Without so much as a news release, the Hawai`i Department of Health has shuttered its Environmental Planning Office. Effective May 2, the office – which was instrumental in coordinating the Department of Health’s strategic plans, reviewing land use and environmental disclosure documents for compliance with health requirements, and reporting annually on the state’s progress toward its environmental health goals – shut down.
According to DOH spokesperson Janice Okubo, cuts in the federal budget made it impossible to continue funding the office.
“The DOH Environmental Planning Office was funded by seven different grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” Okubo said in an email response to questions posed by Environment Hawai`i. “The full-time positions that staffed the office were each split-funded among five or six different grant areas. … For federal fiscal year 2017, the total grant funds for all of these areas were $5,693,230, and in federal fiscal year the grant funds totaled $5,013,818.”
Okubo said that the DOH was made aware of the reduction in federal funds at the beginning of the year. “The president’s budget FFY 18 [federal fiscal year 2018] proposed the following budget cuts: air pollution control program, 28.9 percent; nonpoint source management, 100 percent; water pollution control – surface water, 28.9 percent; public water system supervision, 29.1 percent; hazardous waste management, 28.4 percent,” she stated.
The EPO provided a number of services, including strategic planning services for nearly all of the programs within the DOH’s Environmental Health division. It also commented on environmental assessments, environmental impact statements, and other planning documents to ensure that DOH’s environmental requirements were taken into account in the planning and permitting of new projects.
Each year, the office prepared an Environmental Health Management Report, describing the state’s progress toward environmental health goals. In addition, it maintained data on environmental health indicators as gathered through monitoring and sampling, developed the Environmental Geographic Information System, assisted in the Department of Health’s environmental justice programs, and represented the DOH on the state’s Interagency Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission.
Okubo said that there were no terminations as a result of the office shutting down. “All of the positions were reduced through attrition or placement in another position … within another program,” she stated.
During the legislative session, the DOH acknowledged the federal budget cuts in its testimony on the state’s spending bill, but did not mention that it would be eliminating the EPO. Instead, there is only this, offered in testimony on March 7, regarding the DOH’s environmental health administration:
“The Environmental Management Division is requesting to change means of financing from federal funds to general funds for 1 permanent Environmental Health Specialist IV for water pollution control enforcement. The projected reductions in EPA funds will not support this position, however the department needs to meet its legal obligations for compliance oversight of the Hawai`i National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System regulated facilities. ($46,932). The Environmental Management Division is also requesting to change means of financing from federal funds to general funds for two permanent Environmental Health Specialist VI positions for supervision of the Underground Storage Tank Section. With declining federal funding, the Department of Health is still responsible for statewide monitoring, inspection, and enforcement of underground storage tank owner and operator compliance. ($154,836).”
The final budget reflects the changes, with three permanent full-time positions added to the general fund allotment to the division.
— Patricia Tummons