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Biden’s Pick to Run EPA Has Questionable Record on Farm Pollution

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As President Biden gears up to tackle a daunting variety of problems – ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change – he’s forming a cabinet to reflect his priorities. His pick to spearhead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is Michael Regan.

Regan is a former EPA air quality program manager who since 2017 has served as the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality under Democratic Governor Roy Cooper.

Here’s Regan speaking at a recent press conference: “Since the start of my career, my goals have been the same: To safeguard our natural resources, and to improve the quality of our air and our water.”

If confirmed by the Senate as EPA Administrator, Regan would signify a dramatic change from the Trump Administration EPA, if simply because he’s a veteran environmental regulator -- not a lobbyist for the polluting industries that EPA is supposed to be policing.  

By contrast, Trump selected to run EPA a former coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, and Oklahoma’s former Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, an advocate for Oklahoma’s oil and gas drillers.  These two weakened or eliminated nearly 100 environmental regulations, and slashed EPA staffing to the lowest levels since the 1980s.

President Biden has promised to reverse course at EPA, especially by taking action on climate change and environmental justice issues.

But how good was Michael Regan – really -- in cleaning up North Carolina?

Derb Carter is director of the North Carolina office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. He praised Regan for forcing America’s largest power company – Duke Energy – to sign a major coal ash cleanup agreement following a massive spill of ash in 2014 from a Duke coal ash dump into North Carolina’s Dan River.

“Duke agreed to excavate and remove from these leaking pits in the ground 80 million tons of coal ash, which is the largest coal ash cleanup – by far – in the nation’s history,” Carter said.

In an area of great importance to people in the Chesapeake Bay region – where EPA is overseeing a floundering Bay cleanup effort -- Regan was weak on regulating agricultural pollution, the largest single source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

North Carolina’s massive hog industry has 10 million pigs produce 10 billion gallons of manure annually. For years, farmers have stored this waste in ponds that often spill into rivers. They also spray the manure onto fields, allowing bacteria to drift miles and sicken nearby residents.

Elizabeth Haddix is Managing Attorney for the North Carolina Office of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Her nonprofit organization sued Regan’s environmental agency, alleging civil rights violations by the hog industry, which she says is sickening minority communities downwind and downstream.

Haddix said Michael Regan had an opportunity to halt North Carolina’s grossly unhealthy hog practices, but instead chose to make only minor changes and compromise with the politically influential hog industry.

“Our reaction was frustration and disappointment,” said Haddix. “We had great hopes for him. I think that he does see himself as a mediator, and I think this is a big problem for a lot of progressive leaders in this country. It’s that they don’t see that it’s time to stop being a negotiator and to stand up and lead.”

So Michael Regan would take over an EPA facing historic challenges, including trying to reduce farm runoff pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. But he has a mixed record, especially in this area of critical consequence to Maryland.

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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.