New EPA vetting adds uncertainty for Alaska grants worth millions

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (EPA)

The Washington Post reported this week that the Environmental Protection Agency has started funneling all grant money through a single political appointee in the nation’s capital. The Post also said EPA staff were told this summer to block all grants to Alaska, a state that has a lot riding on how EPA grants are awarded.

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The order came in July, on the same day Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted against a health care reform bill, according to the Post. At first, the newspaper said, staffers were told to stop all grants to Region 10, the Northwest, and then the block was narrowed to just Alaska. The Post said the block lasted two weeks.

At the state Department of Environmental Conservation, water facility programs manager Bill Griffith is waiting for the state’s annual water and sewer grants, about $40 million.

“Those awards are made to the state late in the federal fiscal year, so that’s typically sometime in September,” Griffith said. “We haven’t received them yet, but that’s not out of the ordinary.”

The EPA also sends about $30 million a year to Alaska tribes. Griffith said he’s heard tribal water grants hadn’t arrived yet either, not by the first week in September anyway.

An EPA spokesman declined to answer any of the specific questions we asked about the new grant awards process. He didn’t deny the Post’s reporting but replied to an email with a single sentence, saying the agency is making sure funding is in line with the EPA’s mission and policy priorities.

The Post named the ultimate decision-maker on grants as John Konkus. He works at EPA headquarters, with the title “deputy associate administrator of public affairs.” Konkus was a county-level chairman for the Trump campaign in Florida.

Some former EPA appointees say the new process doesn’t sound good.

“In my view, it’s highly unusual. It’s not something that I ever saw occur during the time that I was at EPA,” Dennis McLerran said. He was the EPA Region 10 administrator under President Obama.

In prior administrations, regional grant applications were decided at the regional level. McLerran said it’s the professional staffers in those offices who should be making the decisions, because they have scientific and technical expertise.

“A political screen is really, to my mind, not the appropriate way to go about looking at grant applications if you want people to believe that the judgments about who should receive the funding are fair and even handed,” McLerran said.

Every administration has its policy priorities. McLerran says past administrations have re-written the criteria for making grant decisions to include their new priorities, rather than having a political appointee vet all the grants. But McLerran says the Post report is in line with what he’s heard about how the EPA is shifting under Administrator Scott Pruitt.

“Certainly, I have heard from professional staff that remain at the agency that they are not being involved in decision-making as they used to be in prior administrations,” McLerran said. “There’s a group of political appointees that are meeting that exclude career-level staff from the discussions.”

The Washington Post reports that Konkus, the EPA appointee, doesn’t like to see the words “climate change” on EPA documents. McLerran said that’s not good for Alaska, where he said climate change is a top concern, especially in coastal villages, and people want help.

Kurt Eilo used to work for the EPA in Alaska. Now he runs a nonprofit in Anchorage that receives an EPA grant. Eielo doesn’t know of any Alaska grants that have been withheld, but he’s concerned about the next funding cycle.

“It adds more caution and more fear to our already nervous, nervous bunch of grantees in Alaska,” Eilo said. “We don’t know what the outcome is going to be yet. But it certainly does increase the anxiety.”


Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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