New Chicago EPA boss eyes broad interagency efforts
The new head of the EPA’s Great Lakes region wants to create large demonstration projects – perhaps as big as a city block – that unite the work of various agencies to fight climate change, promote resilience and protect environmental justice and public health.
Work is still in its early stages, but Debra Shore, the new Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 administrator, says the constructions will serve as proof that the different branches of the federal government can come together to solve several problems at that time.
“In the past, when groups have gone to, for example, affordable housing to do energy efficiency projects, they haven’t also considered stormwater management,” Shore told Bloomberg Law, adding that more intense and less predictable rain events in the Midwest caused basement backups and flooding.
“They also didn’t consider eliminating lead paint or replacing lead pipes,” Shore said. “They did not examine urban street trees for both stormwater benefits and to reduce urban heat island effects and improve quality of life.”
In addition to the EPA, agencies such as the Departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers are involved in the project, Shore said. Other agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, could also be enlisted, she said.
“Ask the locals”
Shore said the work will primarily take place in underserved and overburdened communities, and will be driven by community input.
“First and foremost, we have to go to a variety of communities and listen and ask residents who know what they want and need,” she said.
Stan Meiburg, a former EPA deputy regional administrator for Regions 4 and 6 and now a professor at Wake Forest University, hailed the idea as a good way for the agency to beef up its muscles. But Meiburg also said agencies shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of teaming up with their federal partners.
“It sounds simple, but working together is hard work,” he said. “People bring their own stories, organizational routines and cultures to the conversation. It may take time, but it is worth it. »
Shore now oversees the largest EPA region by staff. Region 5 covers Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and 35 tribes.
She previously served as an elected member of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago Board of Commissioners. She is also past chair of the board of the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the LGBTQ Victory Institute.
Great Lakes Cleanup
As Region 5 boss, Shore is also tasked with overseeing the cleanup of the Great Lakes, one of the largest freshwater ecosystems in the world and an EPA priority for generations.
The work suddenly became much more feasible. The bipartisan infrastructure bill provided $1 billion over five years for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, in addition to the base funding already in place.
Shore said the new funding will be deployed to “accelerate and expedite” work on former sites contaminated by industrial pollution that were identified years ago. Most of this work will include dredging and removal of contaminated sediments from harbors and other areas.
Only three areas needing major work will remain in the Great Lakes region by 2030, according to Shore. But she stressed that the injection of new funds does not mean that the problem has been solved.
“We still have work to do with invasive species, with nutrient loading, especially on the western end of Lake Erie,” she said. “The need for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative will continue.”
In the near future, the EPA “may need to refocus how these funds are deployed,” she said. The agency is already using its Great Lakes cleanup funds to do work like tackling invasive species and harmful algal blooms, and “those things are going to continue,” Shore said.
Another top priority for Shore will be advancing environmental justice. Region 5 wants to team up with the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Illinois EPA to host workshops with community groups.
Together, the parties will discuss cumulative health impact assessments, ways residents can conduct air or water quality monitoring themselves, and how companies can work with them. communities at an early stage when taking on new projects, “and not finding out down the line that there may be issues,” Shore said.
“It’s new to the EPA, but it’s too late to really take a more comprehensive look,” she said.
Low morale a “restoration project”
She also said she was working hard to restore morale in Region 5, which employees say has declined sharply under the Trump administration.
To help rebuild trust with management, Shore said she invites staff members to call her during business hours, meet with employees, including mailroom workers, and walk around. field staff.
“I consider part of my role to be leading a restoration project,” she said. “I have their backs.”
One issue that caused pain under President Donald Trump was the 2019 reorganization of each EPA regional office, shuffling their organizational maps to each look like headquarters. Former administrator Andrew Wheeler said the move would improve coordination with field offices, but many critics said it made no sense as each region has unique needs.
Shore acknowledged that the change was “very disruptive”, but that “people are learning to work within this model, and it may make sense, in fact, to have some conformity between and between regions”.
But local representatives of the EPA’s largest union say relations with management remain broken.
Nicole Cantello, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 in Chicago, said Region 5 management routinely denies remote work requests, frequently citing reasons the union doesn’t believe are warranted. The agency and union reached a remote work agreement in December that dramatically increased the number of days workers could telecommute.
“Going for rides and meeting people is great,” Cantello said. “But taking the necessary steps to meet the real needs of employees is what could benefit low morale, and it’s not happening.”
Region 5 spokesman Jeff Kelley called the union’s claims that remote work requests are denied “misleading”, saying 54% of the 75 remote work requests received were approved.
Shore said she considers herself “a union partner and friend. I am not here as an adversary.