Supporters, detractors grade Regan’s performance as NC DEQ secretary
A few days before state lawmakers confirmed Michael Regan as Secretary of the Environment in 2017, he appeared in Mebane, where he spoke to the West End Revitalization Association and other environmental justice advocates. In his speech, Regan tried to assure communities of color that they would now have an ally in the upper reaches of state government, which had long been off-limits to them.
“The truth is, we’ve got work to do,” Regan said at the time. “We have a special obligation to the underserved and underrepresented.”
Regan’s focus on environmental justice, as well as his experience in climate and energy issues, have made him the leading candidate for the top EPA job in the Biden administration, according to people familiar with the matter and national media reports.
If Regan is ultimately Biden’s pick and is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he will find himself in familiar political territory. He would inherit an EPA that is struggling with challenges similar to those that faced the Department of Environmental Quality when he became secretary nearly four years ago: a decimated budget, demoralized staff, a previous leadership that favored industry over sound science, myriad regulatory rollbacks, and a politically divided legislative body that uses the purse strings as punishment.
Regan would also lead the EPA at a crucial point in global history, when climate change presents an existential threat to the planet. He would have to grapple with the scourge of emerging contaminants, such as PFAS, not only in North Carolina, but also nationwide. And he would have to reinstate and strengthen many regulations that had been gutted under President Trump.
Mixed reviews from environmental advocates
These parallels and Regan’s job performance in North Carolina position him as a potentially ideal person to lead the vast EPA bureaucracy, according to many of the dozen people interviewed for this story. Regan, a Goldsboro native who previously worked at the EPA under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, is described as politically astute, smart and approachable.
“He’s been exceptional,” said Molly Diggins, long-time environmental leader and former director of the NC Chapter of the Sierra Club. “His challenges were formidable and he’s been able to accomplish a lot, despite the obstacles. If Regan leaves, it would be a big loss for the state, but potentially a big help if we have a partner in federal government.”
Yet, detractors said Regan was too passive in pursuing polluters, serving as a mediator rather than a regulator. They wanted a fighter; they got a referee.
“He’s a great person but I don’t think he’s done enough for us on PFAS” — perfluorinated compounds — said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear. “I understand the agency is understaffed and underfunded. But the agency has made decisions unrelated to those things. We’ve fought so hard, but received so little.”
She cited the consent order between DEQ, Cape Fear River Watch and Chemours, which opponents of the agreement have noted, is weak. It specifically covers only contamination upstream, including private well owners near the Chemours plant in Cumberland and Bladen counties; downstream communities that are on public water systems in New Hanover and Brunswick counties feel excluded.
“There are a quarter-million people still exposed,” Donovan said. “To see the state treat municipal ratepayers different than private well owners is not a good answer. They left municipalities on their own to fight our own battles.”
DEQ officials have previously reasoned that remediating upstream pollution will ultimately benefit those living downstream. However, such a clean up would take decades.
If appointed as EPA administrator, Regan would oversee an agency that has so far malingered in regulating these toxic compounds. North Carolina has adopted the EPA’s recommended but unenforceable maximum contaminant level for PFAS of 70 parts per trillion. But other states have been more aggressive. New Hampshire, for example, has established maximum contaminant levels in drinking water of 12 to 15 ppt. Michigan is also a leader. (That state’s officials recently gave a presentation to the NC Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board.)
“To see this incremental approach by DEQ go to EPA would be devastating,” Donovan said. “We need someone aggressive enough to move us forward. I don’t see that coming from this leadership.”
Emily Sutton, the Haw Riverkeeper, does not oppose Regan’s EPA nomination, but said she has also been frustrated with the agency’s lack of leadership on PFAS contamination. “They have done the bare minimum,” she said. “There are not two sides to PFAS.”
DEQ, though, has racked up several major accomplishments under Regan. For example, he established an Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, the first for the agency. Although that board has no regulatory power, it has brought environmental justice issues to the forefront of public discussions. That said, DEQ has also granted air permits under Regan’s watch for polluting industries in Hamlet and Lumberton — two towns in which environmental justice concerns loom large.
Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director of the NC Environmental Justice Network, sits on the EJ board; she was appointed by Regan. Pollution from hog and poultry farms continues to contaminate communities of color in eastern North Carolina. But Muhammad attributed that to “a sorry legislative body that undercuts everything we’re trying to do. We had a good relationship with Regan.”
