Republican Budget Bill Threatens Land, Species, and Public Health

This week the US House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill that slashes funding for many of the nation’s most important environmental programs, while blocking safeguards to air and water quality and protections for natural areas.  From opening the Grand Canyon to uranium mining, to preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic air pollutants, the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act seems like a public health advocate or outdoor enthusiast’s worst nightmare.

Part of the ongoing debate over how to allocate the national budget, the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies bill determines funding for the country’s most important environmental agencies.  Funds for programs that keep parks and wildlife refuges open to the public, reduce air and water pollution, and protect endangered species are all affected by this legislation

However this year leading lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are providing for environmental programs mainly by letting them lapse, or by slashing their budgets so much that implementation becomes almost impossible.  Here are some of the elements of this year’s appropriations bill that make environmentalists worry the most:

Freezing Clean Air Protections

After years of delay, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has for the first time moved to limit toxic air pollutants from cement and power-generating plants.  Regulations for mercury and other poisonous compounds would prevent thousands of cases of illness and premature death each year—but the House appropriations bill contains a rider that would freeze these rules in their tracks.  The bill would also restrict the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Leaving Endangered Species in the Cold

More than any other US law, the Endangered Species Act has helped bring imperiled creatures back from the brink of extinction.  Species like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon have seen dramatic recoveries partly thanks to this law.  Yet a rider in the House appropriations bill would put a moratorium on listing new species for protection.  If they are unable to receive much-needed help from the Endangered Species Act, many declining animals and plants could go extinct.

Opening Waterways to Pollution

Runaway algae blooms in lakes and streams aren’t just and eyesore—they produce toxins that threaten the health of those who swim, fish in, or drink from affected bodies of water.  A rider in the House appropriations bill would block the EPA from addressing just this sort of danger to health in Florida, where 1,900 miles of streams are subject to conditions that lead to algae blooms.  A separate provision exempts timber operations in national forests from clean water laws.

Threatening National Landmarks

Earlier this year the US Department of the Interior moved toward a moratorium on uranium mining in public lands around the Grand Canyon, protecting one of the nation’s best-known scenic treasures from the effects of a polluting industry.  The House appropriations bill would overturn this decision, opening the Greater Grand Canyon region to mining.  Perhaps just as important for those who love the outdoors, the bill cuts funding for basic services in parks and wildlife refuges—a move that could force some of these places to close to the public. 

Fortunately for public health and wild places across America, passage of the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act is not yet a sure thing.  Even if it passed by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, the bill has to clear the US Senate before becoming law.  Meanwhile President Obama has threatened to veto the legislation in its current form, and environmental groups are urging lawmakers not to support the bill.

If you have thoughts about funding for agencies that protect the environment, and programs that safeguard public health, now is a great time to speak out.  Look up which Congressperson in the House of Representatives serves your part of the country here, and let him or her know what you think about this important issue.  

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