A Realistic Take On New EPA Chief, Michael Regan

The Challenges Ahead For Our No. 1 Eco-Agency

Ohhh, the EPA. Gutted was the word I used to describe the state of affairs at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in my book, as the agency has been flailing for years.

Tasked with protecting the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the land we eat from, the agency employs many well-intentioned scientists, researchers, and administrators.

Unfortunately, we’ve had an underfunded, understaffed, overstretched federal department for many years.

In terms of drinking water, millions of Americans have been exposed to unsafe levels of contaminants at their tap.

The EPA’s sixth Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment, conducted in 2015 estimated a national need of $472.6 billion. This report offers a 20-year forecast of drinking water infrastructure needs. The 2020 survey is ongoing.

Now think about the fact that the EPA operated with a budget of about $9 million with a little more than 14,000 employees in 2020.

“Funding for drinking water infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing need to address aging infrastructure systems, and current funding sources do not meet the total needs,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. “Unfortunately, the system is aging and underfunded. There is a water main break every two minutes.”

In their 2021 Report Card For America’s Infrastructure, drinking water received a “C-” grade.

And we still have to address climate change, air pollution, agricultural runoff, and so many other serious environmental issues. This is why I say the agency has a nearly impossible job!

A Change in Direction

Yesterday, the Senate confirmed a new head of the EPA, Michael Regan, in a bipartisan vote, 66 to 34. What I like about him is that he seems to truly care about the environment.

In one of his first speeches as DEQ secretary, Regan said, “My job is to protect the human health and the environment.” He also said the state agency had, “a special obligation to the underserved and under-represented.”

He first started working for the EPA during a college internship and graduated with a degree in Earth and Environmental Science. He went on to work for the agency’s air quality and energy programs during the Clinton and Bush administrations.

He also worked as associate vice president of U.S. Climate and Energy and Southeast regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund, leading efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change and air quality pollution.

Most recently he served his home state as the secretary of North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality.

Learn more about his background growing up in North Carolina and what this new position means to him:

He’s a far cry from the Trump administration’s first EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the EPA 14 times to block clean air and water safeguards as attorney general of Oklahoma. His short tenure was riddled with ethical scandals around his personal spending habits and his secret schedule for private meetings with industry representatives, along with setting the wheels in motion for rollbacks to public health protections. Pruitt terminated half of the advisors on a key science advisory board, replacing them with industry-friendly representatives who he felt were better equipped to “understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community.”

And he’s also a better choice than Andrew Wheeler, who took the reins of the EPA in February 2019, who worked as a top lobbyist for coal and chemical companies. He spent years as a corporate lawyer fighting the EPA to mitigate air pollution regulations on behalf of Big Oil, Big Coal, and the chemical industry, despite having worked for the agency earlier in his career.

During the Trump administration, the EPA’s pollution cases and charges against polluters dropped dramatically, as documented by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a nonpartisan watchdog group that advocates for better enforcement of environmental laws.

One of Regan’s major wins in North Carolina includes negotiating coal ash cleanup requirements with utility giant Duke Energy. For decades, the energy company mishandled the toxic byproduct of coal-based power plants, storing it in unlined pits, which posed real environmental hazards and health risks to nearby communities that often had to rely on bottled water.

In the most recent, major settlement, the company agreed to pay $1.1 billion to recycle the ash and close the plants producing them. However, the total cost of clean-up may be passed on to customers, with an estimated price tag of $3 billion. Listen to this podcast to learn more.

And, North Carolina is still dealing with a major PFAS contamination.  

The Work Ahead

We need stronger enforcement of our regulatory laws. I’ve seen water crises happen under both Republican and Democratic leadership, so while I want to have hope with a new administration, I’m also trying to give a realistic perspective. Fixing our environmental woes is complicated.

Regan has a reputation in North Carolina for working with both sides of the aisle, which is an important skill, but I hope he can muster the strength needed to take on the incredible challenges ahead.

In Regan’s February confirmation hearing, he outlined some of his priorities for the agency including:

  • restoring science and transparency

  • supporting career officials

  • acting with “urgency” on climate change

He also pledged to take action on PFAS “forever chemicals,” but didn’t give specifics on whether he would set a standard for the contaminants in drinking water.

We have more than 600 former and current military sites and surrounding communities dealing with drinking water polluted with PFAS, and virtually all Americans have PFAS in their blood.

The Environmental Protection Agency has set a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 ppt for PFOS and PFOA chemicals, but independent studies recommend levels for PFAS in drinking water should be set at 1 ppt. I have reports in Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, California, and many other states of levels as high as 20,000 ppt.

Trust the Experts?

“We have world-renowned experts at EPA,” Regan told Rolling Stone. “We should be listening to them, and we will.” 

I’d like to add that our country is filled with forgotten towns suffering with tainted water, aging infrastructure, and contaminated sites, and these communities need help. Please, listen to the people! Get out in the field and visit these communities. They are the real experts, as they are the ones dealing with the mess.

Ultimately, I welcome Michael Regan to his new position, and I will continue to speak up for water issues. Now is not the time to lag on setting regulations, especially when it comes to PFAS, lead, and so many other harmful contaminants in our drinking water.