Veronica Carter of Leland, whom Regan appointed to the EJ board, said some of the criticism is unfair. “He’s walking a tightrope,” Carter said. “I get why activists are upset. We want justice and we want it now. But it takes time. And he does care.”
Cassie Gavin, senior director of government affairs for the NC Chapter of the Sierra Club, cited the agency’s willingness to hold additional public hearings and extend comment periods on issues of significant interest.
And facing political pressure, the agency forced Duke Energy to excavate the remaining of its unlined coal ash pits, one of the largest such cleanups in the nation. (The Southern Environmental Law Center had successfully pursued litigation that ended up compelling the utility to excavate most of them.)
Duke Energy declined to comment on the possibility that Regan could become EPA administrator.
Former State Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Hendersonville, worked with Regan on coal ash, a holdover issue from the McCrory administration. “Regan was very easy to work with,” McGrady said. “He used the laws creatively to push Duke to do more than they wanted.”
McGrady said that Regan “reached out to Republicans. He’s very willing to work with anybody. He doesn’t draw lines in the sand. He relies on data and facts. He turned the ship around, and I don’t have the sense he had a bad relationship with anyone.”
The agency did become embroiled in controversy over granting water quality permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (However, DEQ did not, as some Republicans claimed, grant the permits as part of a ‘pay-to-play’ scheme spearheaded by the governor.)
However, DEQ subsequently denied those permits for another pipeline, the MVP Southgate project that would run through Rockingham and Alamance counties.
Repairing a broken agency
When Regan was last at the EPA in the late ‘90s and mid-‘00s, scientists were telling anyone who would listen about the threat of climate change. However, the issue had yet to enter the mainstream. But as climate change has come to be widely recognized as an existential threat in recent years, Trump’s EPA appointees Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler both acted in league with the fossil fuel industry to dismiss, if not outright deny, the science behind the planetary upheaval.
Under Pruitt and then Wheeler, the EPA weakened roughly 125 rules, ranging from fuel efficiency to drilling to mining to migratory birds. The agency killed the Clean Power Plan and recast how the costs and benefits of pollution are calculated to vastly undervalue public health. The new EPA administrator will have to essentially put the toothpaste back in the tube. That person will also have to confront a Congress that’s often hostile to science and regulation — much like the North Carolina legislature.
“An awful lot needs fixed,” said Kathy Kaufman, who worked for 29 years at EPA as an air quality policy analyst, where she wrote rules under the Clean Air Act. “The EPA needs to figure some way to stem the tide of natural gas expansion. Now that renewables are cheaper, a huge amount of natural gas infrastructure needs to be retired.”
That would require not just regulations, but also incentives.
The EPA also needs an administrator to integrate the sprawling divisions so that, for example, water and air rules are in sync. (These disconnects have also happened at DEQ. Most recently, for example, an air permit was granted to the Active Energy wood pellet plant while the facility was violating stormwater rules, unbeknownst to the agency.)
In addition to tapping into the expertise of career EPA employees, “We desperately need someone who can hit the groundrunning,” said Melissa McCullough, who recently retired as the senior sustainability advisor for the EPA Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program.
“We need someone who can maneuver within the administration and get the EPA in front of the president. They will have to wear a lot of hats and do it well in this time of a climate emergency.”
After his stint at EPA, Regan worked as the Southeast Regional Director and associate vice president for US Climate and Energy for the Environmental Defense Fund, a centrist advocacy organization. That experience likely informed Regan’s support and leadership of the state’s Clean Energy Plan, also a first for North Carolina.
Peter Ledford, director of policy for the NC Sustainable Energy Association, commended Regan on the plan, with its aggressive carbon reduction goals and emphasis on renewable energy. “He paved the way for environmental justice and clean energy,” Ledford said. “And he reaches across the aisle. I think he could replicate that in DC. It would be a loss for the state but a gain for the country.”
Four years ago in Mebane, Regan ended his speech on a powerful note. “We choose to collaborate, to be bold, fearless and unwavering,” Regan said. He then quoted Union Army commander Capt. William Mattingly: “Let’s fight till hell freezes over and then we’ll fight them on the ice.”
If Regan ascends to the EPA, the fight — with Congress, industry lobbyists, environmental advocates, and for the planet — will only have begun.