Gary Wilson's thoughts on Great Lakes issues and occasionally, other things
Spotlight on new Great Lakes region EPA exec. Restore credibility, re-establish oversight and protect 20 percent of Earth's fresh surface water on the agenda.
To Great Lakes insiders the EPA's Chicago office is referred to as simply, Region 5. If one says "Region 5," everyone knows what you mean. To others eavesdropping on the conversation it could sound like an Area 51 reference, the federal property where the U.S. government purportedly houses UFO secrets.
The grey building is just off Chicago's Loop and requires airport-type security to enter. I once tried to take a picture of it as background for a story and was quickly told by a security guard, "no photos." I identified myself as a reporter but no sale, "no photos" the guard said as his face took a more determined look. Just as well, he may have saved me from a tow of my illegally parked car. You also can't stop near the building with blinkers on.
Now that Michael Regan has taken office as EPA administrator, one of his more important tasks is to name the regional administrators and the choice for Region 5 will be one of the more important ones. Region 5 you see is home to the Great Lakes National Program Office, GLNPO for the insiders, and it oversees all things Great Lakes.
That includes the multi-billion dollar program to restore the lakes that's so popular in the region. One of its biggest tasks is to restore a whole bunch of toxic sites like the Detroit River on a list developed in the 1980's. Progress is being made but it's slow and a total cleanup may still be decades away.
Region 5 is also responsible for oversight and enforcement. Enforcement of laws and regulations wasn't a priority during the last four years to the point that it could have been seen as a retained hobby. The new Region 5 chief will have to jump start that work.
Equally important is oversight of what the states are doing, or not doing. A deficiency in oversight by Region 5 is broader than the last four years. Minimally it goes back to the time of President Barack Obama when it delayed on taking action on Flint's lead problems. That caused administrator Susan Hedman to resign though EPA has never taken any responsibility for Flint. The people of Flint haven't forgotten though and there's a $600 million negligence suit against the agency working its way through the federal court system. So far, EPA has tried to say it's immune from that type of suit but that defense was rejected.
There's also an oversight issue related to Lake Erie's algae problems that have threatened drinking water quality for years. To date, EPA is in federal court defending its lack of oversight in suits brought against it for not taking a tougher stance with the state of Ohio.
The new Region 5 exec will have to deal with that conundrum.
So far, two candidates have publicly surfaced for the Region 5 job. Detroiter Michael Ragland who has a Flint background and who worked at EPA in the Obama years. And Chicago water executive Debra Shore, best known for trying to revitalize Chicago's stodgy water reclamation district. Both have backing from their respective congressional delegations in Michigan and Illinois.
Don't expect miracles no matter who gets the Region 5 job. EPA is a huge bureaucratic agency bound by laws and regulations and it won't turn on a dime. And while new Administrator Michael Regan comes to EPA with stellar credentials, he's known as an executive who seeks consensus instead of overturning the apple cart at the risk alienating constituencies, like big ag.
The new Region 5 administrator pick is worth tracking for a lot of reasons. Primarily because, important but overused fact alert, the selection will be responsible for 20 percent of the Earth's fresh surface water.
With climate change instability in the foreground and demand for water only expected to increase, think about that one for a minute.
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Chicago-based environmental journalist