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EPA Grant Freeze Cuts Tribes Deeply

Courtesy EPA Former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) / Administrator Gina McCarthy meets with the Yakama Tribal Council.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been forced to freeze all grants, depriving tribes of much-needed funds

The Environmental Protection Agency’s last news release on January 20 was a warning to residents of the Yakama Nation in eastern Washington not to burn, use woodstoves or idle their cars due to stagnant air levels that have increased air pollution to unhealthy levels. The agency stopped releasing information to the public after President Donald Trump instituted an EPA blackout on January 23.

That’s not all.

Trump froze all EPA grants and contracts, an investigation by ProPublica found. Although Trump lifted the EPA’s temporary freeze to the states, according to USA Today, nothing has been reported about the tribes, and the EPA has not responded to requests for information.

Further troubling for Indian country is a January 23 news report by Axios that a leaked copy of Trump’s transition plan outlined, under “Potential opportunities for budget reductions,” $513 million in cuts to “states and tribal assistance grants.” Further, ProPublica reported that Trump had promised during his campaign to get rid of the agency “in almost every form,” with only “little tidbits left.”

EPA tribal programs cover water quality, water pollution and water sanitation; indoor and outdoor air standards; environmental health, enforcement, monitoring and assessment; lead, pesticides and toxic substances; hazardous waste, and CERCLA, better known as the Superfund law. A reduction in grant funding could interfere with everything from preparing to withstand climate impacts to cleanup of toxic sites. Tribal nations and agencies are concerned.

The Quinault Indian Nation on the western Washington coast has had to cope with sea level rise, increased storms and higher ocean waves that flood half of their main village. The Quinault have not yet identified potential funding sources to move the village to higher ground, Larry Ralston, Quinault Tribal Treasurer said via email.

“But we have grave concerns that President Trump’s ill-advised financial decisions will cripple not only all of Indian Country but also the entire United States of America,” he said.

EPA grants support water quality for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and its four member tribes, and are an integral part of their basin-wide salmon recovery efforts, said Sara Thompson, the commission’s public information officer.

“At this time, we are unsure of the state of those grants and that funding,” Thompson said in an e-mail to Indian Country Media Network. “We have not had any official communications with EPA over the freeze and what it means to tribal grant programs.”

Alaska Native peoples are facing the earliest and some of the most severe impacts of climate disruption. It’s especially challenging because their acclimation to changing conditions has been so abrupt. But many Alaska Native villages have undergone training to prepare, and it has all been made possible through the EPA Indian Environmental General Assistance Program (IGAP) Program, said Mike Brubaker, Director of the Center for Climate and Health, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

EPA grants assist remote Alaska Native villages in assessing and adapting to the threats of a changing climate, and the vulnerability and sustainability of their food and water, Brubaker told ICMN, adding that IGAP funding “is the backbone of the rural, community-based, tribal capacity for climate change adaptation in Alaska, along with all other environmental activities.”

“My understanding is that there are many tribes in the Pacific Northwest (and around the country) that use IGAP funds to support climate change adaptation work, not to mention programs focused on air quality and water quality,” Kathy Lynn, Tribal Climate Change Project Coordinator with the Pacific Northwest Tribal Climate Change Project, said. “I can only imagine that this would have significant implications for tribes.”

The tribes have worked jointly with the EPA to clean up brownfields for over a decade. But under the Trump administration, the $2 million the EPA awarded Kansas State University on January 11 to provide tribes across the country with technical support to clean up brownfields over the next five years could be on hold.

The annual Tribal Drinking Water Program Fund Allotment is another longstanding program that could be axed under Trump’s transition plan. Under this program, the EPA, Indian Health Service and tribes identify community water projects in need of remediation.

These grants have rescued tribes from difficult situations. For example, an Environmental Justice grant meant the Navajo Nation could remedy uranium pollution in drinking water in an Arizona community. The Yurok Tribe in northern California used a Climate Justice grant to tackle rising sea levels, and subsequent river flooding and erosion. ThinkProgress reported that when the drought crisis in the Southwest worsened, the EPA granted $43 million to tribes in California, Nevada and Arizona.

As far as when the EPA will post a notice lifting its air pollution warning for the Yakama Nation, well—we just don’t know.

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