– A Trump administration freeze on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants to states has Minnesota officials worried that cleanup of contaminated sites on the St. Louis River and air quality control in the Twin Cities could halt immediately.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine said he has reached out to the federal agency to no avail, and worries he may eventually have to eliminate employees in charge of permitting. Stine asked Minnesota’s congressional delegation earlier this week for help in getting answers about what programs may be affected.

In addition to state cash, Stine’s agency operates on $20 million a year in federal funds that help restore the Duluth harbor, monitor the air, and pay for the cleanup of a couple of dozen old contaminated sites along the St. Louis River — among dozens of other projects.

The University of Minnesota also receives about $9 million in federal EPA grants to study microscopic plants in the Great Lakes, air quality and cropland water management.

“We were hoping to start this relationship off on the right foot, and this is definitely the wrong foot,” Stine said. “The idea that federal laws are written with the intention of being implemented and enforced by states is a model that has worked for 50 years in our state and we really don’t see this as the way it should be. We need to know and advise before decisions are made.”

In an e-mail response to the Star Tribune on Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Kelly Love wrote that “it is not uncommon for an agency in transition to pause the old policies of a previous administration in order to manage from a fresh start.”

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, who is the lead Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee in charge of EPA funding, said it was unacceptable to halt money already approved by Congress.

“To unilaterally redo our budget, which is vital to the protection of the public health, is very alarming and outrageous to me,” said McCollum, who represents St. Paul. “Everybody is trying to find out exactly what this means, but this should come as no surprise to anyone. President Trump attacked the EPA at every opportunity he could during the campaign.”

Still unclear is whether the freeze in state funds would affect existing projects or just new ones. There are currently about $6.5 billion in contracts in place nationwide. EPA media officials, who have been told to stop talking to reporters, did not respond to requests for comment.

Love did not provide further details about possible cuts. Michael McKenna, who worked on Trump’s transition team, said this was not unusual and that existing contracts would be fulfilled.

“Anything new is going to take review,” he said. “I’ve never heard of anyone else doing it any other way.”

Trump’s choice to lead the EPA, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has ties to the oil and gas industry. The news website Axios reported this week that under the new administration, the agency faces more than $800 million in cuts, including to enforcement efforts for the Clean Air Act, and greenhouse gas regulations for new and existing natural gas and coal power plants.

“It is deeply concerning to me that in one of his first acts, the president decided to freeze federal funding to states and localities to protect public health and the environment. Partisan politics is no reason to hold up critical funding to monitor our air and water, clean up contaminated lands and improve the environmental quality of the Great Lakes,” said Democratic Sen. Al Franken. “The president needs to reverse course on this decision immediately.”

Republican Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, cloistered at the GOP retreat in Pennsylvania this week, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar called the funding “critically important to protecting public health and the environment in Minnesota.”

Klobuchar said she’ll send a letter to the new administration urging it to honor its commitment to lift the freeze.

 

Staff writer Maura Lerner contributed to this report.