More than two years into his administration, President Joe Biden does not have a Senate-confirmed leader, nor nominee, to head an EPA office that suddenly has billions of dollars to clean up toxic waste sites across the country.
The Office of Land and Emergency Management is responsible for programs popular among lawmakers to clean up and redevelop contaminated land as well as providing the agency’s boots on the ground when environmental catastrophes strike. The infrastructure law appropriated $5 billion to scrub Superfund and brownfields sites and, along with the climate law, reinstated “polluter pays” taxes to keep revitalization humming for years to come.
Yet EPA’s solid waste office does not have its top political leader in place.
“You need that political leadership for that office to implement the priorities of this administration,” said Elliott Laws, who led the EPA waste office during the Clinton administration. “I can imagine it can be frustrating and pretty demoralizing for staff in that office at this point.”
Laws, now a partner in law firm Crowell & Moring’s Washington office, noted that the program does have “incredible, competent career staff” at the agency’s headquarters and regional offices.
Earlier this year, Biden did not renominate his original choice, Carlton Waterhouse, who left the agency to return to Howard University.
West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, “is concerned that a new nominee has not been named,” said Peter Hoffman, a spokesperson for the panel’s Republicans.
“The solid waste office plays a critical role, especially in relation to the Superfund program that impacts efforts to revitalize lands across the U.S., including in West Virginia,” Hoffman said.
Biden first nominated Waterhouse, a legal scholar and environmental justice expert, for the job in June 2021. He ran into resistance from GOP lawmakers, including Capito, over past social media posts. The committee deadlocked on his nomination twice, and he was never confirmed.
Jake Abbott, a spokesperson for EPW Committee Democrats, noted “Republican obstruction” of the initial nominee and said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the panel’s chair, “remains confident that the president will again nominate a deeply qualified nominee who is committed to prioritizing environmental justice.”
“When he does, Chairman Carper will work with Democrats and Republicans to advance the nomination out of the EPW Committee without delay,” Abbott said.
An EPA spokesperson referred questions to the White House. White House press officials did not acknowledge questions for this story.
Susan Bodine, who led the waste office during the George W. Bush administration, said it’s important for a program office to have political leadership “always representing that office to other political appointees within the agency.”
“OLEM has been given a lot to do and it’s always more successful and effective if political leadership is taking the lead when an office is taking on new responsibilities,” said Bodine, also formerly the Trump EPA’s top enforcement official and now a partner at Earth & Water Law.
Opposition to Regan aide
Some environmentalists have made clear who they don’t want to see helm the office.
In February, a coalition of California-based environmental justice groups urged EPA Administrator Michael Regan to block one of his senior aides, Grant Cope, from being nominated for the job.
Cope, formerly a top official at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, “contributed to delayed cleanups, faulty data, and poor communication, resulting in a breakdown of trust between impacted community members and the DTSC,” the 21 groups wrote in their letter to Regan.
Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, signed onto the letter. He didn’t offer a name when asked who should lead the office but “just someone qualified and with a good track record, unlike Grant Cope.”
“We want EPA to hire people who are qualified and committed to public health, environment, and justice, and who are not advocates for polluters instead of people and communities,” said Angel, who is also the founding member of California Environmental Justice Coalition.
As for industry advocates, Cheryl Coleman, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries’ senior vice president of sustainability and advocacy, said in an email that “ISRI is confident a nominee will be selected who supports the recycled materials industry” but was neutral on who the candidate might be.
The waste office does not have an approved leader, but it is in the national spotlight, nonetheless. Its emergency responders were on the scene within hours of the fiery train wreck and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio.
Mathy Stanislaus, who led EPA’s waste office during the Obama administration, said it was vital the agency have Senate-confirmed leadership there to head up a policy response in the aftermath of a disaster like in East Palestine.
“It underscores the need for a comprehensive response for these kinds of disasters within policy and regulation,” Stanislaus said. “The assistant administrator would have an emergency response role but also a regulatory role.”
The office does currently have experienced staff in leadership.
Waterhouse was deputy assistant administrator in the waste office before he left the agency in February. Last month, Clifford Villa, an EPA veteran and former University of New Mexico law professor, was named to the position (Greenwire, March 29).
“Cliff is a longtime advocate and champion of environmental justice,” Waterhouse said. He added he is confident Villa will advance that work in the waste office under the direction of Regan and Biden.
Barry Breen, a longtime career official, is the office’s acting assistant administrator. EPA is fortunate to have “a well-qualified career senior executive” on board, according to Stan Meiburg, who served 39 years at the agency, including as acting deputy administrator during the Obama administration.
“With Barry Breen, you have a very capable public servant,” said Meiburg, now the executive director of the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest University.
Whoever is nominated next to lead EPA’s waste office may have to wait their turn.
Pending agency nominees, like Joseph Goffman to lead the air office and David Uhlmann for head of the enforcement program, are still awaiting confirmation. The EPW panel is expected to move them to the full Senate once Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) returns to Capitol Hill, slated for next week.
Funds, staffing in play
Biden’s latest EPA budget plan is asking for close to $356 million in appropriated funds for Superfund, far less than the nearly $1.3 billion the agency received the previous year, according to its congressional justification.
Instead, EPA is proposing to use receipts from recently reinstated “polluter pays” taxes to finance the cleanup work. The Treasury Department has estimated those taxes will collect about $2.5 billion that will be available for the agency to use in fiscal 2024.
Superfund has struggled with underfunding since 1995 when taxes supporting the program expired. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act brought back Superfund excise taxes on chemicals and petroleum, respectively.
The infrastructure law also sends EPA $3.5 billion for Superfund and $1.5 billion for brownfields to boost cleanup efforts. The agency has already announced plans to use billions of that Superfund funding to clean up toxic waste sites across the country.
“It is a huge opportunity. You not only have dedicated revenues but also a broader set of funding coming out of IRA and IIJA,” said Stanislaus, now vice provost and executive director of the Environmental Collaboratory at Drexel University.
He, however, warned those funds can dissipate without quickly integrating them into the agency’s decisionmaking. “You can lose those opportunities,” Stanislaus said.
The waste office also is one of the agency’s larger programs. EPA’s fiscal 2023 operating plan sets the office’s hiring target at around 2,121 full-time positions.
The agency has to move swiftly to bring more staff on board. Laws said EPA’s staffing is its biggest challenge, considering so many employees are retirement eligible.
“There is clearly a pipeline to implement those dollars. The question is do they have the personnel to do so,” Laws said.