prevalent, they just don’t believe their jobs are safe.

e360: A couple of the EPA programs that are zeroed out in the proposed budget include the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Puget Sound restoration effort. GOP governors and GOP members of Congress have pushed back on those cuts, saying they support those programs. Do you expect more pushback along those lines from Republican lawmakers? 

O’Grady: We’re grateful for their comments. They don’t need to push back. They need to scream. It’s almost like we’re going back to “dilution is the solution to pollution.” It is not. Never has been. I sometimes say to people, “I wish the Great Lakes would catch on fire and then maybe people would slap themselves in the head and say we’d better do something about this.” We don’t have that. We’ve done a great job cleaning up the environment, but it’s not clean.

e360: The 2018 budget that Congress will come up with is likely to look quite different compared to this blueprint budget. What do you expect from Congress with regard to the EPA’s budget?

O’Grady: First of all, I do not expect there to be no cuts to EPA. There shouldn’t be any cuts to EPA; there should be an increased budget, there should be increased staffing. That won’t happen. What I think they’re going to do is play amateur hour and negotiate back and forth and say, “Hey, we’ve saved the EPA. Instead of a 31 percent cut, it’s only going to be 15 percent.” Any cut is too much. Like I said, we’re on a starvation diet and they’re taking away our bread and water. I don’t see anything good coming out of this. 

‘We’re on a starvation diet, and they’re taking away our bread and water.’

I just hope that ordinary Americans will value the fact that they can go to their tap and get clean water, that they can go out and enjoy nature, and that they don’t have to worry about their children playing in toxic fields. I’m just expecting the worst. It may not be a 31 percent cut, but it’ll be 15 percent or 20 percent. They’ll eliminate one or two regional offices.

e360: I read a report that people are actually sending cookies to EPA offices in support. Do you feel like you have the support of the public at large?

O’Grady: I believe that, based on all the recent polls that I’ve read, the overwhelming majority of Americans care about the environment. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that climate change must be addressed. What I would like is for the overwhelming majority of Americans to write, email, call, and visit their Congressional representative and their U.S. Senators and say, “Stop this madness. Fund EPA.”