Spending for federal environment and natural resources programs would be slashed under budget outlines passed by the House and Senate that seek to achieve a balanced federal budget by the year 2002.

Cuts suggested in the budget resolutions could significantly affect many federal agencies participating in the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort: The National Biological Service would be eliminated, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would be severely cut.

In addition, Congressional budget committees have recommended a wide variety of program cuts that would severely affect Bay Program policies, including the elimination of funding for wetland enforcement actions, cutting support for the Toxics Release Inventory and eliminating payments from the Land and Water Conservation Fund which help state and local governments purchase parks and open spaces.

Whether those actions will ever take place is uncertain. The budget bills voted on in May are largely nonbinding documents which outline annual spending levels from 1996 through 2002 for 21 broad categories of government spending such as energy, national defense, natural resources and environment, social security, etc.

Under the House bill, spending on natural resources and environmental programs would drop from $20 billion next year to $18 billion in 2002. The Senate bill would cut even more, spending $20 billion next year and reducing that to $17 billion in 2002. Those figures do not take inflation into account, so the actual cuts would be even deeper.

The House and Senate in June were to reconcile their differences and approve a final document. But the budget resolution does not require the president's signature and never becomes law. Congress is bound only by the total spending figure set for all of government operations.

Actual spending decisions will be made during the summer and fall when lawmakers on various appropriations subcommittees craft specific spending plans for federal agencies. Those subcommittees will produce - and Congress must approve - 13 separate appropriations bills, each covering a different category of spending, by the time the 1996 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Otherwise, agencies that do have have appropriations could be shut down. Appropriation bills require a presidential signature and may be vetoed.

While the budget resolutions acted upon so far are largely nonbinding, the budget committees that wrote them did send their colleagues suggestions of ways to achieve the levels of spending recommended.

Committee members acknowledged that many of those ideas will prove controversial. "Take a good look at this committee," House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, joked before unveiling his budget resolution, "because after we pass this through the committee, we'll all be entering the witness protection program." The House plan generally offered more details about how to achieve the budget targets than the Senate resolution.

The plans not only offer cuts, but in some cases propose controversial ways of raising money, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling, and selling off some federal property, potentially including some forest and park lands.

Both the House and Senate recommended abolishing the Department of Commerce, which is where NOAA is headquartered. Parts of NOAA would survive, but they would be shunted off to other agencies and take large financial cuts along the way. Proponents say the plan would help downsize government and save money by eliminating unneeded parts of the department, while vital operations would remain intact in other departments.

A number of NOAA agencies have been involved in Bay Program research or activities, including the National Ocean Service, the National Weather Service, the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service, the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, Sea Grant and the National Marine Fisheries Service. NOAA has been in charge of conducting stock assessments for important Bay fisheries; developing surveys for Bay species such as blue crab and striped bass; studying the movement of toxics in the Bay and their effects on aquatic life; overseeing oyster disease research; conducting remote sensing surveys; and supporting a variety of other research initiatives.

The House budget proposes that NOAA programs be reduced by 11 percent from the 1995 level for the 1996 fiscal year, and by a total of 21 percent by the year 2002. The Senate plan would reduce NOAA programs by 5 percent overall for the same period of time.

NOAA officials claim those cuts would severely damage the agency, and put together a list of "illustrative cuts" to illustrate what could happen under the House bill. Those options include such things as reducing fisheries enforcement by 20 percent, cutting National Marine Fisheries Service personnel by 30 percent and closing eight to 10 research facilities, potentially including the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory in Maryland which has been conducting research on issues related to fish health and oyster disease in recent years.

Other potential cuts include 20 percent reductions in grants to states implementing Coastal Zone Management Programs, eliminating research programs aimed at better understanding ecosystem functions and a reduction in fishery surveys. Other cuts in NOAA would delay upgrading satellites used to monitor environmental conditions on Earth, and delays in modernizing the National Weather Service.

Those "illustrative cuts" do not necessarily reflect NOAA's priorities, but rather the impact of the House budget recommendations if applied across-the-board, according to NOAA Administrator James Baker. But, he added in a memo to NOAA employees, "These cuts do give an idea of the magnitude and impact of the challenges we are facing."

Recently introduced legislation to implement the Commerce Department breakup would cut even further, generally calling for reductions of more than 25 percent for those parts of NOAA that were kept but shifted to other agencies.

