Dems fight to save funding for Ann Arbor EPA facility

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Democrats in Michigan’s congressional delegation are working to stave off cuts proposed for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s facility in Ann Arbor, which is home to most of the agency’s car-emissions testing.

The Trump administration has proposed cutting $48 million from the EPA’s Federal Vehicle and Fuels Standards and Certification program and eliminating federal funding for 168 full-time jobs at the agency’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, according to a March 21 planning document obtained by the Washington Post. According to that document, 304 people work in the program. The EPA would not say Wednesday how many employees of the program are at the Ann Arbor lab.

The Ann Arbor facility is where the EPA certifies that vehicles and engines meet federal emissions and fuel economy standards. It is also used by the agency to analyze fuels and fuel additives.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said in a Wednesday interview with The Detroit News that the Ann Arbor laboratory is “critical for issues that matter in the auto industry.”

“It’s the national laboratory for both fuel economy and emissions,” said Dingell, adding she is “going to do everything I can” to protect the jobs at the Ann Arbor facility.

“It’s simply critical to the auto industry, both domestic and foreign manufacturers, and emissions,” she said. “It’s important to consumers, but also to the (auto) companies.”

Late Wednesday, Dingell sent a letter to President Donald Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. She demanded answers about the proposed elimination of federal funding for the EPA in general and the emissions-testing jobs in Ann Arbor.

“Their research, testing, analysis and technological studies provide critical background for the establishment and monitoring of both cafe and emission standards,” she wrote. “Policymakers like me depend on their work as do consumers who are being protected by these environmental regulations.”

Dingell said she has attempted to visit the Ann Arbor facility to bring attention to the importance of the work that is done there, but she said the EPA has rebuffed her requests.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, added in a statement provided to The News on Wednesday: “The Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the Ann Arbor Fuel Emissions Laboratory are shortsighted and harmful. Not only could these cuts increase costs for people in Michigan who are purchasing a car, but they also hurt our auto industry and put Michigan jobs at risk.”

A statement from Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, reads: “We should be investing in the development of these job-creating vehicle technologies, not eliminating positions that help ensure Michigan’s auto industry remains a world leader in vehicle innovation.”

The cuts to the Ann Arbor facility are part of a proposed budget for the EPA during the 2018 fiscal year that calls for the agency’s overall funding to be cut by $2.6 billion, or 31 percent, from its current spending levels. The budget would eliminate 3,200 positions at the agency charged with ensuring the quality of the nation’s air and water supplies.

The EPA’s budget document said the Trump administration plans to submit legislative language to Congress that would make the EPA’s fuel efficiency certification program and the affected positions at the Ann Arbor facility reliant on fees that are paid by automakers. Environmentalists have warned the elimination of federal funding for the Ann Arbor positions would hinder the EPA’s ability to catch automakers, like who might be cheating on U.S. emission rules as it was able to do with its recent investigation of Volkswagen AG.

A spokeswoman for the EPA said earlier in the week the agency is “evaluating different approaches to implementing the president’s budget that would allow us to effectively serve the taxpayers and protect the environment.”

“While many in Washington insist on greater spending, EPA is focused on greater value and results,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in an email to The News on Tuesday. “The EPA will partner with the states to ensure a thoughtful approach is used to maximize every dollar to protect our air, land and water.”

Wade Newton, director of communications at the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the proposed cuts to federal funding for emission-testing positions at the EPA’s Ann Arbor facility could delay new-car certifications.

“As automakers, we place a tremendous deal of importance on certification and compliance matters,” Newton said in an email. “Because certification is one of the Clean Air Act’s requirements, we can’t ship from our plants or docks vehicles that haven’t been certified. Whatever happens, automakers will want to avoid any delays in the certification process that could increase vehicle costs and limit vehicle availability to market.”

The proposed cuts would follow an investigation by the EPA of Volkswagen for selling hundreds of thousands polluting diesels in the U.S. The probe led to the German automaker paying $2.8 billion in criminal fines and $1.5 billion in civil penalties related to the fraud. The agency also opened an investigation during the final days of the Obama administration into Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s compliance with federal emission standards the agency says could involve software it says could be similar to Volkswagen’s so-called “defeat devices.”

FCA has vigorously disputed the agency’s charges, although the company has warned shareholders about the potential for fines related to the EPA’s accusations.

Nick Conger, press secretary for the Natural Resources Defense Council and former communications director for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance, said the EPA budget cuts proposed by Trump will make the agency powerless to catch future environmental scofflaws in the auto industry.

“These funding proposals and budget cuts are a thinly veiled attempt to gut the programs that protect us from vehicle emissions,” Conger, who served under former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy from 2013 to 2016, told The News.

“EPA brought Volkswagen to justice for cheating and illegally polluting our air,” Conger continued. “There could be other automakers out there cutting corners and endangering the air we breathe. Without a fully funded EPA, these violations would go unchecked.”

Andrew Linhardt, the Sierra Club’s associate director for federal advocacy, added: “The fact that they’re targeting agencies that are about enforcement shows what their priorities are. They’re about helping polluters. There doesn’t seem to be much for environmental protection or climate change.”

Lindhart said he knows he will have a fight on his hands to push back against Trump’s proposed budget cuts, but he predicted Congress would ultimately ignore the president’s suggestions about most funding levels. He said he is “pretty comfortable” it’s a non-starter.

“I don’t know the last time a president’s budget passed in that form on the Hill,” he said.

(202) 662-8735