President-elect Joe Biden will appoint Michael Regan, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, according to several news reports. Regan has two decades of environmental policy experience and positions with the Environmental Defense Fund and EPA and would be the first black man to lead the agency in its 50-year history if confirmed.
In addition to restoring our country’s primary environmental regulator, Regan and the von Biden government need to reshape and adapt it to address the growing environmental problems that have long stalled them, from climate change to widespread environmental injustice old and new toxic pollutants.
It seems an impossible task as climate-related disasters continue to multiply, many greenhouse gas emission limits have disappeared, and environmental enforcement has decreased. But our new leaders and all Americans can take inspiration from this as we have before.
Fifty years ago our rivers burned, smog choked our urban centers, and state and local governments struggled to respond. In December 1970, President Nixon opened the EPA, new boss William Ruckelshaus stood up against water polluters and industry-dominated government environmental agencies, and Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which Nixon then signed into law.
Since then, the EPA has made significant improvements to our air, water, and hazardous waste management, which benefits not only our health but also our economy. For the past four years, EPA’s political representatives, who are tied to agency-regulated industries, have been stripping this important agency of its power to act. Tragically, even if pollution is still a major contributor to premature mortality, cancer and heart disease, tragically they have, as its effects continue to place the greatest burden on those most vulnerable and exploited in our societies, and climate disasters are placing ever more unmistakable effects on Americans’ health and wellbeing.
What can be done to reverse the systematic weakening of the EPA under Trump while adapting it to today’s challenges? The wisdom of the staff, gleaned from the EPA Oral History Project of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative and woven into our own analysis, suggests that a Biden administration and the EPA themselves can do a lot.
Here are 10 things the new leadership should do to fix the EPA.
1) Take quick climate action
As the world’s largest historical greenhouse gas emitter and still the second largest annual contributor, the US has for too long evaded its global duty to help alleviate the climate crisis.
The first step in correcting this is to re-accede to the Paris Climate Agreement and then translate our Paris commitments into measures that accelerate emissions reductions. This task has largely been left to the EPA by the Clean Air Act and the courts. To make up for the EPA’s four years of inactivity under Trump, the Biden EPA must reverse the Trump administration’s undoing of the Trump administration’s greenhouse gas curb policy and strengthen it in a permanent way, including possible legislation, and improve emissions reporting with it anyone can easily follow policy implications.
2) Restore the budget and staff
The EPA’s staff has declined 22 percent since 1999, and the inflation-adjusted budget is now lower than it was in 1979. The budget has shrunk despite additional responsibilities, limiting the ability to carry out long-standing jobs like enforcing clean air and water laws and Provide clean drinking water nationwide while hindering the response to newer challenges, from tracking and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to preparing for and responding to heat waves, forest fires, superstorms, and other climate change threats.
To remedy this, President-elect Biden should propose increasing the agency’s budget by 10 percent or more – and Congress should approve it. This would enable the EPA to recruit appropriate staff to fulfill their current responsibilities and to tackle climate change decisively.
EPO Administrator Andrew Wheeler at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda on September 3, 2020. Leonard Ortiz / MediaNews Group / Orange County Register through Getty Images
3) Keep industry away
In the Trump EPA, political representatives – as well as scientific advisors – had close ties with industries regulated by the agency (such as the fossil fuel and chemical industries). However, the agency’s decisions must be based on science and public health, not an industry’s bottom line. The federal government needs to create better ways to prevent such conflicts of interest that undermine sound science and public trust.
4) Make environmental justice a priority
The EPA has long struggled with how many more colored people are exposed to pollution. To better correct this, the Biden government should not only prioritize environmental justice through agency-wide administrative measures (which can later be reversed), but also advocate greater legislative competence in this area.
Among the promising recent legislative proposals, a proposed public health air quality bill mandating greater surveillance of fenceline would greatly improve the agency’s ability to identify and respond to the dilemmas of these communities. An environmental justice bill passed in New Jersey, as well as a similar federal bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), would also give the agency stronger legal tools to limit pollution in congested communities.
5) Combating Toxic Chemicals
The EPA has had limited success in ensuring the safety of chemicals used in everyday products, protecting them from lead contamination in drinking water, and banning chemicals such as asbestos, which cause deadly diseases.
To combat these toxins, the agency should improve the implementation of Frank R. Lautenberg’s Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century Act of 2016. It should also strengthen air quality and other standards to prioritize protecting pregnant women, infants and children from dangerous chemicals. And it should do more to protect children from lead – one way to do that is to allocate funds to quickly replace the millions of lead utilities that still carry drinking water in many parts of the country.
6) Revitalizing Science
EPA’s ability to protect human health and enforce environmental laws depends on science and scientists. During the Trump administration, scientists were excluded from high-level decision-making and hundreds left the agency, weakening their expertise. To make EPA a place where top scientists want to work, the recruitment system needs to be improved, sufficient resources made available to them for their work, and their knowledge and recommendations honored. The EPA needs to reinvigorate its scientific staff, advisory system and research to ensure that environmental decisions are based on science.
7) Enforce the law
The EPA’s power and willingness to enforce environmental laws has seen long-term erosion, but has declined sharply under Trump – even if non-compliance remains common. To increase pressure on polluters on behalf of the public, the EPA needs to step up enforcement, especially when and where states don’t. To that end, enforcement capabilities will need to be rebuilt (environmental and compliance staff fell 23 percent below Trump), and the new administrator and team need to announce and pursue a serious commitment to take on violations from the start.
8) Update the data
Much of the federal government’s existing environmental data infrastructure remains fragmented, partial and out of date. EPA should update pollution measurement and monitoring technology and better integrate its data systems across programs. This promises to improve the agency’s work by, on the one hand, enabling it to target violations more quickly. It should also strive to help people and stakeholders better understand what is going on.
Even today’s best EPA digital interfaces present challenges for ordinary citizens who want to learn more about nearby facilities, from unfamiliar acronyms to unexplained numbers. EPA data on polluters, as well as their own actions or inactivity, needs to be made more transparent, accessible and interpretable for the public in order to better inform communities about the environmental risks surrounding them. Analyzing the impact of environmental justice at the community level should be a priority for the agency.
9) Be a better steward of information
The EPA should be a national force to educate the public about the science that makes up our environmental laws. Under Trump, this agency slipped in the opposite direction, removing not only clues about climate change but also much other scientific information from its websites, abandoning much environmental education efforts, and even turning its press office into a megaphone for conservative opinions of its policy-makers. The new management should not only ensure that the agency provides factual, technically correct and user-friendly information, but also actively promote environmental science competence.
10) Partner to the American Public
To achieve many of these goals, the agency needs support from stakeholders, educators and other environmentally conscious citizens. These partnerships offer new opportunities to convey more accurate information on environmental issues, including more citizen science, to improve the agency’s work. They will also step up efforts to advance local, state and federal efforts to improve environmental health and combat climate change, and further strengthen the EPA’s capabilities.
For 50 years, the EPA has played a critical role in improving our air, providing safe drinking water and ensuring that rivers no longer catch fire spontaneously. Let’s rebuild and strengthen the agency so that it can prevent the literal and figurative fires of our present and future.
Marianne Sullivan is Professor of Public Health at William Paterson University in New Jersey and a member of the Environmental data and governance initiative (EDGI).
Christopher Sellers is a professor of history at Stony Brook University, a research fellow at the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas-Austin, and a member of the EDGI Coordinating Committee. He is the author of Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmental Conservation in 20th Century America and upcoming books on the history of environmental policy in Atlanta, Texas, and Mexico.