NOAA is not the only Bay-related agency facing stiff cuts. Both the House and the Senate budgets called for abolishing the 2-year-old National Biological Service. The NBS is the main research arm of the Interior Department, and it recently completed a Chesapeake Bay workplan that called for research activities related to the tributary strategies and watershed land use; habitat restoration, linking water quality in the Bay to the recovery of living resources; fish passage and restoring native fishes and invertebrates; and riparian forest buffers. Under the budget proposals, some NBS activities would be kept, but shifted to other agencies.

Also, the House called for cutting the U.S. Geological Survey by 20 percent. The USGS collects and analyzes water quality samples from nine of the Bay's major tributaries to estimate the amount of nutrients entering the Chesapeake. The information is used to help evaluate the effectiveness of nutrient control efforts in the Bay watershed. In addition, the USGS has programs to monitor the movement of pesticides, metals and other toxic substances entering the Bay from the Susquehanna, Potomac and James rivers. In the Bay watershed, it also has programs to study groundwater contamination and movement, water flows into the Bay, evaluations of specific nutrient-reduction strategies, and other water-quality related topics.

Actual cuts would be far greater because those figures do not account for inflation. If inflation rates were to continue at projected rates, those programs would, in effect, be cut by an additional 3 percent per year.

The budget resolutions did not directly suggest funding levels for many agencies working on the Bay, including the EPA. But the Bay Program has been developing contingency plans for cut of 10 percent or 20 percent from a $20-million-a-year budget. "It's basically good policy to be prepared in case we have to take our share," said Bill Matuszeski, director of EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office. Such planning, he said, would help avoid across-the-board cuts "which is not the best way to reduce," he said.

Beyond the agency cuts, budget committees also made nonbinding suggestions for specific programs. The House would cut support for wastewater treatment plant upgrades - made in grants to states - by 22 percent; the Senate recommended phasing out the grants altogether.

The budget plans would freeze the purchases of land by the Forest Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and cut all new construction for those agencies by 50 percent.

The House Budget Committee also compiled a list of regulatory activities that it suggested various appropriations subcommittees eliminate by not funding. Regulations that the committee said were "ripe for termination" include wetlands regulations and the Endangered Species Act.

"The laws would remain on the books, but there would be no money to carry them out," Rep. David McIntosh, R-IN., told the Wall Street Journal. "It's a signal to the agencies to stop wasting time on these regulations."

Environmentalists charged that many of the programs on the list cost little money and attacked the tactic as a back-door method for lawmakers to eliminate programs without casting an actual vote to kill them.

"This hit list has nothing to do with balancing the budget," said David Driesen, a senior project attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It reads like a list for special interests that oppose environmental protection."

The committee calls upon appropriators to challenge the EPA's recent decision to launch a "special review" for the herbicide atrazine. The committee charged that the EPA had "thrown sound science out the window" in its action. Atrazine is one of the two most widely used pesticides in the Bay watershed, and is one of 14 chemicals on the Bay Program's Toxics of Concern, a compilation of the 14 chemicals considered to pose the greatest risk to Bay life.

The committee recommended scrapping the expansion of the Toxics Release Inventory, which the EPA proposed at the end of last year. Under the EPA's new rule, major toxics dischargers would have to estimate their annual releases for 654 substances - an increase of 286 over what was previously required. The Bay Program's new toxics reduction strategy, approved last October, is closely tied to the list.

The strategy calls for a 75 percent reduction by the turn of the century in the TRI chemicals released at federal facilities, and a 50 percent reduction at private facilities required to file TRIÊreports. When those goals were approved in October, it was understood that the TRI list would soon be expanded, meaning greater toxics reductions than what would be achieved under the old list. Also, the new list added reporting requirements for five of the Bay Program's 14 Toxics of Concern. The old list contained seven.

The Budget Committee also recommended that funding be ended for the EPA's "cluster rules" for pulp and paper manufacturers. The project was intended to allow the EPA to use a multimedia permitting approach - one that looked at the total impact of air, water and solid waste pollution from a facility rather than addressing the issues separately - for an entire industry. The committee expressed concerns that the new rules might complicate rather than simplify existing regulations.

Other suggestions by the committee include:

  • Eliminate fuel economy standards which the committee says encourages the manufacture of "smaller, less safe, vehicles."
  • Eliminate the prohibition on billboard construction along designated scenic highways.
  • Eliminate the requirement that states develop a recreational trail program.
  • Eliminate the requirement for centralized motor vehicle emissions inspections in areas that fail to meet federal clean air standards.
  • Stop the development of the EPA's new Enhanced Monitoring Rule which establishes uniform pollution monitoring, record-keeping and reporting requirements for "major sources" of air pollution. "Existing regulations have been more than effective in controlling air pollution," the committee report said.