Environmental groups decry reluctance of Pruitt’s regional EPA chiefs to go after polluters

Great Lakes regional chief helped gut environmental agency in Wisconsin.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt appointed regional administrators who share his views on weakening environmental protection. CREDIT: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt appointed regional administrators who share his views on weakening environmental protection. CREDIT: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Finding officials who would embrace the Trump administration’s anti-regulation agenda was clearly a priority for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt when he was filling the top spots in the agency’s regional offices.

Two of Pruitt’s regional administrators acquired reputations for cutting back on enforcement actions against polluters when they held the title of top environmental authority at the state level. Pruitt’s aversion to acknowledging mainstream scientific consensus on climate change also trickled down to his appointees at the regional level.

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Cathy Stepp, the new regional director for the EPA’s Great Lakes region, has a history of questioning climate change science and weakening environmental protections. Now she will be responsible for overseeing the Great Lakes region where issues around air and water pollution as well as Superfund sites will all be high on the agenda.

Pruitt’s pick to head EPA Region 6, which covers Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, also has publicly expressed uncertainty on how humans have impacted climate change. Anne Idsal, the 34-year-old former chief clerk of the Texas General Land Office, was unknown to environmental experts in the region when they learned Pruitt had selected her as the region’s administrator. Prior to joining the Texas General Land Office, Idsal served as general counsel to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

For the EPA’s Southeast region, an Alabama newspaper columnist described Pruitt’s decision to appoint a former Alabama regulator named Trey Glenn as “downright Orwellian.” Glenn is known for having pulled back on enforcing environmental laws in a state already beset with pollution and environmental justice issues. He has also faced ethics investigations during his career as an Alabama government employee.

Glenn’s “obliviousness to ethics and decorum” prompted a former Alabama Department of Environmental Management to push for a policy to teach him “right from wrong” and to demand that he stop accepting gifts “since the director apparently does not have the good judgment to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” John Archibald, a columnist for the Alabama Media Group, wrote last August.

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The EPA has 10 regional offices across the country, each of which is responsible for several states and in some cases, territories or special environmental programs. The Trump administration has filled nine of these regions with administrators. An acting administrator is leading Region 9, which includes Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Pacific islands, and 148 tribes.

Stepp, Idsal, and Glenn are the most egregious examples of regional directors appointed by Pruitt with professional pasts that do not match their job descriptions. Another director, Cosmo Servidio, was a political appointee in the EPA under George W. Bush, and is another administration that sought to roll back environmental regulations. Servidio now heads EPA Region 3, covering the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.

There is one person who Pruitt has appointed as a regional director who has received praise from environmentalists for her work: Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, who heads the EPA’s New England region. In November, Conservation Law Foundation President Bradley Campbell referred to Dunn as “a superb choice” to lead the EPA’s Region 1 office. “It is a refreshing change of pace to see a Trump administration appointee who gives New England climate and public health advocates reason to cheer,” Campbell told The  Republican newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Otherwise, it seems Pruitt’s team did its due diligence to find like-minded individuals to fill the regional posts. In interviews with reporters, for example, Region 6 director Idsal echoed Pruitt’s positions on climate change, with comments like there’s “still a lot of ongoing science” on climate change. She told the Observer in December that the “climate has been changing since the dawn of time, well before humans ever inhabited the Earth,” adding, “I think it’s possible that humans have some type of impact on climate change. I just don’t know the extent of that.”

After Hurricane Harvey came ashore, the EPA’s Region 6 office, which includes Texas, oversaw site assessments at the dozens of Superfund sites in region affected by the storm. But with a regional administrator who is pro-industrial development along the Gulf Coast and who shares Pruitt’s views on climate change, it’s unlikely measures will be taken to use the natural environment to protect the coast from the next disaster.

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Region 6 also includes states with some of the worst environmental justice issues in the nation. From the terrible impact of the Tar Creek disaster in Oklahoma on Native Americans to the petrochemical plant poisoning of African Americans in the small town of Mossville, Louisiana, the EPA has some catching up to do to make the region safe for residents.

Meanwhile Stepp, who led Wisconsin’s environmental protection office for six years under Gov. Scott Walker (R), oversaw a rollback of regulations that would make both President Donald Trump and Pruitt envious. Before Stepp was appointed as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 2011, the agency was widely considered one of the best of its kind in the country. Under her watch, however, the agency’s environmental enforcement abilities were drastically weakened, its scientists kicked out, and its website scrubbed of climate change information.

Her job performance in Wisconsin may be one reason why Stepp was chosen in December to head the EPA’s Region 5 office, where she will get a chance to lead a regulatory rollback on a much broader scale. Her regional office, based in Chicago, oversees environmental protection in six states surrounding the Great Lakes: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

The Region 5 office has many responsibilities, with protecting the Great Lakes one of the most important. The office also is responsible for more Superfund sites than any other region in the country, including the USS Lead site in East Chicago, Indiana, which Pruitt toured last spring. Region 5 is also home to a sizable share of the nation’s coal-fired electric power generating mix, which are major sources of air and water pollution.

