Michael Regan isn’t a household name.
He was North Carolina’s top environmental official when President Joe Biden plucked him from the state to serve as EPA administrator more than two years ago. Since then, Regan (pronounced Ree-gan) has been a relatively low-profile member of Biden’s Cabinet.
He has been a reliable cheerleader for the administration’s climate change and environmental justice agenda, but wasn’t a fixture on cable news programs or in national headlines like Pete Buttigieg or Jennifer Granholm.
The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, is changing that.
The administration has made Regan, 46, the face of its response to the environmental and political disaster instigated by a train that spilled toxic chemicals into the small community near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
The calamity has also launched Regan into the national spotlight, despite dedicated efforts by Biden’s critics to paint Transportation Secretary Buttigieg as the responsible party. It’s a politically perilous position that makes the EPA boss an instant target for congressional investigators and conservative pundits, but could also elevate his profile as rumors swirl that he is eyeing elected office back in his home state.
“I think he exercised leadership,” said William Reilly, who served as EPA administrator during the George H.W. Bush administration.
“He was the first high-ranking official to arrive in the administration,” Reilly said. “He took charge to a degree and got his agency to do exactly what they know how to do.”
The EPA administrator traveled to the Ohio site three times in as many weeks. He ordered rail company Norfolk Southern Corp. to clean up its mess, opened a “welcome center” where residents can get information, and promised that the agency was in for the long haul.
Suddenly, Regan’s name is dominating national headlines, and he’s all over cable TV.
His third stop in East Palestine earlier this week was previewed on national morning shows like “Morning Joe” and “Good Morning America.” A CNN reporter was on the ground to quiz the EPA administrator that day. Fox News mentioned his visit, too. And “NBC Nightly News” played his trip high in its broadcast later that night.
The EPA boss appears to welcome the spotlight.
Regan pinned a tweet at the top of his Twitter profile featuring a clip of him speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper for a televised town hall meeting last month. “I don’t have any questions for the CEO of Norfolk Southern,” Regan said in the clip. “I have some orders for the company.”
His Twitter feed is now packed with photos of him meeting with residents and officials in East Palestine. EPA’s press office has shared on social media local TV hits and newspaper front pages about Regan’s visits to the disaster site.
EPA’s ‘face during a crisis’
This isn’t the first time Regan has tangled with polluting corporations.
As secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, he won settlements with Duke Energy Corp. to clean up coal ash waste and Chemours Co. to end drinking water contamination by GenX chemicals.
Regan grew up in Goldsboro in eastern North Carolina. He had respiratory issues, which he blamed on a nearby coal-fired power plant, but became a track athlete and lifeguard in high school. At North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, he told the student newspaper he wanted to be “an entrepreneur or a professional model” (Greenwire, Feb. 2, 2021).
He graduated instead with a degree in earth and environmental science and has worked in that world since. Once a career EPA employee, Regan later joined the Environmental Defense Fund, before Gov. Roy Cooper (D) named him to the state environmental department post in 2017.
He was sworn in as head of EPA on March 11, 2021. His confirmation process was lengthy but smooth, with 16 Republican senators joining all Democrats to approve him.
The first Black man to lead EPA, Regan was seen as a restorative figure to rebuild morale at the agency that went through turmoil during the Trump administration. He is also considered a possible future political candidate, perhaps running for North Carolina governor this election cycle, although in-state Democrats have tamped down on that speculation.
Regan’s tenure managing this disaster and others could help any political prospects, or hurt them if things don’t go smoothly.
“He is the public face of the agency during a crisis,” said Judith Enck, who led the EPA Region 2 office during the Obama administration. “EPA was set up to be the environmental cop on the beat. EPA was not set up to just give out grants or do climate change abatement.”
EPA spokesperson Tim Carroll said that as the agency works alongside its local, state and federal partners on the response to the train wreck, Regan has had “several media engagements” during his visits to East Palestine and from EPA headquarters with local, regional and national news outlets.
“In these interviews, the administrator has highlighted EPA’s presence in the early hours of the derailment, and shared critical information on response and remediation efforts, indoor air monitoring screenings, the availability of cleaning services for the community and more,” Carroll said.
