Any time a hurricane barrels toward our coasts, as Irma and Maria did with great ferocity, our priorities must be protecting people and securing our homes and businesses. That includes protecting everyone from the dangerous toxic chemicals and pollution that can be unleashed by destructive storms.
While most eyes are on the Federal Emergency Management Agency during and after a catastrophe, it is easy to overlook the fact that another federal agency plays a major role in the public health and safety of communities before, during and after a storm: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA, for instance, is responsible for working with water agencies to test and protect water supplies from sewage and chemical releases, to help secure Superfund and hazardous waste sites from leaking toxic contaminants and to work with communities to monitor air quality as winds and water bring hazards into the air. These steps are particularly vital in low income communities that are all too often most vulnerable to environmental dangers that threaten the health of children and families.
Unfortunately, even as disaster threats worsen in changing times, EPA’s disaster-related efforts and other critical EPA programs that help communities prepare for and respond to natural catastrophes are on the chopping block. The Trump Administration has proposed cutting them by up to almost 40 percent, and the entire EPA budget by nearly a third. The Senate is to take up EPA funding as early as next week.
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Even when our state is not in the midst of an emergency, the EPA’s work is critical to Florida’s economy. Our water is a world-class treasure that helps power our state’s economy and make this a place like no other to visit and live. People come from around the world to swim, snorkel, boat and fish on our pristine beaches and in our iconic Everglades. More than 112 million tourists visited Florida last year, which creates thousands and thousands of Florida jobs.
Our state is a peninsula whose success is dependent on the water around us: on major shipping and passenger ports, on the fishing industry, on the commercial farmlands in Central Florida, and on the lakes, rivers and estuaries that need to be clean to provide clean drinking water and attract tourists.
But our waters and wetlands face growing challenges, like algal bloom, red tide, and fish kills. They are frequently contaminated with runoff from animal waste and pesticides, fertilizer and oil and gasoline that drip on to our roadways. Meanwhile, climate change is bleaching our gorgeous coral, threatening aquatic life that helps attract so many visitors, is flooding our streets due to rising seas, and intensifying hurricanes like Irma currently battering our great state.
To help fight these challenges, Florida has forged a longtime partnership with the EPA, which has provided about $600 million grants to protect our environment and public health in the last five years. But the Trump Administration and their allies in Congress are working to hollow out the agency by cutting its budget back to levels from the 1970s. Those plans pose threats to millions here who depend on the agency to protect our health and the state’s tourism and business climate.
EPA’s support has been essential to Florida’s efforts to clean up and prevent water pollution, replace ineffective septic tanks, and conduct research to protect endangered aquatic life and help communities map and plan for sea level rise. Its public health experts and scientists help our local officials prevent and clean up dangerous and sometimes toxic water pollution problems.
Florida’s waterways would be deeply affected, too. Everglades and Biscayne Bay restoration rely on critical support from the South Florida Geographic Initiative, which the President and his supporters in the House would eliminate.
Fortunately, colleagues on both sides of the House rejected the part of the President’s plan which would cut even more, restoring funding for Charlotte Bay, the Indian River Lagoon, Sarasota Bay and Tampa Bay which all rely on the National Estuary Program which he proposed eliminating.
Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt would also eliminate funding to monitor beaches for fecal pollution and notify the public of health risks. Without help, says Dr. Brian Lapointe of Florida Atlantic University, “there will be so much fecal contamination in the water you’ll have to avoid contact with the water.”
By slashing federal funding, the Administration would force Florida to abandon key antipollution efforts or stick state taxpayers with a bigger bill. Though I wish we could have fixed it all in the House, we must now urge the Senate, including our Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, to ride the environmental ship.
We need to remember that the environment is not a partisan issue. We need our leaders from both political parties to work together to stop this threat. Dirty water is unsafe for people from both sides of the aisle. I encourage Governor Scott to step up and take a leadership role in fighting for Florida’s families and tourist sector. The governor has been absent in this fight to protect EPA dollars that are vital in disasters and every day.
We must insist leaders at all levels of government protect our people and our state. Everything from our drinking water to our beaches is at risk. We need our governor and our entire Congressional delegation to speak up on behalf of all Floridians. It is also time to rally our mayors, our business owners, our fishermen, and everyone else whose health and safety will be affected if President Trump and his allies succeed in gutting the EPA.
There is no time to lose. Together, let’s work on protecting the beautiful Florida we know and love.
Congressman Darren Soto represents Florida’s 9th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, which includes Osceola County, as well as parts of Orange and Polk counties. Rep. Soto serves on the Agriculture and National Resources committees.