Debra Shore, who has served as an elected commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District since 2006, will head the six-state Midwest headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago, the Sun-Times has learned.
Shore, 69, will lead EPA Region 5, one of the biggest offices for the country’s top environmental enforcer. It tackles thousands of air, water and land pollution issues in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin as well as 35 Native American tribes. She’ll be responsible for protecting Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, the source of drinking water for tens of millions of people. The region also includes more than 100 of the most toxic waste sites under the U.S. Superfund cleanup program, a legacy of the manufacturing concentration in the rust-belt states.
“It’s a big job with big responsibilities and I believe Debra Shore is up for the challenges,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the advocacy organization Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago. “The EPA Region 5 administrator is probably the biggest regional administrator job in the country because it has the usual responsibilities along with the Great Lakes national program office and the enormous number of Superfund and other toxic sites.”
Shore declined to comment. The pick, which is a joint decision between President Joe Biden’s EPA Administrator Michael Regan and the White House, was earlier reported by Politico. The Sun-Times confirmed the news with a person who has firsthand knowledge of the appointment.
The regional administrator also will be faced with a number of environmental justice issues, which is a term referencing the inordinate pollution problems in low-income communities of color.
Shore was in a competitive two-person race with former Obama Administration official Micah Ragland, who emphasized his environmental justice credentials as he interviewed for the job. A native of Flint, Michigan, now based in Detroit, Ragland would have been the first Black full-time regional administrator for EPA Region 5. Ragland, now a vice president of public affairs for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, was endorsed by more than 50 EPA Midwest workers of color in May. He also had the backing of the regional office’s union, which represents about 1,000 scientists, engineers and other employees.
Shore had strong support from U.S. Senator Dick Durbin and several Democratic members of Congress in Illinois. Ragland had endorsements from half a dozen Democratic Michigan lawmakers in Congress.
During her time at MWRD, which oversees the treatment of sewer wastewater and flooding controls, she has publicly focused on clean water issues. However, Shore told the Sun-Times in December that environmental justice would be a priority, echoing a promise from the Biden Administration.
EPA Administrator Regan stepped into one of the biggest environmental justice controversies in Chicago last May, asking Mayor Lori Lightfoot to hold off on issuing an operating permit to a new car-shredding operation on the city’s Southeast Side. Lightfoot obliged, an action that prompted a lawsuit from the business’ owner Reserve Management Group.
Shore has also vowed to restore morale at the office after President Donald Trump’s Administration cut staff, inspections and enforcement.
“We are hopeful that a new day is dawning at EPA. We had four dark years under the Trump administration,” Nicole Cantello, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, said in a statement. “We are glad to have this appointment filled so that we can move forward with the urgent issues that face the region.”
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.