WASHINGTON, March 4, 2015 – EPA chief Gina McCarthy went before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee today to defend her agency’s $8.6 billion budget request, an appearance that one senator said she probably thinks of as a “dental appointment.”

Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Ok., kicked off the hearing by reciting a litany of complaints about the agency, including its inability to deliver updated volume requirements for the Renewable Fuel Standard, its plan to enforce climate change regulations that he said were too costly and unnecessary, and the alleged overreach of its proposed “waters of the U.S. rule.”

The panel’s ranking Democrat, Barbara Boxer of California, responded with a strong endorsement for McCarthy and the EPA’s budget request, which includes a $452 million increase over the spending authorized for the current fiscal year. She also reminded the panel that the agency’s request is still down 20 percent from its $10.3 billion budget of six years ago.

“EPA is being asked to do more, rather than less and it is important to keep that in mind,” Boxer said. McCarthy said that through the budget request, President Obama is sending a “clear signal of the resoures EPA needs” to improve the nation’s infrastructure and the health of its citizens through cleaner air and water.

Much of the give and take with McCarthy was about climate change, a phenomenon that she said was not just an “environmental challenge,” but a threat to public health and national security, hence the necessity for the administration’s Clean Power Plan. Inhofe scoffed at the assertion, arguing that the plan would cut CO2 concentrations by less than 1 percent and “reduce sea level rise by the thickness of three sheets of paper.”

The sharpest exchange of the session took place between McCarthy and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who said EPA’s budget request amounted to a 6 percent increase, or about 3 times the rate of inflation, an indication that McCarthy was “unaware of the pushback occurring in the real world” against EPA plans. McCarthy responded that the president, in his spending plan was not buying into “the bad policy of sequestration,” or forced budget cuts.

Sessions also cited research that he said showed that contrary to climate change dogma, there had been fewer droughts and hurricanes in recent years, and that the moisture content of soil had increased slightly and not decreased. McCarthy said she had no idea what research Sessions was referring to and promised to provide the lawmaker with plenty of evidence to show that “climate change is real and happening now.”

“If you look at the past century,” McCarthy said, “we have had changes in climate we haven’t seen in a thousand years.”

McCarthy also got into a mild tussle with Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who wanted to know why EPA was in such a “rush” to finalize the WOTUS rule “when 35 states have said they oppose it.” The EPA administrator denied there was a rush or that any states opposed the plan, which she said had attracted over a million comments and “87.1 percent” of them were supportive of the rule.

Later, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who suggested the hearing was like a trip to the dentist for McCarthy, pointed out that last month the Army Corps of Engineers had indicated only 20,000 of the million comments McCarthy referred to were considered “unique and substantive,” while the rest were often duplicative comments generated by mass campaigns. And of the 20,000 “unique and substantive” comments, the Corps said about 37 percent were supportive and 58 percent opposed.

Republicans and Democrats did seem to agree that there was a need for more spending to improve infrastructure for drinking water and waste-water systems, which would see reduced funding under the EPA’s proposed budget.

“I am concerned about the inadequate levels of funding proposed for these programs,” Boxer said in her opening statement. “Our nation’s water infrastructure needs far outstrip the funding available, and the proposed $53.8 million cut to the State Revolving Funds will make this funding gap grow.”

McCarthy said EPA would “love to have lots of money” for these programs but said “difficult choices have to be made.” She said the agency is hoping to leverage more spending on such infrastructure projects through public-private partnerships.

Committee member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., today introduced a bill that would reauthorize a $15 million annual appropriation for six years under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The bill, the Grassroots Rural and Small Community Water Systems Assistance Act, would finance EPA technical assistance and training programs for rural water utilities.

(The story was updated at 8:10 p.m.)


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