Next leader of EPA in Midwest to take on lead pipes, PFAS, other maladies

Chicago – More toxic lead pipes than any other region of the country. An unmatched legacy of abandoned, highly polluted industrial sites. Dozens of corporations chronically in trouble for poisoning air and water.

All of these maladies face whomever President Joe Biden picks to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency office that oversees Illinois, five other Midwestern states and the Great Lakes.

Then there are emerging challenges such as worrisome concentrations of unregulated chemicals turning up in drinking water across the region; pressure to address long-ignored environmental racism; and threats to public health and property from aging sewers unable to handle intense rain falling more frequently as the climate changes.

A tough job, in other words, made even more difficult after the Trump administration attempted to disarm and dismantle the EPA during the past four years.

The former Republican president vowed as a candidate to abolish the agency. Once in office his administration rolled back scores of environmental regulations, conducted fewer inspections and stalled enforcement.

Biden pledges to restore what was lost and expand the EPA’s mission. But the Democratic administration began with about 100 fewer employees in the EPA’s Chicago-based regional office compared with when Trump took office in 2017, according to records provided by the local union.

“There is a ton of rebuilding to do just in terms of people who left because of the Trump administration and people who left because they were old enough to retire,” said Mary Gade, a former EPA attorney who led the office under President George W. Bush. “They lost a lot of expertise and resources. All the more reason why the region needs a strong leader.”

There are two known candidates who interviewed for the regional administrator post: Debra Shore, an elected commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, an agency that manages sewage and storm runoff in Chicago and Cook County, and Micah Ragland, a utility executive who helped lead the response to the Flint water crisis while working at the EPA during the Obama administration.

Shore, who would be the first openly gay person to lead the Chicago office, is backed by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and most other Democrats in the Illinois congressional delegation. Ragland is supported by the union for EPA employees and several Michigan Democrats in Congress; he would be the agency’s first Black regional administrator for the Midwest.

Whoever gets the job will join an outpost that fiercely defends its independence from Washington, no matter which political party is in power.

“That’s partially because the region still has a lot of big industrial sources of pollution, but it’s also a culture in the Chicago office that developed under different presidents,” said Eric Schaeffer, a former top EPA enforcement official who directs the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. “Over the years they’ve done their homework, sent out inspectors who know what to look for and laid out violations in clear detail.”

One example is the methodical approach of career EPA employees in Chicago who in 2018 helped expose dangerous levels of cancer-causing ethylene oxide in west suburban Willowbrook.

Trump political appointees initially sought to downplay health risks from dozens of polluters across the nation that emit the highly toxic chemical. But the EPA happened to rent a warehouse in Willowbrook across the street from Sterigenics, a company that uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment in several U.S. cites.

Chicago-based staffers installed air monitoring equipment on the warehouse roof. An analysis of the results suggested the risk of leukemia, breast cancer and melanomas among people living near Sterigenics was exponentially higher than what the EPA had estimated, prompting neighbors and elected officials to demand the company leave town, which it eventually did.

Political interference prevented other communities from getting the same treatment. On multiple occasions, the agency’s inspector general reported in April, Trump appointees in Washington ordered the EPA’s Chicago office to dramatically scale back efforts to understand the dangers of ethylene oxide in the Midwest, including in north suburban Gurnee and Waukegan.

The lack of federal action in the Lake County communities raises another issue on the Biden EPA’s agenda: environmental justice.

Neighborhoods at risk near the shuttered Willowbrook plant are predominantly white and upper-middle class, while neighbors of the Gurnee and Waukegan facilities are mostly Latino and Black with lower median incomes.

Michael Regan, the new EPA administrator, vowed in April to consider the disproportionate impacts of pollution in communities of color. “We must do better,” he told the agency’s staff.

Following through on that pledge will be difficult, if history is a guide.

“Often it falls on community groups to communicate these issues to people, which can be very overwhelming for volunteers who also work full time and have families and other commitments, said Celeste Flores, co-chair of the nonprofit group Clean Power Lake County.

“It’s going to take more than one administration to get the EPA back,” Flores said. “If you don’t have the right people leading the way, nothing gets done.”

An early test of the Biden administration’s commitment involves a proposed scrap shredder on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

The EPA is reviewing whether a state permit granted to Reserve Management Group violates the civil rights of people who live in the low-income, largely Latino and Black corner of the city, where the Ohio-based company wants to shred cars and other metallic waste after closing a similar facility on the wealthy, predominantly white North Side.

Regan noted earlier this year that the Southeast Side already ranks among the nation’s worst areas in various pollution categories the EPA relies on to determine where it should focus its attention. The agency’s investigation continues.

Other reports from the EPA inspector general document how the Trump administration forced regional officials to stop requesting information from polluters without permission from Washington. At the same time, the agency’s political leadership shifted the responsibility for enforcing environmental laws to states, several of which, including the Illinois, already had slowed the policing of air and water pollution.

The EPA’s own numbers document the drop in federal cases against polluters.

