Recent reports indicate the Trump administration is considering consolidating two Environmental Protection Agency regional offices as part of its effort to make unprecedented cuts in the EPA’s budget. We hear the regional office in Chicago would be consolidated into the one in Lenexa. If this plan were to come to fruition, Region 7 would span a gigantic territory from the western High Plains of Kansas to the base of the Appalachians in Ohio, and from the Boundary Waters of Minnesota to the Bootheel of Missouri.
A territory so vast would inevitably prevent the remaining EPA office, with substantially fewer personnel and resources, from delivering high-quality, effective protections for human health and the environment.
As former regional administrators for this region, we can easily see how such a proposal would threaten the basic protections to human health the EPA assures, while also undercutting EPA-state partnerships that serve the public so well. Those costs and the fiscal implications will hit hard across the entire heartland.
The Kansas City area would suffer as remaining EPA staff focus attention on larger communities across this large regional territory. Collaborative work by the EPA and local community organizations to restore and revitalize watersheds, reduce childhood exposure to lead-based paint and stimulate redevelopment in the urban cores of Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., would probably be diminished.
On the surface it may seem easy to close a federal office and relocate hundreds of Chicago employees to the Kansas City area. But consolidation will actually further erode EPA funding.
Payments to relocate staff and rent new private workspace would outweigh any claimed savings. The Chicago office is a tenant in a federally owned building, unlike Region 7, which rents its space.
We doubt that many Chicago EPA employees would actually be relocated to the Kansas City area. Our experience tells us that such a vast new territory would require many to be posted in field offices across the region, eliminating much of the estimated savings. Other attempts to consolidate federal agency regions have netted very little change in rank-and-file staff, few relocations and only a small fraction of senior positions eliminated, producing limited savings.
In establishing the regional concept, the federal government designed a system to keep more power closer to the people our government serves. Consolidation would reverse that notion and distance EPA staff from the people being served.
In a new region with such vast territory that includes a large swath of the industrial Rust Belt, small rural communities would suffer most. Even Region 7 urban areas like Kansas City, St. Louis, Omaha and Des Moines would lose resources for redevelopment, contaminated site cleanups and “brownfield” repurposing as they compete against larger industrial cities from the Twin Cities to Cleveland across the Great Lakes.
Our experience assures us that expanding the EPA’s region will intensify political pressures from elected officials at every local, state and federal level to ensure that problems in their areas get attention. When you layer this ill-conceived plan on top of a proposed 31 percent budget reduction, every community will lose.
The EPA has a unique trust responsibility to ensure environmental and human health protections for federally recognized tribal nations. Tribes along the northern plains and Great Lakes areas would see less EPA support and face the loss of basic protection to their tribal lands and waters. By comparison, Region 7’s relatively smaller tribal nations would be likely to lose the new competition for very limited remaining EPA resources.
We find it difficult to see how any plan to consolidate EPA regional offices, and especially this one, can do anything but advance an agenda to severely reduce and weaken the EPA. This isn’t a fiscal decision. It isn’t aimed at providing cleaner air and water and protecting our land. Rather, it strikes us a means of weakening EPA’s capability to serve the public and ensure compliance with the law of the land.
Mark Hague and Karl Brooks both served as EPA Region 7 administrators.