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Idaho Environmental Organizations Face Uncertainty After Trump EPA Executive Actions 

- Located in Canyon County, the Dixie Drain is a product of collaboration between state and local agencies, and the Environmental Protection Agency. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Located in Canyon County, the Dixie Drain is a product of collaboration between state and local agencies, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Safeguarding clean air and water in Idaho is a challenge on a good day. When President Donald Trump ordered a hiring freeze at all federal agencies, and put the Environmental Protection Agency's grant programs and media accessibility on ice Jan. 24, it got a little harder.

"I think it's scary," said Idaho Sierra Club Director Zack Waterman, who added the executive actions are likely to have a "chilling effect on scientists doing science" and undermine the EPA's regulatory efforts nationally and locally.

Trump's actions have been a source of uncertainty among regulators and environmental advocacy organizations across the Gem State. They hope the hiring and grant freezes will be temporary, but decisions regarding the EPA are the purview of Trump, whose pick for EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, awaits confirmation by the full U.S. Senate. Idaho Conservation League Government Relations Director Jonathan Oppenheimer said it's "unknown whether this will last six months or four years."

The federal agency has long been a "backstop" for environmental protection, Oppenheimer said, with the state having to make rule-making decisions in accordance with EPA guidelines. Halting hiring of new personnel at the agency could reduce its ability to enforce its clean water, air and climate change mandates.

"Under the current administration, there are more question marks than anything," Oppenheimer said.

The possibility of Pruitt leading the EPA is also a source of consternation. The New York Times has called the former Oklahoma attorney general a climate change denier with a history of filing suit against the agency he has been tapped to lead. During his confirmation hearing, however, Pruitt said "the climate is changing, and human activity contributes to that in some manner."

A weakened federal agency led by someone ambivalent to environmental standards could have detrimental effects on water quality in Idaho. For instance, it is unclear how a Pruitt-run agency would approach the ongoing process of building a permitting program to replace the EPA-enforced National Pollution Discharge System—a component of the Clean Water Act responsible for the construction of the Dixie Drain. As part of that process, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality would have to enact water protections and enforcement that meet EPA standards. What those standards might be going forward remains to be seen.

"It's an issue of, 'Will the Idaho program be scrutinized or rubber stamped?'" Oppenheimer said. "We have a lot of concerns with the direction the Pruitt nomination indicates."

Even the Idaho agencies that work closest with the EPA are in the dark. Since fiscal year 2013, IDEQ has received almost $33 million in grants from the EPA, and approximately half the department's expenditures were funded through the EPA and the Department of Energy. IDEQ has so far not received any formal notification or memo about the extent or character of Trump's action on EPA grants.

"We're not entirely sure what the freeze entails," said IDEQ Chief Financial Officer Jack Carpenter, who added it "looks like it's a freeze on new grant issuances," meaning current IDEQ funding through the EPA remains intact.

According to Carpenter, who oversees grant programs, accounting, budgets, purchasing, contracts and facilities for IDEQ, in a best-case scenario, the grants already awarded to IDEQ will continue to be funded and the freeze will be temporary. In a worst-case scenario, all grant spending will be frozen.

In the latter event, he said, IDEQ could sustain its operations temporarily, but enforcement of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts would be affected in the long run.

"The interpretation here at the agency is the administration is looking heavily at the EPA itself. We’re not sure how any cuts would affect us or not," Carpenter said.

Trump has proven to be an energetic and unpredictable executive. The first days of his presidency have been marked by a flurry of executive orders ranging from reviving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines to halting refugee resettlement from select countries in the Middle East. Some are hopeful the grant freeze will be temporary but, for Waterman, time is not on Idaho's side.

"It looks like Trump's trying to silence the EPA, but he can't silence climate change," he said.

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