Bloomberg Law
March 22, 2022, 9:30 AM

New EPA Chicago Boss Envisions Expansive Interagency Efforts

Stephen Lee
Stephen Lee

The new head of EPA’s Great Lakes region wants to create vast demonstration projects—perhaps as big as a city block—that knit together various agencies’ work to address climate change, promote resiliency, and protect environmental justice and public health.

The work is still in the early stages, but Debra Shore, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5, says the buildouts will serve as proof that the federal government’s various arms can unite to solve multiple problems at once.

“In the past, when groups have gone into, say, affordable housing units to do energy efficiency projects, they haven’t also been looking at stormwater management,” Shore told Bloomberg Law, adding that more intense, less predictable rain events in the Midwest have been causing basement backups and flooding.

“They haven’t also been looking at lead paint removal or lead pipe replacement,” Shore said. “They haven’t been looking at urban street trees for both stormwater benefits and to reduce urban heat island effects and enhance quality of life.”

In addition to the EPA, agencies like the departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers are being pulled into the project, Shore said. Other agencies, such as the Department of Education and Federal Emergency Management Agency, could also be enlisted, she said.

‘Ask the Residents’

Shore said the work will be situated mostly in underserved and overburdened communities, and will be driven by community input.

“First and foremost, we have to go into a variety of communities and listen and ask the residents who know well what they want and need,” she said.

Debra Shore
Photo courtesy EPA

Stan Meiburg, a former EPA deputy regional administrator in Regions 4 and 6 and now a professor at Wake Forest University, praised the idea as a good way for the agency to flex its muscle. But Meiburg also said agencies shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of teaming up with their federal partners.

“It sounds simple, but working together is hard work,” he said. “People bring their own histories, organizational routines, and cultures to the conversation. It could take time, but it’s well worth the effort and energy.”

Shore now oversees the EPA’s biggest region by staff. Region 5 spans Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and 35 tribes.

She formerly served as an elected member of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago’s board of commissioners. She is also a past chair of both the Great Lakes Protection Fund’s board of directors and the LGBTQ Victory Institute.

Great Lakes Cleanup

As the boss of Region 5, Shore is also responsible for overseeing the cleanup of the Great Lakes, one of the world’s biggest freshwater ecosystems and an EPA priority for generations.

The job has suddenly become much more achievable. The bipartisan infrastructure bill provided $1 billion over five years for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, in addition to the base funding already in place.

Shore said the new funding will be deployed to “accelerate and expedite” work on legacy contaminated sites from industrial pollution that were identified years ago. Most of that work will involve dredging and removing contaminated sediments from harbors and other areas.

Only three areas requiring major work will be left in the Great Lakes region by 2030, according to Shore. But she emphasized that the injection of new funding doesn’t mean the problem has been solved.

“We still have work to do with invasive species, with nutrient loading—particularly in the western end of Lake Erie,” she said. “The need for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative will continue.”

In the near future, the EPA “may need to refocus how those funds are deployed,” she said. The agency already uses its Great Lakes cleanup funds to do work like addressing invasive species and harmful algal blooms, and “those things will continue,” Shore said.

Another top priority of Shore’s will be the advancement of environmental justice. Region 5 wants to team up with the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Illinois EPA to hold workshops with community groups.

Together, the parties will talk about cumulative health impact assessments, ways residents can do air monitoring or water quality monitoring themselves, and how companies can work with communities at an early stage when they’re undertaking new projects, “and not discover way down the line that there may be issues,” Shore said.

“This is new for EPA, but it’s overdue to really take a more comprehensive look,” she said.

Low Morale a ‘Restoration Project’

She also said she’s working hard to repair morale in Region 5, which staffers say declined sharply under the Trump administration.

To help rebuild trust with management, Shore said she’s been inviting staffers to call her during open office hours, dropping in on employees—including mailroom workers—and going on ride-alongs with field personnel.

“I view part of my role as conducting a restoration project,” she said. “I have their back.”

One issue that caused some pain under President Donald Trump was a 2019 reorganization of each EPA regional office, shuffling their organizational maps so they each resembled that of headquarters. Former Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the move would improve coordination with the field offices, but many critics said it didn’t make sense because each region has unique needs.

Shore acknowledged that the shift was “very disruptive,” but that “people are learning to work under this model, and it may make sense, actually, to have some conformity among and between regions.”

But local representatives at the EPA’s biggest union say relations with management remain broken.

Nicole Cantello, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 in Chicago, said Region 5 management is routinely denying requests for remote work, frequently citing reasons that the union doesn’t feel are justified. The agency and union hammered out a remote-work agreement in December that greatly expanded the numbers of days workers could telecommute.

“Doing ride-alongs and meeting people—that’s great,” Cantello said. “But taking the steps to address employees’ real needs—that’s what could benefit the low morale, and that’s not happening.”

Region 5 spokesman Jeff Kelley called the union’s claims that remote work requests are being denied “misleading,” saying 54% of the 75 remote work applications received have been approved.

Shore said she considers herself “a partner and friend to the union. I’m not here as an adversary.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at