Last year the number of civil enforcement cases referred to the Department of Justice nationally by the EPA dropped to 81, by far the lowest annual tally since at least 2000. On average, the Trump EPA sent 106 cases a year to federal prosecutors, compared with 211 under Obama and 278 under Bush.

Demands for pollution reductions also declined under Trump, federal records show. Adjusted for inflation, the Trump EPA demanded fixes worth $8 billion a year on average nationwide, compared with $11.9 billion secured by the agency during Obama’s eight years in office and $8.8 billion sought by the Bush administration.

“This is a recipe for trouble,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Law and Policy Center.

EPA enforcement often is prompted by persistent complaints from citizens, lawsuits filed by nonprofit groups or media attention, all of which can break through inertia in a federal bureaucracy that critics alternately portray as jackbooted thugs or hapless pencil pushers.

Consider Flint, where residents began asking questions in 2015 about foul-smelling, rust-colored water streaming out of their faucets.

Under orders from a state-appointed emergency manager to cut costs, Flint had stopped adding corrosion-fighting substances to its water supply. Miguel Del Toral, a now-retired water expert in the EPA’s Chicago office, discovered that brain-damaging lead was leaching from corroded water pipes, yet Obama’s appointee as regional administrator was forced to resign after she failed to warn the public about the emerging public health crisis.

The still-unfolding scandal drew national attention to a public health threat that extends far beyond Flint. Drinking water is conveyed to homes in hundreds of older cities and towns through pipes made of a toxic metal that is unsafe to consume at any level.

Chicago has more of these pipes, known as service lines, than any other city. The Midwest has more than any other region. But the EPA is just now developing plans to eliminate the hazards.

Several of the same cities with lead-in-water problems are discovering that toxic, unregulated chemicals known as PFAS are passing through treatment plants and contaminating drinking water.

Nearly every American has PFAS in their blood, studies have found. Known largely for their use in products featuring the Teflon and Scotchgard brands, the chemicals have been linked to cancer, liver problems, increased risk of high blood pressure and lower birth weights.

Any response from the Biden administration will come out of Washington. The EPA is proposing rules that would require industries to disclose for the first time whether they release PFAS into air or water. Facing bipartisan pressure in Congress, the agency is considering stringent limits on chemicals in drinking water after years of delays.

Regional officials likely will also play a role in the response. There are some known PFAS polluters in the Midwest, most notably a 3M plant in suburban Minneapolis, and dozens of others suspected of using the chemicals based on what they manufacture.

In many ways, the struggle to protect Americans from PFAS mirrors past battles to regulate or ban noxious air pollution from coal-fired power plants, deadly asbestos fibers and other toxic chemicals such as DDT, PCBs and brominated flame retardants.

When one scourge appears to be eliminated, or at least under control, another takes its place.

Virtually every environmental problem is made worse by climate change. For instance, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District has spent more than $3 billion since the mid-1970s building Deep Tunnel, a network of massive sewers and cavernous reservoirs intended to prevent untreated human and industrial waste from surging into Lake Michigan, the Chicago River and basements throughout Cook County.

Yet during the past decade the Chicago Tribune has reported that billions of gallons of bacteria-laden sewage and runoff routinely pours into the Chicago River and suburban waterways during and after storms, which increasingly drop significant amounts of rain during short periods of time.

Lake Michigan, long considered the sewage outlet of last resort, has been hit harder since 2008 than it was during the previous two decades combined.

Environmental regulations and enforcement haven’t caught up to the problem, though.

Much of the focus in the EPA’s regional office remains on more well-known protections of the Great Lakes, the source of drinking water for more than 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada.

It took the EPA until 1977, five years after the Clean Water Act took effect, to secure a court decision forcing the U.S. Steel Gary Works to reduce the amount of industrial waste it dumped into Lake Michigan and the Grand Calumet River. The northwest Indiana steel mill is still the biggest polluter in the Lake Michigan basin, and as recently as 2007 the EPA intervened to prevent Indiana from scrapping or relaxing limits in the facility’s water pollution permit.

In Burns Harbor, a few miles away along the lake, lawyers for another steel mill are negotiating a new legal settlement with the EPA after the Environmental Law and Policy Center documented more than 100 violations of the Clean Water Act that federal and state regulators had failed to address.

In 2019, the ArcelorMittal mill, now owned by Cleveland-Cliffs, released a plume of concentrated cyanide and ammonia into a ditch that drains into the East Branch of the Little Calumet River. Company and state officials failed to notify the public about the spill until four days later, after thousands of dead fish began floating past a bustling marina.

The Burns Harbor mill is among 453 facilities across the region on the EPA’s list of companies in “significant noncompliance” with the Clean Water Act. During Obama’s last year in office, 125 facilities were on the same list. (Michigan isn’t included because of data-sharing problems between the state and EPA.)

“Something has to be done – not just business as usual,” said Nicole Cantello, an agency lawyer and president of the union for EPA employees in Chicago. “We need a game changer, or else saving our lakes will just be another in a long list of failures of collective action for the common good.”

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