By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a freeze handed down by President Donald Trump's White House on new contracts and grants that has led to fears of delays in toxic pollution cleanups would be completely reversed on Friday or at latest on Monday.
The freeze has led to widespread concerns in states and cities about potential delays in efforts to monitor and clean up toxic pollution, particularly lead pollution in drinking water, that would put the health of Americans at risk.
The agency allocates nearly $4 billion annually on projects ranging from cleaning up polluted industrial sites to testing air and water for toxins.
Doug Ericksen, a former Washington state senator who is the EPA's new communications director, said in an email that $3.8 billion of the $3.9 billion in contracts and grants was cleared on Wednesday night. "The remainder should be cleared today. There might be a very small number left for Monday, but not likely."
The EPA has not issued any news releases about ending the freeze, which has led to uncertainty.
On Thursday, a day after Ericksen said the vast majority of the contracts and grants were cleared, five Democratic senators, including Edward Markey and Tom Carper, wrote a letter to Trump "with alarm" urging him to "immediately reverse this troubling action."
Ericksen said they should rest assured. "No projects are delayed or cut. None. Not sure how much more clear I can be," he said in the email.
U.S. Representative Dan Kildee from Flint, Michigan, home to the lead poisoning crisis in drinking water, also wrote to Trump this week asking when the freeze would be lifted. An EPA spokeswoman told Kildee's office that $100 million in congressional aid would not be affected by the freeze. But Kildee was uncertain whether contracts and grants centering on testing and expertise about the lead crisis would be delayed.
A Kildee spokesman said on Friday that the congressman had still not gotten a written response to his letter from Trump or the EPA.
The EPA sent employees an internal memo late on Friday, seen by Reuters that said it was making progress in lifting the freeze, which it called standard practice during a transition. "As of today, we have completed review of our grant programs," the memo said. "The review of contracts is nearly complete, with very few contracts still under review," the memo said, without elaborating.
(Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)