Former EPA staff like what they see in new administrator

Nearly 1,000 people left the agency after 2016, according to the fiscal 2022 budget proposal by the Biden White House

Michael Regan is hugged by his son Matthew at the conclusion of his confirmation hearing  in February. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Michael Regan is hugged by his son Matthew at the conclusion of his confirmation hearing in February. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 15, 2021 at 6:30am

Career employees departed the EPA at a fast clip during the Trump administration, but interviews with some of those who left during the Republican’s presidency indicated they are happy with how things look so far under new administrator Michael Regan.

Nearly 1,000 people left the agency after 2016, according to the fiscal 2022 budget proposal by the Biden White House. And the Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that more than 670 of those departures were of scientific experts.

Although age drove many of the departures, there was also a sense that such experts were being shut out of the policymaking process, say many of those now-former EPA career staff. And that leaves Regan, the former North Carolina environmental regulator who was sworn in March 11 as President Joe Biden’s EPA administrator, with serious morale-boosting to do.

“The morale was so low because there was political interference in the scientific work,” said Betsy Southerland, who retired in August 2017 after more than three decades with the EPA. “It’s the combination of both the clear view that there were strictly political decisions being made rather than public health decisions being made and then, secondly, being unable to influence or modify that in any respect because you literally did not have a seat at the table.”

Southerland served as director of the Office of Science and Technology in the EPA Office of Water. She and other EPA career staff who left the agency during the Trump years say Regan is off to a good start.

[Senate confirms Regan as EPA administrator]

“There was almost like an immediate ‘Oh, we can talk again’ sort of sigh of relief,” said Stan Meiburg, who worked at the EPA for nearly 40 years. “And the new incoming administration recognizes the importance for building strong ties with the career staff.”

Meiburg was career staff for most of his time at EPA but also served as acting EPA deputy administrator, a political appointment.

Budget boost

It might also help that the Biden administration’s fiscal 2022 budget plan, which cited all those Trump-era departures, proposed a 21 percent boost in EPA funding, including money intended to recruit new hires to fill its depleted ranks.

A Congressional Research Service report from last year indicated the number of “full-time equivalent” employees at the agency stood at more than 15,000 for fiscal 2017 but was down to 14,172 for fiscal 2020.

The UCS analysis specifically examined scientific staff and found that the overall level of those experts at the agency was at 11,647 in mid-2017 but had fallen to 10,587 by the end of 2019 before rebounding somewhat by the end of 2020.

Southerland pointed to a May 2020 EPA inspector general report that found hundreds at the agency reported witnessing political interference and other violations of EPA scientific integrity policies.

Southerland said remaining career staff have told her they are “thrilled” to see Regan changing direction out of the gate. She specifically praised Regan for moving to eliminate a Trump administration rule that required the agency to give greater weight to scientific studies based on publicly available data. Then-Administrator Andrew Wheeler said that requirement promoted transparency, but opponents said it would have hampered the agency’s access to key scientific data when formulating regulations.

‘Forever chemicals’

Under Regan, the agency has also issued a new toxicity assessment for a category of what are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” after complaints about how the Trump administration produced its own assessment. And Regan announced that he is dismissing and reformulating two key advisory panels.

Critics of that move called it heavy-handed, but advocates view it as necessary, saying the previous administration excluded some experts in favor of industry allies.

Trump political appointees have defended their work at the agency, suggesting that what was characterized as political interference simply reflected policymakers sorting through differences of opinions among experts. Capitol Hill Republicans also described Trump’s EPA as returning to a focus on basic functions, such as cleaning up toxic waste sites.

Former staffer Alexis Strauss — who served as acting regional administrator for Region 9, which covers Arizona, California, Nevada and Hawaii, as well as director of the EPA water division — said there was clear tension between career and political staff from the start with Trump’s first administrator, Scott Pruitt.

Strauss worked at the EPA for 40 years before retiring in August 2019.

“Typically, there is a little bit of distrust between an incoming administration’s political appointees and the long-standing senior career managers, and that’s normal and you work through that,” Strauss said. “But this reached unprecedented levels during the Pruitt administration. There was so much mistrust of the career senior managers.”

She recalled how Pruitt changed the method for quantifying how many people worked for the agency. Strauss said she told him the new method would prevent the EPA from having its congressionally authorized staffing level, but she said he responded that the agency needed to be smaller.

Building trust

It’s important that Regan be transparent about staffing levels with Congress and the public, Strauss said, and that he focus on building trust between the career and political staff. She also suggested that he move forward with appointing the EPA’s regional administrators, who don’t require Senate confirmation.

Those are typically appointed after the D.C.-based team is in place, but there’s no requirement to wait, she said.

She also recommended ramping up the pipeline for new hires from universities, particularly those who serve minority communities.

“We really have to move hiring faster,” she said. “Let’s make it work for more young people, and let’s rebuild EPA’s workforce.”

Meiburg, who is now director of graduate studies in sustainability at Wake Forest University, said it’s good to see the new administration value career staff again, but that won’t make many of the decisions easier. Many questions facing the EPA involve difficult judgments about risk that don’t come down to partisan differences, he said.

As an example, he used deciding what level of those “forever chemicals” should be concerning to the public. The Obama administration pegged that number at 70 parts per trillion.

“That didn’t mean that at 69 you were safe and at 71 you were dead,” he said, noting that some critics thought the guidance was too high while others thought it was too low. “Those kinds of decisions are going to be difficult for any administration, and many of them are in play beyond the ones that get a lot of the headlines, on climate especially.”

He said it’s clear there’s a “lightening of the step at EPA” because the political leadership values the agency and its work.

“Having said that, sooner or later everything degenerates into work, and that will happen with moving through on all of these rules. And not all of them will just be slam dunk, do the opposite of what the other guy did,” he said.