Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I want to join my colleagues in welcoming Administrator Leavitt back to the EPW committee.
Before I get into budget and policy issues, I want to thank Administrator Leavitt for his role in getting the World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel started. As Administrator Leavitt knows, EPA launched the panel last week in New York, and I attended the event.
For the benefit of my colleagues, this is a panel that Senator Lieberman and I worked to bring about, and it will do some retesting of buildings in New York that were contaminated with toxic dust from the World Trade Center. The panel will also examine concerns that the EPA Inspector General raised last summer with regard related indoor air quality issues.
Administrator Leavitt, I know from our previous conversations that your are concerned about this issue, and I look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure that the panel runs smoothly and helps to address continuing concerns that New Yorkers have about the air inside their homes and workplaces.
I’d like to then turn to the budget, and several policy issues. Like many of my colleagues, I have concerns about the budget, and more importantly, about the policy direction of the EPA.
With regard to the budget, there are a few bright spots. I am extremely pleased that the Clean School Bus program is proposed for funding at $65 million, a very substantial increase over the $5 million appropriated last year. This is a program that I worked with Congressmen Houghton and Walsh to get started two years ago. Its goal is to improve the air that kids breathe on their way to school by providing funding to retrofit old school buses with modern pollution control equipment. I know it’s been a big success—including in the town of Corning in New York, which got funding last year through the program—and I’m pleased that it is being expanded.
But as much as I applaud that increase, the overall budget is extremely disappointing. A budget is a statement of priorities, and this budget clearly states that environmental protection is not a priority for this Administration. The total EPA request of $7.76 billion is down 7.2 percent from FY 2004 enacted levels ($8.37 billion) for the Agency. On a percentage basis, that is one of the most severe cuts in the entire budget, and I think it speaks volumes about this Administration’s lack of commitment to strong environmental protection.
I just want to touch on a couple specific cuts. According to EPA’s own estimates, we are facing a clean water infrastructure funding shortfall of $500 billion over the next 20 years. Yet the budget includes a cut in clean water infrastructure funding of almost $500 million. To me, that is indefensible—we need to be increasing this kind of funding, not cutting it, and I will be working with my colleagues to that in the budget and appropriations process.
I am also dismayed by the cuts in research funding contained in the budget. One item that stands out to me—and one that I have written to the President about—is the fact that this budget zeroes out the EPA’s building decontamination research program. This is a relatively small budget item—less than $10 million—and the fact that it was zeroed out in the budget is simply astounding.
In describing this cut, the EPA budget documents explain—quite frankly—that this cut, quote:
"represents complete elimination of homeland security building decontamination research,” and that the cut will "force it to disband the technical and engineering expertise that will be needed to address known and emerging biological and chemical threats in the future."
Given our experience here in the Senate with anthrax and ricin, and the ongoing work in New York to clean buildings contaminated by the World Trade Center collapse, I just can’t understand this cut. And I’m going to be working here in the Senate to restore it.
But even more important than the budget are the EPA’s policy choices. EPA’s mission is to protect public health and the environment by setting and enforcing rules that regulate air and water pollution and the cleanup of toxic substances, and I continue to have deep concerns about EPA’s direction under this Administration.
One of the most important issues under discussion now is controlling mercury pollution from power plants. In my view, the EPA proposal does not require cuts that are deep enough or fast enough. In addition, I am opposed to the proposal to allow trading of mercury emissions because I believe it will lead to dangerous hotspots where emissions and exposure remain unacceptably high.
Mr. Chairman, this is an extremely urgent public health issue. It certainly is in New York, where the Department of Health has issued 38 fish consumption advisories that warn children and women who may become pregnant to limit the locally-caught fish they eat.
We know that mercury is a potent neurotoxin, and that it is a particular threat to children and pregnant women. Prenatal mercury exposure can lead to problems such as poor performance on tests of attention and language, impaired memory, inability to process and recall information, and impaired visual and motor function.
We also know that there are literally hundreds of thousands of American children being born each year with unacceptably high levels of mercury in their blood. According to a recent EPA analysis, 630,000 of the 4 million babies expected to be born in the United States this year could have mercury blood levels at or above the agency's safety limit. But at the same time, the EPA is proposing an unacceptably weak mercury standard.
The Administration talks about leaving no child behind, but the sad truth is that this mercury proposal will leave hundreds of thousands of children behind at birth. For their sake, I believe the EPA must revise its mercury proposal to address this problem more swiftly.
Mr. Chairman, I have many other policy concerns—including Superfund and the New Source Review—as well as several New York-specific issues that I will be discussing with the Administrator after his testimony. Thank you.