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EPA 'quite a ways behind' on filling appointments, former official says

Two former U.S. EPA officials advised state environmental regulators on how to work with the agency amid a lag in appointments and fears of large budget cuts.

President Donald Trump has yet to nominate an EPA deputy administrator or appoint people to fill other key posts at the agency. At the same time, the president has proposed deep cuts to the EPA's budget, including funding for state environmental initiatives.

The leadership vacancies and potential reshuffling of priorities have put state environmental agencies, which often rely on the EPA for regulatory guidance and financial support, on edge.

In terms of filling top appointments, Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation under President George W. Bush, said "I think we're quite a ways behind." Unlike past administrations, Trump came into the White House lacking "the kind of lineup of people who've been working with them who've already been kind of vetted," Holmstead said April 6 at the Environmental Council of States' spring meeting in Washington, D.C.

The Trump administration is "not wildly out of sync yet," but "if the nominations and the intent to nominate aren't coming fairly quickly now, we'll fall off," according to Bob Perciasepe, who served as EPA deputy administrator under President Barack Obama and currently is president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. He noted that after Obama nominated former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to lead the agency's air and radiation division at the start of his presidency in 2009, the U.S. Senate was holding her confirmation hearing by April 11.

Appointments take time for any new administration, particularly when a change in party occurs. But state regulators at the ECOS event were particularly eager to touch base with EPA leaders in light of Trump's desire to realign the agency's priorities and push more responsibility to states while cutting agency spending, including on climate programs.

"We as states are ... in a bit of a bind trying to understand the budget and the policy framework," said Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine, who moderated the April 6 panel.

The former EPA leaders advised Stine and other state regulators to reach out to senior career employees at EPA headquarters as well as "third floor" personnel who work near EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. In particular, Holmstead suggested they communicate with Samantha Dravis, senior counsel and associate administrator for policy, and Mandy Gunasekara, a senior adviser to Pruitt on air issues who previously worked on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Despite the concern over funding cuts, lawmakers, including GOP committee leaders, say the EPA's budget is unlikely to drop as much as Trump would like, if at all. Congress controls the amount that federal agencies receive and will have a tough time even coming close to some of Trump's targets.

"I don't expect this current budget [proposal] to be the working document, the solution to the problems," U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told attendees at the ECOS meeting.