CHICAGO ― Fifty-one million jobs, 90 percent of the U.S. freshwater supply and many Superfund sites could be jeopardized if the Environmental Protection Agency closes its Chicago-based Region 5 office.
That was the sober but urgent warning from congressional Democrats who on Tuesday penned a letter to EPA head Scott Pruitt urging him to preserve the Great Lakes area office amid rumors it could be shuttered as part of the Trump administration’s efforts to slash the EPA’s budget.
“EPA Region 5 is critical to protecting the air, drinking water and health of residents in the six Great Lakes states the region serves, and closing its headquarters in Chicago would make EPA less efficient and effective in its efforts to protect human health and the environment,” read the letter.
Congresspeople from the six states covered by EPA Region 5 signed the Tuesday letter to Pruitt, including Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).
(Read the full letter below.)
Multiple sources previously told HuffPost the White House aims to gut almost one-third of the EPA’s budget and eliminate 1 in 5 employees for the 2018 fiscal year.
In an April 17 letter to EPA Region 5 employees obtained by HuffPost, Acting Region 5 Director Bob Kaplan said rumors of the office’s closure were “not true” and called them “pure speculation.”
And in a visit last week to East Chicago, Indiana, which is grappling with a lead contamination crisis affecting both the water and soil, Pruitt reportedly denied to a resident of the town that Region 5 was on the chopping block.
The denial from officials has done little to quell the concerns of the Region 5 employees.
“Everyone here is very worried even though our regional management here denied [the rumors],” Michael J. Mikulka, president of Local 704, which represents the EPA Region 5 employees, told HuffPost last week.
About a month ago, the union got three press calls in the same day asking if it had heard there was announcement Region 5 might be closed. The Office of Management and Budget also issued a memo in March asking the EPA to propose two regions for elimination. Then, two weekends ago, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a statement in support of keeping Region 5 open following reports in the Chicago Sun-Times and Politico that it was on the chopping block.
“If the mayor issues a press statement, it’s based on something. It’s not from his imagination,” Mikulka said.
A veteran EPA employee who has spent decades at the Region 5 office said for years employees have heard rumblings of the agency getting rid of regions.
“There are about 1,000 people in Region 5 and it has the most industrial regions of all of the EPA,” the employee, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, told HuffPost. “My question is, ‘Why us?’ We’re a big region in terms of geography. It takes four hours [flying] to get to the edge of the whole region.”
According to the Sun-Times, if Region 5 shuttered, employees would go to Region 7, 20 miles south of Kansas City, Kansas.
“There are a lot of folks who simply won’t do the move. And to be honest, that’s why it’s being suggested,” the employee said. “The Trump administration suggested getting rid of 31 percent of the budget ― about 3,000 employees, which is about 20 percent of the EPA workforce. How are they going to get there? It’s a lot easier to combine regions knowing that many of the staff in Region 5 would not want to move to Kansas City.”
The employee predicted that if the closure came to pass, “at least half” of the Region 5 employees would not go.
Several EPA employees said the demand for functions like water-testing and state oversight already outpaces the regional office’s resources.
Members of Congress who signed Tuesday’s letter underscored the important role the region plays in ensuring a quick response to spills and contamination in the six states, which are criss-crossed with oil and gas pipelines ― spills often near the bulk of the nation’s freshwater supply and the Mississippi River waterways.
Shutting down the Region 5 office would make the agency’s partnerships with state and local bodies more difficult and less efficient, with dubious overall cost savings, the letter argued.
Mikulka, the EPA employees’ union president, said shuttering Region 5 would be an effective way to hobble an agency whose mission is largely at odds with the Trump administration’s deregulation-oriented, anti-climate-protection stance.
“If we have the most industry and we do the most enforcement and get the greatest results, what better way to disembowel the EPA than going after Region 5?”