CHICAGO — Closing two of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 10 regional offices could have "devastating" effects on Chicago, officials said, but the EPA is denying reports that the office responsible for monitoring clean air and water in the Great Lakes region will go anywhere.
On Friday, Politico reported that federal budget cuts will likely hit the EPA hard, and the budget instructs the EPA to identify two regional offices for closure by June 15. On Saturday, Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed quoted an unnamed city source saying the Chicago office could be consolidated with an EPA regional office in Kansas.
In response to reports, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the administration's plan "would be harmful to the environment and public health in Chicago" and the entire Great Lake region, and "all of us living in our nation's heartland" should be outraged.
"The report that the federal government is planning to close the Region 5 office of the EPA should be concerning to us all. At a time when US Steel is carelessly spilling dangerous chemicals into Lake Michigan, we cannot turn our back on the Great Lakes and allow the Trump administration to muffle the EPA," Emanuel said. "Whether you believe in modern science and thus believe in climate change or not, the fact is the EPA exists to protect human health and the environment."
But in an e-mail to staff Monday afternoon, acting EPA regional administrator Robert Kaplan called the reports that Region 5 office in Chicago was closing "untrue" rumors and "pure speculation." The EPA is discussing ways to eliminate office space to save money, Kaplan said.
"At this time, our discussions have not veered into the subject of an office closure. Anyone stating anything to the contrary is spreading false information," he said.
EPA spokesman J.P Freire called the reports "a hoax."
"The alleged closure was just a hoax — there’s no information whatsoever that supports these rumors," EPA spokesman J.P. Freire said.
Kaplan said the EPA remains committed to work in Region 5 communities, which include Flint, Mich. and those affected by the Superfund site in East Chicago, Ind. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who was confirmed in February, is visiting the Superfund site this week, Kaplan said.
Consequences of cuts
While the fate of Region 5's office remains unknown, President Donald Trump's budget released in March does call for a 31 percent spending reduction to the EPA, slashing its budget by $2.6 billion.
Among other cuts, the budget would eliminate funding for the $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and cut funding for hazardous waste cleanup at Superfund sites by 30 percent.
Troy Hernandez, a member of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, said the group has worked closely with Region 5's environmental justice program to ensure vital clean ups. The agency has been investigating lead contamination in Pilsen since 2011, when the EPA became involved with a cleanup at the former Loewenthal lead factory.
The EPA is already working with limited resources, and significant cuts in Chicago would likely prevent the agency from new testing in Pilsen, an industrious neighborhood that has been home to lead paint factories, brass smelters, coal plants and today, a metal shredder, Hernandez said.
"It is not an overstatement to say this neighborhood is very, very polluted. Without the EPA pushing for it, I don't know that we would get anything done," he said of the cleanups.
In November 2015, under an agreement with the EPA, BNSF Railway and H. Kramer began removing lead-contaminated soil from two areas in the Pilsen neighborhood — a railway spur and alley behind the H. Kramer foundry and an area near Benito Juarez Community Academy.
Frank Lagunas is an EPA chemist that works out Region 5's Chicago office. For the last five years, Lagunas has worked to ensure the water served on airplanes — airplanes across Region 5's six states — is safe for consumption. The EPA works to not only safeguard the environment, but also protect the public's health, he said.
Lagunas said a 31 percent cut to the EPA's budget — which reportedly means 1 of 5 EPA employees would be laid off — would devastate the already cash-strapped agency.
"There's the old saying, 'do more with less,' but that's not a real physical possibility," said Lagunas, a veteran and University Village resident. "You need technically experienced people to respond, and if those don't exist, you are waiting for it to get so bad that people start advocating for themselves that there's an issue here. And a lot of times, it's too late [at that point]."
With fewer employees and resources, the EPA won't be ready to respond to an environmental emergency like the Flint, Mich. water crisis, he said, where lives could be at stake.
"Making a little tiny change in the way you treat your water or address a remediation could have devastating consequences," Lagunas said.