Leadership shuffle at agency as water chief retires

By Kevin Bogardus, Annie Snider | 10/27/2015 07:13 AM EDT

Ken Kopocis, the top official in U.S. EPA’s water office, is stepping down.

In an email sent to all agency employees yesterday, Administrator Gina McCarthy said Kopocis, the agency’s deputy assistant administrator for water, is retiring in early November. Kopocis’ exit will end a long career in public service that included senior jobs at the agency as well as on Capitol Hill and will touch off a chain of other personnel moves.

"Ken Kopocis, our current Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water, will retire in early November, concluding 32 years of public service. Ken has been instrumental in leading the Office of Water, particularly in finalizing the historic Clean Water Rule that better protects our nation’s water resources," McCarthy said in the email obtained by E&E Daily.


Kopocis’ departure comes as the agency is locked in a multi-front battle over its Waters of the U.S. regulation, with legislative opponents angling to block it through the end-of-year appropriations process at the same time that states, industry groups and some environmentalists are challenging it in court. The crux of Kopocis’ role likely ended, though, when the agencies began implementing the rule at the end of August — although it was later put on hold by a federal appeals court.

The rule aims to clear up confusion about which streams and wetlands are regulated under the Clean Water Act following two muddled Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006. Providing clearer — and broader — Clean Water Act protections has been a chief goal of the last decade and a half of Kopocis’ career, both at EPA and previously in Congress, where he worked for former House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) on legislation with the same aim.

That work, however, cost him any hope of Senate confirmation in the top EPA water post. Senate Republicans opposed to broader federal reach under the Clean Water Act have blocked his nomination for more than four years. He initially served as a senior adviser in the water office and last year moved into the acting deputy administrator slot to lead the water office.

"That guy should have been confirmed in a heartbeat, he’s so bipartisan and so smart, and it’s just so unfortunate the Republicans held him up; they admitted he’s a great guy," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said yesterday.

Kopocis has also led efforts on other hot-button regulations during his time at EPA. He oversaw the finalization last month of the first new limits in 30 years on toxic discharges from coal-fired power plants — a long-embattled rule that could encourage the closure of coal ash ponds (Greenwire, Sept. 30).

He has also shepherded implementation of a landmark approach to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, an approach that has been fiercely contested by agricultural and development groups that are in the process of asking the Supreme Court for review (E&ENews PM, Sept. 21).

"Additionally, he led efforts to dramatically expand the agency’s assistance to communities for green infrastructure, climate resilience, and urban waters," McCarthy said. "I want to thank him for all his hard work and wish him the very best."

Kopocis’ departure has set off a leadership reorganization at EPA, resulting in new heads for the agency’s water, policy and congressional relations shops.

Joel Beauvais will take on Kopocis’ job as EPA’s acting deputy assistant administrator for water, according to McCarthy’s email.

Beauvais has been the agency’s associate administrator for policy for the past two years, working on developing EPA’s high-profile rules and managing its relationship with the Office of Management and Budget. A former House Energy and Commerce Committee counsel and clerk for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Beauvais has also worked in the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation as well as served as special counsel to the EPA administrator and its general counsel’s office.

"He is well versed in EPA’s water policy priorities, and he brings to the table extensive experience with EPA policy across program offices and a broad and deep network within OMB, the White House and other federal agencies," McCarthy said. "Joel’s background makes him uniquely qualified to lead the Office [of] Water in implementing the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, and in achieving our priorities for the remainder of the Administration."

In turn, Laura Vaught will slot into Beauvais’ old job as acting associate administrator for EPA’s Office of Policy.

Vaught has been the agency’s associate administrator for congressional and intergovernmental relations. A former chief of staff for ex-Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Vaught has helped handle EPA’s dealings with Congress and the White House and assisted with launching the agency’s major regulations.

"Laura has also been a tremendous asset in several major announcements, including the Clean Power Plan and the Clean Water Rule," McCarthy said. "Her familiarity with EPA policy across all program offices, a broad and deep network within the White House and other federal agencies, and her negotiation skills make her the perfect choice to lead the Office of Policy."

Nichole Distefano will take over Vaught’s job as acting associate administrator for EPA’s Office of Congressional Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations.

Distefano has been Vaught’s deputy for two years and has also worked on several of the agency’s high-profile regulations, including the Clean Power Plan and its water rule. Distefano was senior legislative counsel for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) before coming to EPA.

"Her strong legislative expertise in energy, environment, agriculture policy, federal contracting policy and domestic security matters makes her exceptionally qualified to lead OCIR," McCarthy said.

Reporter Hannah Northey contributed.