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Puget Sound dodges budget bullet

Beach-goers in Seattle enjoy a Puget Sound shore in Seattle.
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
Beach-goers in Seattle enjoy a Puget Sound shore in Seattle.

While the Trump administration aims to slash funding for environmental protection nationwide and eliminate funding for cleaning up Puget Sound, the Republican-controlled Congress hasn’t seen things the same way.

The House Appropriations Committee last week rejected the White House's proposal to kill funding for cleanups of major water bodies including Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.

The budget bill passed by the committee last week includes the full $28 million that EPA’s Puget Sound program received last year.

"We fought really hard to make sure these cuts weren’t included in what came out of our committee," Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor said.

He said the entire delegation from Washington state weighed in on behalf of Puget Sound.

"Despite the all too frequent partisan bickering, that’s a commonality that we have, Democrats and Republicans,” Kilmer said. “That sets the table well for us to try to do the right thing and ensure that this important body of water is protected."

Vancouver Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, also on the Appropriations Committee, did not respond to interview requests.

The EPA as a whole didn’t fare as well, budget-wise: the appropriations bill cuts EPA’s budget by $528 million, or about five times less than the $2.6 billion, 31 percent cut President Trump had called for.

The White House had proposed to shrink the EPA more than any other large federal agency. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has already begun preparations for layoffs at the agency and has frozen or undone various Obama-era environmental regulations.

While EPA's mission is "to protect human health and the environment," what Pruitt calls EPA's "core mission" does not include protecting the global climate. On that, the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress appear to agree: The word "climate" appears nowhere in the 178-page House budget bill covering EPA, the Interior Department and other natural resource agencies.

Appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee in June, Pruitt said he thought the agency could accomplish its core mission with a "trim" budget. But he said if Congress directed the agency to spend more on regional cleanups, he would spend the money.

The House appropriations budget fully funds Great Lakes restoration at $300 million but knocks $13 million off last year's $73 million for Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

The White House had also wanted to jettison the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Salmon Recovery Program. That program, costing $65 million last year, gives grants to help salmon in six western states.

House appropriators have slated NOAA’s salmon recovery program to receive its full $65 million.

Tribal leaders welcomed the restored EPA and NOAA funds but said much more is needed to keep Puget Sound and its salmon runs healthy.

“Even with those investments, we’ve still got problems with habitat,” said Justin Parker, head of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which represents 20 tribes in western Washington.

Parker said he wasn’t surprised that Congress hasn’t embraced the Trump budget.

“With any president’s budget, they’re typically dead on arrival, and with this president’s budget, it was even more so,” Parker said.

Congress watchers say the final federal budget will probably be similar to what the House committee has approved, though nothing's guaranteed.

The Trump administration isn’t the only government cutting funding for Puget Sound.

State funding to fight one of the sound’s most serious pollution threats, stormwater runoff, has been declining for several years.

The state has given as much as $50 million a year toward grants aimed at reducing the toxic runoff. The state's most recent capital budget, awaiting final approval by a gridlocked legislature, chops that amount nearly in half.

The stormwater program is mostly funded by a tax on hazardous products, primarily petroleum.

“Because the price of oil is down, the revenue is down for that program,” Jeff Parsons with the Puget Sound Partnership said.

Year started with KUOW: 2009