With Hurricane Harvey bearing down on the Gulf Coast, the absence of leadership in key emergency response positions is revealing serious vulnerabilities in the Trump administration’s ability to respond to a potential environmental disaster.
President Donald Trump’s pick for FEMA director, Brock Long, was confirmed by the Senate in June, but the position of NOAA administrator — the country’s primary weather and storm forecasting agency — remains unfilled. Moreover, crucial leadership positions in the NOAA’s National Hurricane Center sit vacant, as both a director and a branch chief for the Hurricane Specialist Unit remain unfilled.
But perhaps most concerning for former government officials with experience dealing with major storms is the lack of leadership in key positions within the Environmental Protection Agency — an agency perhaps less associated with hurricanes, but no less important when it comes to responding to the environmental disasters that they can bring.
“EPA is primary responder to petrochemical spills, along with the state,” Judith Enck, former Regional Administrator for EPA Region 2, which includes New York and New Jersey, told ThinkProgress. “Having a regional administrator in place provides crucial leadership.”
Enck knows a thing or two about EPA response in the wake of a major disaster, having served in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which tore through coastal New York and New Jersey, killing 159 people and causing some $65 billion in damage. Like Sandy, Harvey has the potential to bring high-speed winds and massive storm surges to the Gulf Coast, an area particularly vulnerable to storms due to the high concentration of chemical and fossil fuel refining that takes place along the Texas and Louisiana coastline. The area is covered by EPA Region 6; since Trump took office in January, it has been without a permanent regional director.
The Texas Gulf Coast is home to nearly one-third of the United States’ refining capacity, making it an area especially prone to a storm-created environmental disaster. High winds or storm surge could breach active refineries, or storage tanks, causing a release of chemicals or petrochemicals into the surrounding environment. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, storm surge inundated oil storage tanks, resulting in an estimated 8 million gallons of oil spilled into Louisiana and Alabama waterways. When combined with Hurricane Rita, a Category 3 storm that hit the Texas Gulf Coast weeks after Katrina, the two storms caused an estimated 540 individual spills.
If a storage tank or refinery were to breach, causing a spill in the surrounding environment, EPA would be the lead agency in charge of tackling that spill, coordinating with state officials and industry to assess the scope of damage and initiate cleanup. It is also the point agency for dealing with sewage treatment plants, which could also release raw sewage if there is a breach or power outage. And EPA staff are often dispatched to residential homes in the wake of a hurricane to deal with basement oil tanks that have been damaged by flooding; given that the National Hurricane Center is warning of “catastrophic” flooding, this type of damage is a distinct possibility.
“After Sandy, we worked round the clock for many weeks and then shifted to rebuilding, and that is still going on,” Enck said. “EPA plays a central role and not having key leadership positions filled is going to be a problem.”
To compound the problem, EPA is currently in the midst of a round of buyouts initiated by Administrator Scott Pruitt to comply with the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts for the agency. That means that in the absence of politically-appointed leadership, regional offices could see career staff leave in the midst of continued cleanup efforts. And that’s the the last thing the agency needs, according to Enck, when dealing with the fallout of an environmental disaster.
And while EPA buyouts do not affect emergency response staff, Enck said that there are a number of positions not directly classified as emergency response that provide valuable assistance after a hurricane, like experts in underground storage tanks, or employees that can translate agency work from English into another language.
Enck also worried that friction between career staff and political appointees within the agency — which has resulted in the resignation of several top-level career staff since January — could create friction between EPA headquarters in Washington and career staff on the ground in places like Texas and Louisiana.
“You’ve got the Pruitt political appointees in Washington, who are not particularly experienced, and the smartest thing they can do is rely on the career officials,” Enck said. “These are the officials that they have been ignoring for the past few months, and those that they have been trying to shove out.”
Ultimately, Hurricane Harvey looks to be the first real test for a Trump EPA beleaguered by potential budget cuts and gaps in staffing.
“I think the career staff will step up and be professional and do their job,” Enck said. “The question is will the Pruitt political appointees listen to them?”