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California Environmental Programs

by William J. Kelly Monday, Aug. 05, 2002 at 7:45 PM 626-441-2112 PO Box 1022, South Pasadena

California Environmental Programs Face Major Cuts In Midst Of Budget Debacle

Want help resolving an environmental pollution problem in your neighborhood? Be ready to wait on hold.

Looking for money to clean up diesel soot from municipal transit buses or city equipment? Don’t count on it this year.

Working on a local project to clean up and restore a stream or river? Not so fast.

Need an environmental permit for your new or expanding business? You’ll need to drive a long way for help due to state office closures.

Just graduated from college and want to help solve pollution problems in the Golden State? Better luck next year.

These and other cuts in services, programs, and hiring at state environmental agencies are realities Californians will face in the coming year under anticipated budget cuts in response to the recession and aftermath of the electricity crisis, say state officials.

So far, state environmental departments are coping with California’s budget crisis through a hiring freeze and staff shrinkage through attrition, closure of permit assistance offices, and cutbacks in a wide array of programs aimed at cleaning up California’s air and waterways and preserving open space and fish and wildlife habitat.

“All six environmental offices have taken cuts and we have fewer resources than last year,” said William L. Rukeyser, assistant secretary of external affairs for the California Environmental Protection Agency, the umbrella agency for state environmental protection offices. “We’ve all had to tighten our belts.”

For environmental programs, the budget season got off to a stormy start in January when Gov. Gray Davis proposed a 37% reduction in funding for Cal EPA, reducing money for the agency’s environmental protection programs from .8 billion last fiscal year to .146 billion this fiscal year. Those initial cuts included eliminating money for cleaning up diesel soot, the state’s number one cancer-causing air pollutant.

By May, Davis faced a rising flood of .6 billion worth of red ink projected for this fiscal year and was forced to seek further cuts totaling billion in the state’s budget, including more reductions in popular environmental programs. “A full third of our plan – nearly billion – comes from program reductions,” said Davis in unveiling the additional requested cuts. “These cuts were extremely painful, but they were also absolutely necessary.”

Among his additional requested cuts for Cal EPA offices were:

· million in reduced funding for the California Air Resources Board, including a cut of million in incentives for motorists to purchase electric vehicles;

· .4 million in cuts for evaluating the health effects of contaminants at the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment;

· .4 million less for the Department of Pesticide Regulation to develop standards for safe use of pesticides by the state’s giant agricultural industry; and

· .2 million in cuts for storm water pollution prevention programs, at a time when pollution in urban runoff is seen as the key cause of beach closures and state regulators have cracked down on cities to do a better job of controlling it.

Now, more than one month after the July 1 due date for passage of the state budget, the Legislature is struggling with more cuts. So as the budget season ends, environmental agencies are braced for a full force gale.

Some law makers, Rukeyser said, have gone as far as seeking to significantly cut or even “zero out” the state’s environmental departments, including the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Cal EPA turned back that proposal, he said, by pointing out that the department plays in indispensable role in cleaning up “illegal methamphetamine labs” raided by police. “They get a call every four hours for that.”

As pending in the Legislature, a number of popular environmental programs face additional cuts, including:

· 6 million less for programs aimed at cleaning up beaches, protecting water sheds, and improving water quality; and

· .7 million less for restoring water quality and fish and wildlife habitat in the San Francisco Bay and adjoining river delta area.

Legislators also singled out agricultural land preservation and river parkway programs for additional cuts and trimmed money for water information and drought planning after one of the driest years on record in the southern half of the state.

The cuts are affecting local air quality districts and governments around the state, which are the main cops on the beat when it comes to policing environmental pollution.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which covers almost half the state’s population in the greater Los Angeles area, has put 29 engineers and inspectors on notice that unless money from the state is restored in the final budget their positions will be phased out through attrition over the next year.

The positions were created just last year after the first increase in state funding for California’s network of local air districts in 20 years, according to SCAQMD Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein.

Yet Rukeyser noted, even under the anticipated cuts, California environmental protection programs will be better funded than they were when Gov. Gray Davis took office in 1999.

“If you take the short-term perspective, we’ll have less than we did last year,” he said. “If you take the medium-term perspective of two or three years we’re still better off.”

As for a year from now, Rukeyser said he has no “crystal ball.”

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