“I don’t want my state to sink while you’re being careful,” responded Whitehouse. “So forgive me for being a little impatient here.”
“Are expectations for the EPA too high?” asked Mustafa Santiago Ali, a vice president at the green group National Wildlife Federation. “We have a clock that’s ticking down. We should have high expectations because the sets of challenges that we have in front of us are only going to exponentially grow, and we know the communities who are going to be hit the first and the worst.” He was referring to disadvantaged communities, such as low-income ones and communities of color.
Helping the most vulnerable respond to climate change and other pollution is paramount to Regan, who last year went on a “Journey to Justice” tour of communities across the South struggling with pollution. Afterward, he vowed to expand support for community air monitoring for toxic emissions and do more unannounced inspections of polluting industries.
While Regan’s EPA has issued a number of big fines for civil cases of pollution in the first year, according to a review of agency enforcement data by the nonprofit Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, the total number of new civil or criminal enforcement cases opened has flatlined. The pandemic is partly to blame, by limiting staff site visits as the virus has raged on. That’s poised to change with more EPA staff soon returning to the office.
And on Thursday afternoon, Regan joined Attorney General Merrick Garland for a press conference announcing the launch of the Department of Justice’s first-ever Office of Environmental Justice to help address “environment crime and injustice.”
This news comes a day after 55 environmental groups and 144 agency alums wrote Congress to finally confirm David Uhlmann as a top official at EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. Uhlmann was nominated last June.
“More and more responsibilities”
As of April 4, 2022, 14,734 total people worked at the EPA, according to numbers provided by the agency. That’s up from 14,139 people in 2021 and 13,523 people in 2020.
For Cantello, and other current and former staff, that’s still not enough. “My people tell me that they have enough work for 2.5 people,” she said, speaking of the staff in the midwestern region that she represents.
“Trump was taking away duties,” she explained, but “here it’s the exact opposite” where “more and more responsibilities are being piled on.”
Cantello said Biden officials are trying to address the situation and “are desperately trying to keep everybody afloat.”
There are all key open positions at the very top. Beyond Uhlmann, three more high-level officials await Senate confirmation: Carlton Waterhouse for the Office of Land and Emergency Management, Christopher Frey for the Office of Research and Development, and Joseph Goffman for the Office of Air and Radiation.
Perhaps no office is struggling more than the one devoted to assessing whether chemicals are toxic or not, where multiple staff have filed official complaints alleging corruption and political interference. Last year, Michal Freedhoff, head of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, secured an independent staff survey, E&E News first reported. The results were bleak.
According to a summary of the results, which the EPA provided to BuzzFeed News, some respondents expressed: “fear that some colleagues will secretly record them, categorize honest mistakes as scientific integrity violations, and ruin their good name and reputations in the agency and the press,” “anger at being bullied and harassed by some NCD colleagues and managers, and dissatisfaction that the organization is not protecting them,” and “frustration due to the heavy workload, lack of staff.”
In response, new leaders have been brought in, according to McCabe. But, again, more resources would help, and Regan bluntly told Congress in April that this office will remain underwater on the current budget: “EPA only has about 50% of what we think we need to review the safety of new chemicals quickly in the way that the law requires.”
Even the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s leading trade group, is critical of the situation, accusing the agency’s handling of the office as jeopardizing “America’s role as a world innovator and risking the availability of critical products and technologies.”