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Debra Shore, new EPA chief in Chicago, says environmental justice will be a key focus

The former elected commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District also highlights climate change and hazardous waste site cleanups as priorities.

The EPA officially announced Evanston politician Debra Shore as the head of the six-state Midwest regional office in Chicago.
Debra Shore, the new EPA chief in Chicago
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Midwest region in Chicago promised to make pollution-related social justice issues a top priority of her administration.

Debra Shore, recently appointed EPA administrator for the six-state area by President Joe Biden, said “environmental justice” is among the most important areas of focus for what’s known as the agency’s Region 5, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

The term environmental justice references the burden low-income communities shoulder due to proximity to pollution. Such areas are often communities of color where a sizable percentage of residents have poor health and limited access to medical care.

“What’s important to this administration and to me is to ensure the public health of people, especially those who live in underserved and overburdened communities and we’ll be carrying that commitment forward,” Shore said in an interview.

Shore said she plans to listen to concerns from environmental justice advocates, including an upcoming meeting with Southeast Side residents who oppose a scrap-metal operation seeking a city permit to open at East 116th Street along the Calumet River. EPA staff have been consulting the city on pollution data trends in the area, she said.

“What happens specifically with that permit is in the hands of the city. But I know Region 5 has worked closely with the city,” Shore said.

A Midwest plan for climate change, hazardous waste cleanup and restoring morale at the agency are among her other areas of emphasis, said Shore, 69, of Evanston. Shore was named to the EPA job last month. She then stepped down as the elected commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, a post she’s held since 2006.

Shore also vowed to work with Indiana to monitor the industrial companies that align Lake Michigan’s shoreline, including U.S. Steel, which recently discharged oil and iron into the water during two separate incidents that closed area beaches.

Money from the infrastructure bill Biden signed into law Monday will help fund necessary cleanups of Superfund sites in the Midwest, she said.

EPA regional staff are working on a climate adaptation plan that Shore said is in the draft stages. Separately, Shore said she’d like to engage other federal agencies to work on possible pilot projects to test climate resiliency in the Midwest.

“Climate change needs to be the filter and focus through which everything else we do is regarded and planned,” Shore said.

In a letter to Biden last month, EPA Midwest employees urged the president to declare a climate emergency.

Noting “there was a big blow to morale” of EPA staff after four years of former President Donald Trump’s Administration’s gutting the agency, Shore promised “no longer will expertise be dismissed or derided but instead will be respected.”

The infrastructure bill is likely to provide money throughout the EPA for new projects and hiring, she added.

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