By KEN WARD JR.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As West Virginia lawmakers look to roll back environmental standards and worker safety protections, the Trump administration is proposing significant cuts in federal agencies responsible for safeguarding workers, communities and the environment.
President Donald Trump, in a budget blueprint made public Thursday, proposed major funding cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency’s programs to fight climate change and police polluters, as well as significant reductions in spending for the Department of Labor, which regulates workplace safety in coal mines and other dangerous industries.
The Trump budget also eliminates all funding for the Chemical Safety Board, a small agency — with a budget of just $11 million — that repeatedly has come to West Virginia to give residents and workers answers about significant chemical plant explosions and related incidents involving hazardous materials.
Environmental organizations, workers safety advocates and organized labor groups are especially concerned about what could happen in places like West Virginia, where state lawmakers are pushing ahead with regulatory rollbacks of their own and Gov. Jim Justice repeatedly has said that he wants the state Department of Environmental Protection to stop saying “no” to business and industry.
“I’m deeply concerned,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “You could say this is the perfect storm for rolling back 50 years of progress.”
A few hours after Trump announced his federal budget proposal, the West Virginia House of Delegates moved another step closer to passing House Bill 2811, legislation that would further back away from the landmark aboveground storage tank law legislators unanimously passed in the immediate wake of the January 2014 Elk River chemical spill.
The House Judiciary Committee did rewrite that bill to ensure that all tanks currently covered by the law’s registry requirements would continue to have to be registered with the DEP. But the bill would still exempt 2,300 other oil and gas industry tanks — all located in the “zone of peripheral concern,” upstream from drinking water intakes — from existing safety standards and inspection requirements.
The House advanced the bill Thursday, without further amendments being offered. It’s on the calendar and expected to pass the House today, and then move to the Senate.
Meanwhile, a state Senate subcommittee is scheduled this morning to take up Senate Bill 582, an industry-backed bill that would do away with state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training inspections of coal mines and limit the agency’s enforcement authority to situations where imminent danger of death or serious injury can be proven.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker and a Mettiki Coal official, also eliminates the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety’s authority to write new rules. Instead, mine operators in West Virginia would simply have to follow federal standards set by the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Details of how Trump’s budget proposal would affect inspections and enforcement from MSHA had not yet been made public Thursday, but the overall Labor budget would be cut 21 percent, including elimination of a safety training program run by MSHA’s sister agency, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“One of the most important functions of government, at any level, is to keep its citizens safe, and that includes being safe at work,” said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers union. “Neither the federal or state government should be looking for ways to cut worker safety provisions, but should, instead, be looking at how to enforce current laws and strengthen them, where needed.”
At the EPA, the Trump budget proposal — called “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” — is in keeping with the president’s promises to greatly reduce the agency’s oversight of air and water pollution and eliminate a wide variety of regulations, including the high-profile Obama administration rule to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
“The American people deserve a regulatory system that works for them, not against them — a system that is both effective and efficient,” the budget blueprint states.
Still, the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that, along with reversing efforts to curb coal industry pollution, the president’s budget would defund or greatly reduce resources for agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration, which have led work to diversify coalfield economies crippled by the mining industry’s downturn.
“Despite many campaign promises to bring back coal jobs and support coal miners, the president doesn’t actually care about coal country,” wrote Jeremy Richardson, a West Virginia native and senior energy analyst for the UCS.
Richardson noted that Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., issued a statement that said many of the reductions and program eliminations in the Trump budget “are draconian, careless and counterproductive.”
Other critics question the wisdom of eliminating any funding for a small agency like the Chemical Safety Board, which doesn’t write regulations and, instead, tries to find root causes of chemical plant explosions and fires and recommend preventative action, often through industry best practices, rather than new regulations.
The CSB, created by the 1990 Clean Air Act, went unfunded for nearly a decade, initially, but has been credited with prodding several successful safety initiatives.
“I think the CSB could be more effective, but their elimination is an attack on workers and communities,” said Maya Nye, a local chemical safety activist who has closely watched CSB investigations of incidents at the Bayer CropScience plant, in Institute, the DuPont facility, in Belle, and the Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk. “It does nothing more than protect big businesses who outsource their health and safety costs to workers and the public.”
At first, CSB officials referred any questions about the Trump budget proposal to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Pressed to comment about the effort to defund the agency completely, the independent board’s spokeswoman issued a statement that said the agency is “disappointed” by the administration’s proposal.
“For over 20 years, the CSB has conducted hundreds of investigations of high consequence chemical incidents, such as the Deepwater Horizon and West Fertilizer disasters,” the statement said. “Our investigations and recommendations have had an enormous effect on improving public safety. Our recommendations have resulted in banned natural gas blows in Connecticut, an improved fire code in New York City, and increased public safety at oil and gas sites across the State of Mississippi.
“The CSB has been able to accomplish all of this with a small and limited budget,” the statement said. “The American public are safer today as a result of the work of the dedicated and professional staff of the CSB. As this process moves forward, we hope that the important mission of this agency will be preserved.”
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