We Need a Fighter for Environmental Justice to Lead the EPA

After the Trump years, it’s time to build the EPA back better, with a stronger focus on equity and justice.

Michael Brune
Feb 2 · 3 min read
A photo of President Biden’s pick to lead the EPA, Michael Regan.
Photo courtesy of whitehouse.gov

Tomorrow, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on Michael Regan, President Biden’s pick to lead the EPA. Regan, who prioritized environmental justice as the leader of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), is just the person to build the EPA back better after the Trump years, with a stronger focus on equity and justice.

As the head of North Carolina’s DEQ, Regan worked to ensure that every North Carolina resident, regardless of race or income, had access to clean air and drinking water. Under his leadership, the agency brokered the biggest coal ash cleanup in the country, requiring Duke Energy to clean up the toxic ash it had dumped in unlined pits near Black, Brown, and low-income neighborhoods. Pollution from these coal ash pits puts people at higher risk of certain cancers, respiratory symptoms, cardiovascular disease, and reproductive disorders.

Regan also helped to protect North Carolinians from polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) polluting the Cape Fear River. These “forever chemicals” have been linked to higher rates of cancer, pregnancy complications, and low birth weights. Regan also rejected the fracked gas Mountain Valley Pipeline extension while citing the need to invest in clean energy, and set up an environmental justice board.

Regan accomplished all this while working to rebuild morale and strengthen the role of science at his agency, both of which had been eroded by his climate-denying predecessor. It’s a feat we’ll need him to repeat at a much larger scale on the federal level.

The Trump administration spent four years undermining the EPA. It did its best to turn the agency away from its core mission of protecting all of us from pollution and climate catastrophe — instead doling out favors for its fossil-fuel industry friends. It rolled back more than 100 environmental protections, nearly ceased enforcing sanctions on companies emitting harmful levels of pollutants, scrubbed science from its publications and decision-making processes, and drove out hundreds of dedicated career staff. The degradation of the EPA hurt everyone, but especially the communities of color and low-income communities where corporate polluters seem to believe they can act with impunity.

President Biden has already signaled his determination to turn things around at the EPA. His early executive orders and actions direct the agency to review and reverse harmful, anti-environment Trump-era rules, and to prioritize enforcement of existing protections. They’ve also named the need to center environmental justice in fighting the climate crisis as a top priority across his whole administration.

Michael Regan brings the values and experience needed to implement this ambitious agenda. I hope to see him swiftly confirmed, and then act quickly to restore, strengthen, and advance key environmental protections. Under his leadership, we expect to see the EPA rebuilt on a foundation of science and justice.

We are eager to see the EPA implement strong safeguards under Regan that are a win-win for frontline communities and the climate — like stricter caps on emissions of sulfur dioxide, methane, and mercury; and stronger limits on vehicle pollution and the production of coal ash, ozone, and the regional haze that covers our parks and communities with dirty air. These new rules must go beyond simply reversing Trump’s rollbacks, harmful as they are. Regan must ensure that our environmental protections are robust enough to guarantee every American clean air, clean water, and protection from climate disaster — whether we are Black, white, Brown, newcomer or native.

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