‘Cut his teeth’ during a water crisis
EPA administrators are often thrown into large-scale environmental catastrophes.
Douglas Costle faced Love Canal during the Carter administration; Christine Todd Whitman had 9/11; and Lisa Jackson dealt with Deepwater Horizon.
For Reilly, it was the Exxon Valdez disaster. In 1989, the oil tanker struck a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling more than 11 million gallons of crude, making it the largest spill in U.S. history at the time.
Reilly recalled the president wanting his EPA administrator to be out front during the crisis.
“I was his spear,” Reilly said. “This was a huge environmental catastrophe, and I ought to be there, and I ought to be public there.”
This isn’t Regan’s first attention-grabbing tragedy as head of EPA.
Last summer, more than 150,000 residents of Jackson, Miss., were left without water as a treatment plant was rocked by storm flooding.
EPA personnel rushed to the scene. Regan also visited the city three times after the water crisis struck — holding press conferences, meeting local residents and doing interviews on national TV. The city found relief, including $600 million in federal aid to help repair its water system as part of the federal omnibus spending package passed December last year, which Regan noted in an email to EPA staff.
“I’m sure that Jackson, that is where he cut his teeth,” Reilly said. “Of course, he’d already had the role at the state level. He might as well have seen somewhat similar complex problems when he was the secretary of environment of North Carolina.”
Regan’s inclination to show up on the scene in Ohio has won kudos from his predecessor at EPA.
“My successor, Administrator Regan, was the first official to visit the city, and I applaud him for doing that,” said Andrew Wheeler, an Ohio native who led the EPA during the Trump administration. Wheeler would have been in East Palestine within a few days, he said in a podcast interview with former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson that was released earlier this week.
“I was surprised, I have to admit, at how long it took the secretary of Transportation, Secretary Buttigieg, to show up,” Wheeler said.
Buttigieg visited the Ohio community last week, expressing regret that he hadn’t spoken publicly about the disaster sooner than he had. Buttigieg, who ran for president in 2020, has been a lightning rod for critics’ attacks in the wake of the train derailment, while Regan hasn’t been subject to the same level of vitriol from conservatives.
Tough questions ahead
With the spotlight comes scrutiny.
Congressional investigators are coming for Regan’s agency. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is first up, with a hearing planned next week to focus on the accident. Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw and EPA Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore will testify along with others.
The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Materials plans to hold a hearing on the derailment later this month and expects EPA to testify at that hearing, according to Sean Kelly, a spokesperson for committee Republicans. They also plan to hold a field hearing at a later date.
Also, EPA and other agencies will be briefing bipartisan committee members on Monday, Kelly added.
Lawmakers have pressed EPA over its testing strategy in East Palestine, particularly to sample for dioxins that can be created when vinyl chloride, some of the derailed train’s toxic cargo, is burned. In addition, the agency is already facing litigation for “false assurances” that the community’s air and water are safe.
On Thursday, EPA announced that in response to concerns Regan heard from East Palestine residents, the agency would require Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins.
Enck, now president of Beyond Plastics and a Bennington College professor, noted that local residents have reported falling ill since the train crash and a subsequent “controlled burn” sent a giant black plume above town.
“There is a split screen,” Enck said. “On one side, there are residents who are identifying health problems. On the other side, there is the EPA and the state of Ohio saying everything is safe.”
Enck has been critical of the agency’s response. She believes more could be done, like testing for dioxins as well as on surfaces in East Palestine.
“The public wants to know when there is an emergency of this nature, that EPA will be on the scene protecting public health, protecting public resources and working overtime to address the pollution,” Enck said.
The administrator has recognized the challenges ahead but pledged that EPA will finish the cleanup.
“If we work together, and if we’re transparent, this community will bounce back,” Regan said at a press conference in Ohio earlier this week. “Let me be clear, Norfolk Southern will clean up this mess. We will be very transparent, and we will ensure that this community is made whole again.”
Reporter Timothy Cama contributed.