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Fixing EPA And The Bay Cleanup Under Biden

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The inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden on January 20 will mean a new day for millions of federal civil servants who were disparaged by Donald Trump as so-called “deep state” enemies of his administration.

The federal agency that will be perhaps most relieved when Trump steps onto the final flight to Mar-A-Lago will be the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which marked its 50th birthday on a downbeat note last week. Under Trump, more than 1,200 EPA employees were fired or quit – leaving staffing at the lowest level since 1987. His administration also weakened or eliminated almost 100 pollution control rules.

Stan Meiburg served at EPA for 39 years until 2017, including as Acting Deputy Administrator.

“The last several years have been tough for EPA,” said Meiburg, who now works as Director of Graduate Studies in Sustainability at Wake Forest University. “There are many employees in the agency who feel that the agency stepped away from its basic core values: Follow the science; follow the law; and be transparent.”

Under Trump, EPA ignored its scientists and literally followed the direction of a former coal industry lobbyist.

  One thing that suffered because of the dismantling of EPA was the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort.

Betsy Southerland is a former Director of Science and Technology at EPA’s Office of Water. She said the Trump EPA failed to implement a landmark 2010 Chesapeake Bay cleanup agreement that for the first time set numeric pollution limits for all the Bay region states.

“They have really lost any federal leadership, since the Obama Administration developed those pollution limits for the various jurisdictions that drain into the Chesapeake Bay,” Southerland said. “We didn’t have any real leadership to make the states live up to that requirement.”

But simply restoring the Obama/Biden leadership of EPA, however, will not get the Bay cleanup effort back on track. Even under Obama, EPA refused to do its job on the Chesapeake Bay. EPA failed to force Pennsylvania to modernize its sewage treatment plants to the same level as its downstream neighbors in Maryland and Virginia. Even though Pennsylvania is by far the Bay’s biggest polluter, the Obama EPA also declined to push the state to take any significant steps to reduce its stormwater runoff pollution.

This is according to Nick DiPasquale, who served as the Director of EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office from 2011 to 2017.

“EPA, out of Region 3 (the agency’s Philadelphia regional office), never really held Pennsylvania’s feet to the fire,” DiPasquale said. “We made recommendations out of the Chesapeake Bay Program (office in Annapolis) on numerous occasions to try to put some leverage on Pennsylvania to put the effort in that would be sufficient to get the reductions they needed. And we were essentially ignored.”

A major obstacle is that EPA has no authority to regulate Pennsylvania’s biggest source of pollution –runoff of manure and fertilizer from corn and soybean fields.  In 2015, DiPasquale argued that his agency should instead use the legal authority that EPA does have – over sewage treatment plants and permit approvals for municipal stormwater and sewer systems – to leverage Pennsylvania’s recalcitrant General Assembly into investing more money in farm runoff pollution control projects. EPA also needs to push Pennsylvania lawmakers to reverse a decade of deep cuts at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and hire desperately needed staff there, DiPasquale said.

“They can barely keep the lights on, basically,” DiPasquale said of the Pennsylvania DEP, where he served as a deputy secretary. “That’s unfortunate – but that might be by design, not by accident. The General Assembly is very conservative. It is Republican controlled, and they don’t like putting a lot of resources into environmental programs, especially those that they don’t think benefit them. Although you would think that local water quality improvements would be something they would champion.” 

DiPasquale still thinks his strategy of EPA putting the screws into Pennsylvania over its substandard sewage treatment plants and stormwater systems would work to save the Bay.

President-Elect Biden’s administration should listen to him, instead of ignoring EPA’s top Chesapeake Bay expert, as the Obama administration did.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.