House Committee Holds Hearing on “Restoring the Vital Mission of EPA”
On March 10, 2021, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on “The Path Forward: Restoring the Vital Mission of EPA.” According to the March 7, 2021, memorandum from Representative Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Chair of the Committee, to the Subcommittee, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) current responsibilities include reviewing national air pollution standards and overseeing or carrying out cleanups at most of the 1,327 sites on the Superfund’s National Priorities List. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and other laws require EPA to address threats and contamination from chemicals, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). In addition, EPA is also responsible for addressing the health impacts that disproportionately affect low-income communities, communities of color, and fence-line communities situated near industrial plants. The memorandum notes that the previous Administration eliminated or weakened more than 170 environmental protections, impairing EPA’s ability to address pressing environmental challenges. Finally, according to the memorandum, continuing budget and staffing pressures also are impacting EPA’s capacity. The memorandum states that “[d]espite having fewer programs to administer at the time, EPA’s budget in 1980 was fifty percent higher in inflation-adjusted dollars than it is today. Between fiscal years 2015 and 2018, staffing levels at EPA declined by nearly 2,500 full-time equivalent positions.” The memorandum notes that more departures may occur in the coming years, with nearly 40 percent of EPA now eligible for retirement.
Hearing witnesses included:
- Hon. Christine Todd Whitman, EPAAdministrator (2001-2003);
- Hon. Carol Browner, EPA Administrator (1993-2001);
- Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, Former EPA Chief of Staff and EPA Region 4 Regional Administrator;
- Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, Former Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator, Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, EPA; and
- John Deskins, Ph.D., Director, Bureau of Business & Economic Research, West Virginia University.
According to Whitman, the first order of business for the new EPA leadership is to re-establish a commitment to sound science. EPA must also restore the morale of the people at EPA, retaining the expertise that it has while also attracting the new generation. EPA needs to address environmental justice. EPA has to identify emerging chemicals of concern, as well as deficiencies in the water structure.
Browner suggested that a modern EPA should operate under four parameters: follow the science, the law, enforcement, and environmental justice. According to Browner, if these are the cornerstones of how EPA thinks about its work on a day-to-day basis, then EPA will be able to serve all Americans, including the business community. Browner stated that enforcement is about compliance and fairness. If a company complies with an environmental regulation to achieve an environmental endpoint but its competitor does not, that is a basic unfairness.
According to Keyes Fleming, EPA spending in terms of real dollars is less than half of what the Agency spent in 1980, and its staffing levels are at a 30-year low. Keyes Fleming stated that EPA must recruit and hire the next generation of environmental professionals, with an eye towards diversifying its ranks and leaders. Keyes Fleming outlined five guideposts for EPA: follow the science; follow the law; provide transparency in decision-making; engage all stakeholders; and synergize resources to maximize impact.
Cleland-Hamnett stated that she is concerned that EPA’s greatest strength, its career workforce, has been eroded. According to Cleland-Hamnett, a concerted effort at hiring is needed. Cleland-Hamnett noted that staff must have the appropriate resources, data, and infrastructure to support them. Cleland-Hamnett testified that sound, credible, and transparent science is vital to EPA’s credibility and effectiveness.
Deskins stated that he wants to ensure that EPA fully considers the economic impact of any policies under consideration. According to Deskins, if EPA moves forward with policies that will have an adverse impact on communities reliant on coal and gas, acknowledging the costs to these communities will help promote investments in those areas. Deskins noted that this is not a new concept and that Section 321(a) of the Clean Air Act requires that EPA conduct employment impact analyses as part of its policy analysis program.
The hearing witnesses highlighted issues that will be priorities for the Biden-Harris EPA in restoring the “vital mission” of EPA, including climate change, sound science, and environmental justice. Browner stated during the hearing’s question and answer portion that science is at the base of everything that EPA does, and that she “used to say the science made me do it.” The Biden-Harris Administration has made addressing climate change a key goal, and as it takes steps to do so, it will need to address concerns from communities reliant on coal and gas. On March 10, 2020, the full Senate confirmed Michael Regan as the new EPA Administrator by a vote of 66 to 34. Having a new, confirmed Administrator is the first step to achieving the Biden-Harris Administration’s ambitious goals.