On Saturday, the Biden–Harris transition team announced the president-elect’s nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Michael Regan. If the nomination goes through, Regan, who currently heads the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, will be returning to the place where he began his career as an air quality specialist in President Bill Clinton’s EPA. Since then, the agency has seen some of its greatest triumphs—and sunk to some of its lowest depths. Regan will bring to the role of EPA administrator more than 20 years’ experience as a regulator and an advocate, plus something else that has been missing at the agency for the past four years: a demonstrable commitment to the tenets of environmental justice.
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Regan will become the first Black man to run the country’s most powerful force for protecting public health and the environment. Along with Brenda Mallory, who is also Black and Biden’s choice to run the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Biden’s nominee for secretary of the interior and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Regan is part of a proposed environmental team that would be the most diverse in White House history.
That’s important. Issues of environmental justice—including the many ways that systemic racism manifests itself in the formation and execution of environmental policy—have risen to the fore in our larger national conversation on race and equity. These appointments signal that President-elect Biden has taken seriously demands from advocates that his environmental team consider the environmental justice implications of any rules, policies, and decisions that it makes.
For the past three years, Regan has served as the top environmental official in North Carolina, impressing both Democrats and Republicans in this politically divided state with his tenacity and ability to reach across the aisle. Earlier this year, his agency facilitated the biggest coal ash cleanup in the country after reaching a settlement with Duke Energy, which had been dumping the highly toxic waste—a by-product of burning coal—in open, unlined pits near residential neighborhoods. Under the terms of the settlement, Duke Energy must excavate more than 80 million tons of coal ash from a half dozen facilities and move it to new, lined landfills where it can’t leach into groundwater.
In August, Regan chalked up another victory by getting Chemours, a former subsidiary of DuPont, to take much stronger action to prevent the chemicals known as PFAS from contaminating the Cape Fear River. These dangerous “forever chemicals”—so named because of their ability to linger for a long time in the environment and the human body—have been linked to cancer, abnormal fetal development, and dysfunction of the liver, thyroid, and immune systems.
Regan’s background in advocacy (he worked for eight years at the Environmental Defense Fund as the organization’s vice president for clean energy and its Southeast regional director) also bodes well for his future heading the EPA, which is currently led by Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry. Regan would be taking the helm of the agency at a pivotal moment in its half century of existence. While the EPA has been ill served by administrators in the past, never before has its mission been so brazenly sabotaged by those who would profess to lead it. Under Wheeler (and Scott Pruitt before him) the agency has shirked its core responsibility—to protect human health and the environment—and replaced it, perversely, with the goal of widening loopholes and weakening rules for the increased comfort and profit of corporate interests.
The EPA’s next administrator will need to do a number of things simultaneously. In addition to diagnosing environmental hazards and setting and enforcing the rules that keep communities and wildlife habitats safe, Regan would have to actively undo the damage that has been wrought by Pruitt and Wheeler in the form of so many rollbacks and cave-ins to industry. He’ll need to go above and beyond performing the normal duties of the office and work to repair an agency that has been broken deliberately—but, thankfully, not irretrievably.
As we head into 2021 and kick off the agency’s next half century, we need an EPA chief who understands the interconnections among environmental justice, climate justice, economic justice, and racial justice. In a speech on Saturday, Regan gave a reassuring clue that he does. His EPA, he said, “will be driven by our conviction that every person in our great country has the right to clean air, clean water, and a healthier life—no matter how much money they have in their pockets, the color of their skin, or the community they live in.”
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