Biden should declare a climate emergency, EPA Midwest employees say

The Chicago-based union head calls for strengthening an environmental agency decimated by former President Donald Trump’s administration.

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Extreme weather has led to rising water levels and eroding shorelines along Lake Michigan. Future climate change is likely to worsen the problem.

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The union local in Chicago representing Environmental Protection Agency employees across the Midwest is asking President Joe Biden to declare a climate emergency and take major unprecedented actions to slow global warming.

In a letter to Biden’s EPA Administrator Michael Regan, union members urged the president to ban the export of crude oil, place a moratorium on permits for any fossil fuel pipelines and facilities and move to a carbon-free power system by 2035. 

EPA employees have been expecting more resources and a stronger backing from the administration after what they’ve described as a demoralizing four years under former President Donald Trump in which polluters were given a pass, the workforce was cut and agency employees were inhibited from doing their jobs. 

The union American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents about 1,000 EPA scientists, engineers and other staff across six states, also called for the hiring of additional staff, including 200 in the Midwest. With headquarters in Chicago and known as Region 5, the EPA’s Midwest region is responsible for controlling pollution in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and for Native American land of 35 tribes. 

“At a time of crisis, EPA’s workforce must speak out forcefully for urgent reductions in greenhouse gasses and for eradicating the racial injustice that comes with the impacts of that crisis,” Local 704 President Nicole Cantello said in the letter to Regan. “To tackle the climate emergency, we need to protect, empower and rebuild our workforce of dedicated scientists and engineers.”

In an interview, Cantello said that EPA climate research and related programs in the Midwest came to a standstill during the Trump Administration even as global warming continues to have an impact in Chicago, Illinois and across the region.

Extreme weather has led to disappearing beaches and eroding shoreline along Lake Michigan. Warming weather can lead to more algae in Lake Michigan, which may harm fish and water quality. Severe storms may lead to more pollution runoff and sewer overflow into the lake, a source of drinking water for millions in Chicago and the surrounding area. 

In addition to clean-energy demands, the union called on the president to step up his previously announced commitment to protecting low-income communities of color overburdened with pollution. Specifically, the administration needs to “strengthen environmental justice and tribal voices in decisions about their environment,” according to the declaration. 

The letter was sent Wednesday night as Biden prepared to travel to a United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow. And it was sent amid continuing negotiations between the White House and Congress over the fate of an enormous infrastructure legislation that would include climate-fighting provisions.

In an email to the Sun-Times, an EPA spokesman said the agency “is aggressively moving forward to deliver emissions reductions and protect people from harmful climate pollution” and added that “EPA takes seriously the concerns of its workers and values their input. The agency will review the letter and respond accordingly.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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