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6 former EPA chiefs say ‘derailed’ agency needs reset after election

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) building in Washington
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) building in Washington.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

Six former Environmental Protection Agency chiefs are calling for an agency reset after President Trump’s regulation-removing, industry-minded first term, backing a detailed plan by former EPA staffers that ranges from renouncing political influence in regulation to boosting climate-friendly electric vehicles.

Most living former EPA heads joined in Wednesday’s appeal, with Trump’s first EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, being the notable exception. The six former chiefs — William Reilly, Lee Thomas, Carol Browner, Christine Todd Whitman, Lisa Jackson and Gina McCarthy — served under Republican and Democratic presidents.

The Environmental Protection Network, a bipartisan group of more than 500 former EPA senior managers and employees, crafted the hundreds of pages of recommendations for a change of course at the agency.

The group said the road map was meant to guide whatever administration the Nov. 3 presidential election put in place, although many of the proposals are implicitly or explicitly critical of Trump’s actions with regard to the agency. The former EPA heads’ accompanying statement did not mention him but said they were “concerned about the current state of affairs at EPA.”

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Some of the reset recommendations were aimed at the Trump era, such as minimizing industry and political influence on science-based decisions in regulatory actions, combating climate change and encouraging electric vehicles. The proposals are in line with critics’ complaints about Trump’s environmental record and with many of Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden’s proposals.

The EPA, now under the leadership of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, has been an avid agent of Trump’s drive to cut regulations he sees as unnecessarily burdensome on business, including the coal, gas and oil industries. The administration says it is rolling back rules without increasing risk to the public health or the environment.

Nationally, many public health officials, environmental groups, Democratic lawmakers, scientists and others disagree, saying Trump’s regulation-cutting, combined with sharp drops in many areas of enforcement against polluters, is increasing air and water pollutants and industrial toxins and jeopardizing the health of Americans.

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When it comes to the EPA’s mandate of protecting people’s health and the environment, “the last few years, the agency has been derailed from that mission,” Browner, who led the agency in the Clinton administration, said in a statement.

Saying environmental and health protections were essential to economic growth, Browner described the recommendations as “reaffirmations of our environmental laws, and [a] return to where the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act are respected and enforced and where policy is science-based and aimed at protecting our health and environment.”

The ex-EPA staffers’ recommendations range from broad mandates — such as increasing agency action on the disproportionate exposure that Black, Latino and other minority communities and low-income areas have to dangerous pollutants — to specific measures of the current administration that the next president should focus on undoing or modifying. They also urge increased funding.

Trump is expected to announce a new rule to speed up the environmental review process for proposed highways, pipelines and other infrastructure.

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Specific public health and environmental rollbacks from Trump’s first term targeted for proposed annihilation or rewriting by the ex-EPA employees include a pending Trump regulation-easing measure for climate-damaging methane from oil and gas production that the EPA is expected to announce in the coming days.

Some of the many other Trump EPA measures on the “out” list in the reset proposal: a rule supported by industry that limits the public health studies that the agency can use in making regulations; a Trump-driven move to ease vehicle mileage and emissions standards; and a heavily voluntary plan for cutting fossil fuel emissions by power plants, which replaced the Obama administration’s broad plan for making the nation’s power sector more climate-friendly.

Another recommendation: Cultivate “a more open and respectful exchange between reporters and EPA.”

Wednesday’s recommendations at times make the job of changing course at the EPA seem formidable. The agency’s air office, for instance, they say, “has a massive to-do list, a huge amount of pressure from outside groups, a demoralized and diminished career staff to tend to, and an incredible sense of urgency.”

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Michelle Roos, executive director of the ex-employees group, said more than 100 former EPA staffers prepared the action plan over 10 months. Roos said the changes would “better protect the air we breathe and the water we drink” and do more to confront climate change and the heightened pollutant risks of minority and low-income communities.


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