EPA Region Reshuffle Could Thwart Enforcement, Union Head Says

April 29, 2019, 8:02 PM

The EPA’s reorganization of its 10 regional offices risks dampening the agency’s enforcement of environmental protections by leaving decisions to the “whim of political appointees in D.C.,” the president of largest government workers’ union says.

The reorganization, which will finish taking effect the week of April 29, changes the structure of the 10 regional offices to mirror that of the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters office. For some regions, that involves significant changes to their organization, including for four regions consolidating enforcement into a separate division.

But moving environmental enforcement in those regions from the air, water, and other program offices to a separate division could undermine the enforcement work of those regions by exposing it to political interference, J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees union, wrote in an April 29 letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, obtained by Bloomberg Environment. The union represents more than 700,000 federal and D.C. government workers, including 8,000 EPA employees.

Each of the four enforcement divisions would have a director who reports to a politically appointed regional administrator, who then reports to headquarters.

“These changes would weaken environmental enforcement and expose enforcement decisions to the whim of political appointees in DC,” Cox wrote. “If enforcement is influenced by political motivation, then there will be no structure to hold polluters accountable.”

The EPA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on enforcement concerns and the implementation of the regional reorganization.

Reorganization Takes Effect

The EPA’s regions began reshuffling April 15, though the reorganization plan has been in the works since September 2018.

EPA officials, including Wheeler, have said the regional office restructuring is aimed to improve coordination between the agency’s headquarters and the regional offices.

But the reorganization has drawn criticism from Democratic lawmakers in recent weeks.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the top Democrat on the panel overseeing the EPA’s funding, raised concerns about the EPA’s staffing losses in a letter to Wheeler earlier in the month, urging him to focus resources on filling vacant positions rather than reorganizing.

Staffing Losses

Cox also pointed to dramatic staffing losses at the agency.

He said 1,600 EPA staffers have left the agency since 2016 and fewer than 400 new employees have been hired to fill those slots. Of those totals, 670 employees have left the regional offices since January 2017, and the EPA has only hired 73 workers to fill regional positions.

“With this decline in hiring, EPA employees who remain at the agency get stuck with an ever-increasing workload,” Cox said.

Cox, in his letter, asked Wheeler to pledge to allow enforcement staff to “pursue cases free from political interference and with adequate resources at their disposal.” That includes ensuring any new regional enforcement divisions have enough funding to travel to conduct inspections necessary for enforcement actions, he added.

Cox also urged Wheeler to undertake “accelerated hiring” in the 10 regional offices. In total, the EPA should reach 16,500 full-time equivalent employees, Cox said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Smith in Washington at asmith@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com

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