All of us will need to fight harder to protect the quality of our air and drinking water as we watch the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump increasingly put down its tools and walk off the job.
Trump’s EPA is headed by Scott Pruitt, who has a clear disdain for the agency’s mission. On Dec. 19, Pruitt appointed Cathy Stepp — someone with a history of cutting back protections for clean air and water — to head the critical Chicago-based Region 5 of the EPA, which is responsible for protecting six Great Lakes states.
The Great Lakes hold about 85 percent of North America’s fresh water, so a key part of Stepp’s job is to protect the lakes.
But in the six years she ran the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources before she left in August to become deputy administrator of an EPA regional office in Kansas City, Stepp showed little interest in environmental stewardship — even to the point of deleting references to human-caused climate change on the department’s website. At Wisconsin’s DNR, she tangled with the Region 5 office she is about to head; employees there wanted her to correct deficiencies in Wisconsin’s clean-water protections.
According to a Wisconsin state audit, between 2005 and 2014 the department failed to issue violation notices to wastewater polluters nearly 95 percent of the time. A Sierra Club official in Wisconsin said a third of residents in the northeastern part of the state can’t drink their water because of factory farm contamination. During Stepp’s tenure, experienced staff members quit.
Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters director Kerry Schumann said Stepp left the department “in tatters.”
Is that the model we want to bring to Lake Michigan, which provides drinking water for the Chicago area?
Region 5 of the EPA is a critical part of our environmental defenses. At a time when state environmental agencies in the region, other than Minnesota’s, have grown lax or are underfunded, as in Illinois, Region 5 has played an important role in stopping dangerous pollutants. Historically, Region 5 has had the scientific know-how and the resources to track threats and implement solutions. It also runs the very important Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which works to reverse decades of industrial pollution and to mitigate the impact of invasive species.
But even before Stepp takes over in January, Region 5 has been losing knowledgeable scientists and skilled lawyers who took buyouts or just left because the Trump administration has a cavalier attitude toward environmental protection. The agency needs a leader committed to the vision of a healthy environment, not someone who, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said of Stepp, has a “chamber of commerce mentality.”
EPA scientists are constantly in the field, investigating never-ending complaints of smokestacks spewing contaminants or businesses dumping pollutants into streams or lakes. EPA monitoring of petcoke mounds on Chicago’s Southeast Side led to stricter municipal regulations and eventual removal of the petcoke. Just in October, the EPA joined other agencies in seeking the cause of a mile-long oil slick on Bubbly Creek.
We need that work to continue. Gov. Bruce Rauner should send a clear signal that environmental degradations won’t be permitted in Illinois. Businesses, too, should step up, as well as local governments and citizens.
Stepp’s appointment makes it starkly clear that elections matter to the environment. In Illinois, whoever is elected governor next year will make appointments to the Illinois Commerce Commission, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the Illinois Pollution Control Board and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, all agencies that will make decisions about how our environment is to be protected.
The stakes are high. This is not a time when we can afford to do favors for polluters.
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