As Donald Trump visited Hampton Roads on Thursday to tout his intention to boost military spending by $54 billion, reports emerged that he also wants to gut federal funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup, from $73 million annually to $5 million.
The Washington Post reports the massive reduction is part of the president's draft fiscal year 2018 budget that would slash funds, staff and programs at the Environmental Protection Agency. As a candidate, Trump vowed to reduce the EPA to "little tidbits."
The EPA oversees the Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional partnership formed in 1983 to restore the badly polluted estuary. Nearly two-thirds of the program's budget is given to Virginia and other bay states for clean water projects. It's that funding that Trump's plan, if approved, would decimate.
"That's an elimination of the program," said Eric Schaeffer, director of the D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project, on Thursday. "When you drop down to that level, I don't know what you are left with. Basically, security guards or something guarding an empty building."
Schaeffer is a former enforcement director at EPA, which he says has already lost more than 11 percent of its staff since 2007 to budget cuts.
Trump's plan would reduce staff by another 20 percent, from 15,000 to 12,000 employees, cut grants to states by 30 percent and eliminate 38 separate programs, The Washington Post reports. Its annual budget would drop from $8.2 billion to $6.1 billion.
The Washington Post says it reviewed details of the 2018 budget blueprint, which claims it will "prioritize rebuilding the military and making critical investments in the nation's security. It will also identify the savings and efficiencies needed to keep the nation on a responsible fiscal path."
The Pentagon's annual budget is about $600 billion.
"EPA is barely a rounding error next to the Pentagon's budget," said Schaeffer. "You can cut that ($8.2 billion) and feed it to the Pentagon and they're not even going to burp."
The budget plan is likely to face some stiff opposition in Congress, which would have to approve any cuts during the appropriations process and where cleanup efforts have bipartisan support.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said in a statement Thursday that saving the bay benefits the environment and the economy.
"I hope President Trump's comments less than 48 hours ago that his administration will work to 'promote clean air and clean water' were not just empty talk," Kaine said.
And Sen. Mark Warner said the bay is cleaner today than in decades, supporting thousands of local jobs and businesses.
"It would be wrong and incredibly shortsighted," Warner said, "to backtrack on all the progress that's been made so far."
U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, D-Newport News, agreed that cutting critical cleanup funds by 93 percent endangers years of progress.
Last week, Scott joined 16 colleagues in Congress from Virginia and other bay states in a bipartisan letter urging Trump to maintain the CBP's $73 million budget.
Failing to do so, the Congress members wrote, would threaten a "significant economic engine" for the entire region.
The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America, its massive watershed covering portions of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and the District of Columbia. It supports lucrative commercial fishery and tourism industries.
But, for years, the bay has been polluted by wastewater, nutrients and sediment stemming from agriculture, development and urban sprawl. Every summer, nutrient overloads cause toxic algal blooms and dead zones that harm marine life.
Bay states tried and failed for decades to muster the funds and political will to restore the watershed. Then in 2010 the EPA intervened and put bay states on a "pollution diet."
Now, scientists say state and local anti-pollution measures are working, and the bay is finally getting healthier.
Bay advocates say the administration's proposal would be "devastating," not only for the bay's aquatic life, but for the residents and businesses that depend on it.
"This is an outrageous and unnecessary cut that violates a longstanding, bipartisan consensus that cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is good for our region and good for our nation," Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, said in a statement.
At the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, which studies the bay and its ecosystems, fisheries scientist Rob Latour said his colleagues are feeling the budget uncertainty.
"Very broadly, we're all sort of holding our breath and wondering what the new administration is going to do regarding natural resources," Latour said Thursday. "There are some scary proposals out there. Undoubtedly, a slash like that would have very strong negative impacts across the scientific and research community — the regulation community as well."
VIMS is affiliated with the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
Sarah Bucci at Environment Virginia in Richmond urged the state's congressional delegation to "stand up for the bay and push back against these steep proposed cuts."
At the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an advocacy group based in Annapolis, Md., president William Baker likewise urged local residents, businesses, watershed groups, universities and state and local governments to speak out.
But Schaeffer said the draconian budget proposal is likely part of the administration's negotiation strategy.
"The charitable explanation is they are pushing these things out in order to dramatize the cuts they want to make and with the expectation that they'll be pushed back," Schaeffer said. "Trump's MO supposedly is making outrageous demands. And then accepting half of outrageous."
Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892.