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Report: Kansas Put Your Health At Risk By Trimming Environmental Agency's Budget

Brian Grimmett
Kansas News Service file photo
A KDHE employee explains a map of a plume of toxic dry cleaning chemicals in December 2017.

WICHITA, Kansas — An environmental watchdog group saysmost states aren’t stepping up to fill the gap left by budget and staff cuts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which could put Kansans at greater risk of exposure to harmful pollutants.

“There’s no one there to work as a watchdog or a cop on the beat,” according to Tom Pelton, communications director at the Environmental Integrity Project. “To tell companies to meet your permit limits and to stop polluting so much.”

State funding for the Kansas Division of Environment has dropped 11.5% from $82.4 million in 2008 (adjusted for inflation) to $73 million in 2018. That’s about the middle of the pack in the U.S.

State Environmental Agency Funding

The Kansas Division of Environment is responsible for a wide range of tasks. It monitors public drinking water and enforces clean water standards. It’s also responsible for cleaning up spills, such as toxic plumes created by chemicals that leaked into the ground from dry cleaners, and issues permits for dumps and trash disposal sites.

Pelton said it’s one thing to have laws, which in many cases come from the federal government, but it’s quite another to make sure they’re getting enforced.

The state’s funding comes from a variety of sources, including user and permit fees, fines and appropriations from the legislature.

When asked about the report, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment declined to give an interview, but said in a statement: “KDHE has the necessary funding to perform our duties.”

Between 2008 and 2018, the division of environment reduced its total number of staff by 41 people, a 9% change.

The reduction in staff plays a role in daily interactions between KDHE and GSI Engineering, a Wichita-based environmental engineering firm.

“Things sometimes take longer,” GSI President Chuck Brewer said. “And they just don’t have quite the experience they need to to handle everything I’d like to see them do.”

State Agency Staffing

He also mentioned GSI leadership has lobbied for years for more KDHE funding, noting that a lot of the state’s middle-level geologists and engineers have left for higher paying jobs.

“As an outsider,” he said. “I see it as what we pay for a middle-level person versus what they pay — there’s a big difference.”

But he also said he doesn’t think it’s made Kansas less safe. When it really counts, like during an emergency, KDHE does and will do everything it can to make sure the public is safe.

KDHE’s drawdown comes as the EPA has seen drastic cuts of its own, with funding for pollution control and science down by 16% since 2008. The EPA’s workforce has declined by nearly 2,700 people.

The EPA’s strategic plan for 2020 says the reductions are an effort to restore authority to the states.

But Pelton said the data just doesn’t back that claim up. With both federal and state agencies cutting back, he’s worried there won’t be enough people to enforce environmental laws, and what it would lead to.

“So what that means is more air pollution people are breathing, more water pollution in their streams and rivers, more toxic waste that’s not being cleaned up,” he said. “It means really a more contaminated environment for all of our children and grandchildren.”

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Brian Grimmett is a two-time Regional Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist covering energy and environment stories across the state of Kansas.