“It makes sense the Trump EPA is looking for people like Cathy Stepp, people who are willing to sell out our environment to the highest bidder,” Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, said in response to Stepp’s appointment.

During the Obama administration, the regional office attracted criticism for its slow response to the water disaster in Flint, Michigan. While much of the blame was directed at Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and state officials, particularly the Department of Environmental Quality, some faulted the Region 5 office for not acting more forcefully.

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Stepp’s track record in Wisconsin doesn’t signal the much-needed improvement to public health and environmental problems in the region. In fact, environmental advocates in the region are predicting major rollbacks. “Cathy Stepp’s track record is rolling back safeguards,” Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, said in an email to ThinkProgress. “It’s out of touch with what the public believes are core environment and public health values.”

Pruitt’s choice for the head of EPA Region 4 — the largest region in the nation — has a regulatory track record similar to Stepp’s. While serving as director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, Glenn came under attack from environmental groups in the state who criticized him for a big drop in enforcement actions taken by the department. A group called the ADEM Reform Coalition cited a 78 percent drop in pollution penalties in 2009 compared to previous years, AL.com reported.

Environmental groups also filed legal petitions with the EPA during Glenn’s tenure, asking the federal agency to revoke the Alabama department’s water pollution permit authority. The groups contended the department was not adequately fulfilling its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act. Glenn is now the top environmental official for Region 4 which covers Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

“Having Glenn now in charge of the entire region, it should be alarming to everyone who cares about clean water,” Cindy Lowry, executive director of Alabama Rivers Alliance, told the Washington Post last August. “He’s made his allegiance to business and industry interest over the environment and public health.”

Glenn also came under investigation during his time as a top official in Alabama’s government. When he headed the environmental department, a state grand jury probed whether Glenn broke state ethics laws in his previous job at the state’s Office of Water Resources. The grand jury found no “provable violations.”

The case centered on Glenn’s approval of invoices for the environmental engineering firm Malcolm Pirnie while he was seeking the top environmental job in Alabama. At the time, a top Malcolm Pirnie official was on the commission that oversees the Department of Environmental Management and was hiring its director. Glenn was also accused of taking personal trips paid for by Matrix, a public relations firm whose clients included Malcolm Pirnie.

Glenn’s experience with grand juries and investigations may help him relate to Pruitt, who is facing two investigations by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General for his use of agency funds and adherence to agency policy.

Unlike Glenn, Region 5’s Stepp has not been targeted by any ethics or criminal probes in her career as a public office. Prior to taking over as secretary of the Wisconsin DNR, Stepp served in the state Senate, where she was one of the department’s harshest critics. In a blog post, Stepp wrote that DNR employees tend to be “anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes, Karner blue butterflies, etc.”

During her tenure as head of Wisconsin’s environmental office, financial penalties for violations of state environmental laws fell sharply in 2015 to their lowest level in at least a decade, according to data released by the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. Forfeitures paid by individuals and companies for violating state environmental laws totaled $306,834 that year, down 78 percent from nearly $1.4 million paid out in 2014. It’s also the lowest amount paid out for violations dating back to at least 2006, according to the data.

When asked why he selected Stepp to head the DNR, Walker stated at the time: “I wanted someone with a Chamber-of-Commerce mentality.”

Stepp did not disappoint Walker. Under her watch, the agency “shifted its focus from protecting Wisconsin’s natural resources to handing out favors to polluters,” Schumann said.

Given Region 5’s huge workload, employees were caught off-guard when they heard last spring that the EPA was considering closing the office. Under the plan, the workforce for the Region 5 office would have been consolidated with the EPA office in Kansas. Despite reassurances from Pruitt, Region 5 staff remained concerned about rumors that the Trump administration could close the Chicago office.

Under President Donald Trump, the EPA Region 5 office in Chicago is reportedly under consideration to be closed. CREDIT: Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Under President Donald Trump, the EPA Region 5 office in Chicago is reportedly under consideration to be closed. CREDIT: Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Instead, Pruitt named Stepp as Region 5 administrator. Last month, Stepp faced a skeptical audience when she addressed her Region 5 staff for the first time, the Chicago Tribune reported. EPA employees were reportedly nervous about meeting her because of her record in Wisconsin, including the elimination of nearly 19 scientist positions at the DNR.

Stepp invited her daughter to introduce her to the Chicago staffers in an attempt to ease the tension. Her daughter ended up telling an odd story about Stepp wearing a fake nose and sunglasses to help her pass a driving test after she failed the first time.

Harry Henderson, director of the Midwest program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, fears what might happen to Chicago and other parts of the Midwest if Stepp pulls back on the EPA’s environmental enforcement efforts and hands over the duties to the states in her region. Already, the public in the Midwest “has paid significant consequences when the feds have shirked responsibilities — and states have chosen to stay out of some, quite literally, toxic situations,” Henderson wrote in a Wednesday blog post.

These concerns were heightened when Stepp was appointed as the new regional administrator. “While local rules provide important protections, federal resources are crucial for adequately safeguarding public health,” Henderson wrote. “The often-lacking support from state agencies on significant environmental issues in the Midwest demonstrates the need for the EPA to step up in Region 5.”