Budget cuts slow chemical leak probe
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state and federal agencies that have been responding to the Elk River chemical leak all have one thing in common: They have had their budgets cut in the last few years.
And people connected with those agencies say, perhaps not surprisingly, that the cuts have hurt their ability to prevent and respond to situations like the water crisis in West Virginia.
The federal Chemical Safety Board is conducting a long-term investigation into what went wrong at Freedom Industries' site on the Elk, and what can be done to prevent future incidents.
The CSB has 41 employees, about half of whom are investigators. Its investigation in Charleston is expected to take about a year. The agency's budget -- about $10.5 million -- has been essentially flat for the last five years, although after the leak its 2014 funding was increased by $500,000, following a request by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives previously passed a broad spending bill that would have cut the CSB's funding by 25 percent, to about $8 million per year.
Rafael Moure-Eraso, the CSB's chairman, said that his agency had also lost $450,000 in 2013 due to the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration. He said that funding issues have slowed down and hampered his agency's investigations.
"Oh very much so. We have three active investigative teams, so in order for Mr. Banks to be here with his team, he has to stop the work on the particular investigation he was running," Moure-Eraso said.
Lead investigator Johnnie Banks had to leave his investigation of an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, to come to the Kanawha Valley.
"We have to go back to West, and come back to this, and share time like that," Moure-Eraso said. "We just have to come and start an investigation and do the best we can with the resources we have. And we would like to be more efficient in what we produce, but it's a problem."
Banks said Friday the agency is as busy as it has ever been in his 11 years there.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is facilitating the cleanup process at Freedom Industries. The DEP is also the agency that approved Freedom's water pollution permit and visited the site several times over the past two decades to investigate odor complaints.
Like many state agencies, the DEP would have its state funding cut by 7.5 percent for the second consecutive year under the budget Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin proposed Jan. 8, the day before the leak was detected.
In the 2014-15 fiscal year, which begins in July, the DEP will get less state money than it has in any year going back to 2008, according to projections from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
But that only tells a fraction of the story. The DEP generally gets between $7 million and $8 million per year from the state's general revenue fund, so the 7.5 percent cuts amount to about $500,000. The vast majority of the agency's $200 million to $300 million annual budget comes from the federal government and special revenue, mostly in the form of fees for permits and licenses.
But those sources of funding are in decline as well. The DEP's budget for fiscal year 2014, which ends June 30, is smaller than every year since 2010, according to budget records. Adjusted for inflation, the DEP's 2014 budget is about $43 million less than it was in 2010.
A Tomblin spokeswoman indicated that the governor had no plans to reconsider the 7.5 percent cut for fiscal 2015 and said the agency could make up the cuts using special revenue money.
"DEP is funded almost entirely through special revenue and special revenue agencies did not receive a 7.5 percent cut," Amy Shuler Goodwin, Tomblin's communication director, wrote in an email. "Any reductions in the governor's recommended budget will have no impact on the agency's ability to carry out its mission."
The West Virginia Senate is considering a bill that would require the DEP to annually inspect all above-ground storage tanks in the state.
The bill includes ways to fund those inspections, such as fees on tank owners, but Senate President Jeff Kessler said Friday that legislators should look at the cuts to the DEP.
"At some point you can't expect folks to do more with less," said Kessler, D-Marshall.
He noted that the state Division of Corrections has been exempt from recent budget cuts.
"Why? That's because they perform such an important governmental function to keep us safe. We need to make sure the murderers aren't roaming the streets. And it's the same with the water," Kessler said. "If the water has the potential to harm our families and our children and our people, we're going to fund it appropriately so that they can do their jobs."
Following the Jan. 9 chemical leak, the state relied heavily on the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for information on the coal-processing chemical, Crude MCHM, that contaminated the Elk. The CDC quickly developed the 1 part per million threshold for Crude MCHM that is considered safe in drinking water. After several days of silence regarding questions about its standard, the CDC backtracked and said that pregnant women should not drink the water until there is no Crude MCHM in it.
The CDC's budget in fiscal 2013 was its smallest since at least 2010. Adjusted for inflation, the CDC's budget in fiscal 2013, which ended Sept. 30, was more than $1.1 billion less than it was in 2010, a decline of more than 15 percent. (Federal fiscal years run on a different calendar than state fiscal years.)
The CDC's budget will rise in 2014, but in both nominal and inflation-adjusted terms, it will still be smaller than it was in 2010.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry operates within the CDC. After the chemical leak, the state consulted with ATSDR to develop protocols for flushing contaminated water out of home plumbing (although the state generally disregarded ATSDR's recommendations).
The ATSDR saw its budget decline every year from 2010 to 2013. It will see an uptick in 2014, as most sequester cuts expire, but still will be funded below 2010 levels.
In 2013, the CDC gave $160 million less to state and local public health offices than it did in 2012, according to an agency fact sheet. It also cut $33 million from state and local programs to respond to natural and manmade disasters.
"We do less," said Debra Lubar, a CDC financial official, when asked the results of cuts. "What our director has often been quoted as saying is that threats are not going down and so it is concerning to not be able to grow with the public health threats."
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has said that it is working closely with the DEP and other agencies to address the Elk River contamination and to get the water system back to normal.
For a variety of technical reasons, Freedom Industries does not seem to fall under the EPA's jurisdiction, but the agency says it is examining its programs to see if they apply.
The EPA's budget also declined every year from 2010 to 2013. As a result, the agency had nearly 1,400 fewer employees in 2013 than it did in 2010.
In an email statement sent Friday, the EPA wrote that water quality monitoring is generally conducted by states, but with the support of federal grants that do things like help control pollution and support water quality management.
"The 2013 sequestration reduced federal support for state water quality programs," EPA officials wrote in the statement. "These cuts have made it harder for states to maintain their monitoring programs."
In a letter to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee written last year, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson wrote, "Reductions under sequestration would limit assistance provided to states and tribes to ensure safe and clean water, including ... protecting rivers and streams from industrial and municipal pollution discharges."
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., was the lone member of West Virginia's congressional delegation to respond to a request left Friday evening for comment for this article.
"There's no doubt that mindless budget cuts in recent years have taken their toll on agencies responsible for emergency preparedness and response," Rahall said in an email statement. "These cuts have had a real impact on our people and have unquestionably hurt our businesses and economy."
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.