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EPA Threatens to Stop Funding Justice Dept. Environmental Work

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Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, in Washington, Sept. 26, 2017. Under Pruitt, the EPA may cut off a major funding source for the Justice Department lawyers who handle litigation seeking to force polluters to pay for cleaning up sites they left contaminated with hazardous waste. - TOM BRENNER/THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • Tom Brenner/The New York Times
  • Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, in Washington, Sept. 26, 2017. Under Pruitt, the EPA may cut off a major funding source for the Justice Department lawyers who handle litigation seeking to force polluters to pay for cleaning up sites they left contaminated with hazardous waste.

By CHARLIE SAVAGE
© 2017 New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator who has aggressively pushed to dismantle regulations and downsize the organization, is threatening to reach outside his agency and undermine the Justice Department’s work enforcing antipollution laws, documents and interviews show.

Under Pruitt, the EPA has quietly said it may cut off a major funding source for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. Its lawyers handle litigation on behalf of the EPA’s Superfund program seeking to force polluters to pay for cleaning up sites they left contaminated with hazardous waste. The EPA reimburses the Justice Department for that work, paying more than $20 million annually in recent years, or enough for 115 full-time employees, budget documents show.

But Pruitt has signaled that he wants to end those payments, potentially carving a major hole in the division’s budget, in a little-noticed line in the EPA’s budget proposal in the spring. No decision will be made until Congress passes an EPA budget for the fiscal year that begins in October, officials at both agencies said, although the payments were created by the executive branch, not Congress, so Pruitt may be able to act on his own. Congress hopes to pass a spending plan before a stopgap measure expires in mid-December.

Pruitt, a former attorney general of Oklahoma with strong ties to the fossil fuel industry who frequently sued the EPA before President Donald Trump placed him in charge of it, has made no secret of his ambition to unwind its regulations and shrink its workforce to curtail what he sees as federal overreach.

The prospect of Pruitt expanding his efforts to the Justice Department has raised worries among employees in the Environment and Natural Resources Division about layoffs or furloughs and significant reductions in their work to fight pollution.

Because they would continue to be responsible for pursuing Superfund cases, cutbacks would likely be spread across the division’s workload, which also includes suing oil companies, power plants and other corporations when they violate antipollution laws. Managers in the division have expressed hope that Justice Department leaders may come up with enough offsetting funds to forestall drastic measures.

Congressional appropriations aides in both parties said that skepticism has emerged on Capitol Hill over Pruitt’s idea. Still, the extent to which the Republican-controlled Congress would tie his hands remains to be seen.