EPA Administrator Michael Regan previewed his enforcement philosophy on Tuesday, saying the agency must have science-based environmental regulations in place if it wants to chase individual companies that flout them.
“It’s more about focusing on the importance and the integrity of the intent of our programs—and enforcement and accountability guides that—than it is to say we’re focused on the polluters themselves,” Regan said during during his first all-hands meeting with Environmental Protection Agency personnel.
The meeting was shared with Bloomberg Law by an agency employee who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
“Yes, we need to focus on the polluters, and we need to focus on their actions,” Regan said. “But the real power behind enforcement is making sure that our rules, our regulations, and our policies have the teeth behind what we’re after, which is protecting the environment and public health.”
Among the EPA’s top regulatory priorities are updated standards or guidance on drinking water, contaminants, and pesticides, Regan said. He’s also broadly expected to help advance President Joe Biden’s ambitions on curbing greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s highways and power grid.
In a later session on Tuesday with Black mayors, Regan said the agency was “taking a hard look” at Trump administration regulations in a variety of areas to ensure their consistency with science. They included rules involving methane from oil and gas operations, greenhouse gas emission standards for cars and light trucks, and mercury limits in power plants.
He also said EPA was “taking special consideration of their impacts on disadvantaged communities.”
Outreach to Unions
Regan also said repairing the agency’s relationship with its unions is a “top priority.”
The newly-minted administrator said he’s met with senior leadership team to find ways of reengaging and strengthening relationships with its unions, which were badly bruised during the Trump administration.
“Unions are central to this organization,” Regan said, promising to improve the agency’s communications and transparency with them.
His pledge only partly mollified the unions, who say they’re still working under Trump-era structures that haven’t been cleared away.
Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in the agency’s Midwest region and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 in Chicago, welcomed Regan’s remarks but said many problems remain unresolved.
“AFGE is still working on a day-to-day basis without the rights that the Trump administration took from it when it imposed a contract on July 8, 2019,” Cantello said, referring to a contract that the union says was imposed without members’ input or consent.
That contract was part of a long-simmering feud between the EPA and its two biggest unions, the AFGE and the National Treasury Employees Union. During the Trump administration, the two sides were constantly at war over everything from work scheduling to assigned workspaces for union activities.
Last October, the AFGE told former EPA chief Andrew Wheeler that it didn’t believe the agency was prioritizing workers’ health and safety as it moved toward bringing them back into the office during the coronavirus pandemic.
Regan nodded to the low morale among EPA staffers, saying he’s aware that many feel the agency’s guiding purpose “seems to have veered of course over the last few years.”
Also during his town hall, Regan promised to scrutinize the agency’s telecommuting policy and left the door open for expanding work-from-home rights. But he stopped short of saying he would significantly change EPA rules, leaving one agency staffer slightly cold.
“It would have been nice to hear specific acknowledgment that staff have been firing on all cylinders for over a year under a global pandemic and massive upheaval to our personal and professional lives,” the employee said.
“Teleworking has environmental benefits and work-life balance benefits,” the employee continued. “While I know many considerations need to be taken into account, is he going to seriously look at continuing maximum telework capabilities past the pandemic? If not, why not?”
At least one-quarter of the questions submitted by EPA staff were about telework, according to panel moderator Nigel Simon, director of the Office of Program Management at the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management.
—With assistance from Dean Scott.