DEQ Secretary Michael Regan signals he will fight for environmental justice

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan prepares for his speech at an environmental justice conference in Mebane. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

While caterers released the aroma of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans from a fleet of steaming pans, Michael Regan sat a table designated “reserved,”  and reviewed his lunchtime speech. “The truth is, we’ve got work to do,” read part of the first page. “We have a special obligation to the underserved and underrepresented.”

Regan, who has been secretary of the NC Department of Environmental Quality for just two months, had brought along at least a dozen of his staff, who joined officials from the EPA, the West End Revitalization Association and other environmental justice advocates, to the Mebane Community Center. Here, they would spend two days hashing out issues of environmental justice at  the North Carolina Community Solutions Workshop.

For the past four years, environmental justice groups have been largely excluded from meeting with top DEQ officials. The NC Pork Council, the real estate lobby, the frackers-in-waiting: They all had a seat at the table. While polluting industries like Duke Energy were dining with former DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart at the governor’s mansion, environmental groups were essentially told to talk to the hand.

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So on this Friday, the air vibrated with pent-up frustration and high expectations. Regan, who spent years at the EPA and several more with the centrist advocacy group, the Environmental Defense Fund, is a charismatic speaker. Approachable and earnest, he generally says the right things in the right way.

“My job is to protect the human health and the environment,” Regan told the crowd. This remark alone signaled a break from the previous administration’s “customer-friendly”  (read: “industry-friendly)” approach. “The whole reason regulations are in place is so good guys can do what they need to do and to keep the bad guys from messing it up for everyone else.”

Yet veterans of the movement have had their hopes raised and dashed before. Yes, Regan has toured the state, meeting with communities that have suffered from the ravages of coal ash pollution and hog waste. “We are looking forward to what we can do with you,” Naeema Muhammad, co-director of the NC Environmental Justice Network, told Regan. Muhammad led a dozen activists to the US Capitol last fall to address congressional representatives about the rampant contamination from hog waste lagoons in eastern North Carolina. She has already met privately with Regan about DEQ’s history of dismissing the community’s concerns. “Life has been difficult, and we hope we can make a difference in North Carolina.”

But when Elizabeth Haddix, attorney with the UNC Center for Civil Rights, publicly asked Regan how he would rein in the industrial poultry industry — which essentially gets a regulatory pass  — he gave a non-answer. One can’t blame advocates for being head-shy.

Regan had been on the job less than a week when he had to confront a serious shortcoming within his department. In January, the EPA berated DEQ for its failure — under the previous administration — to establish a legally required non-discrimination program. In its Letter of Concern the EPA wrote that DEQ had ignored witness accounts of the environmental and public health crises caused by the swine farms.

“As an agency, we fell behind on that,” Regan said. DEQ is now adding two positions to its Title VI program, which focuses on environmental justice — a major improvement.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan: “If I had been living off bottled water for years, I may not be patient, either.” (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Residents, especially those who must rely on bottled water, are also anxious to resolve the issue of coal ash contamination in their communities. Regan pleaded for patience. “If I had been living off bottled water for years, I may not be patient, either,” he said. “But give the agency time. We don’t want to miss an opportunity to hold [Duke] accountable and help those impacted by the coal ash.”

This Thursday, Regan is scheduled to face the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee in the first of several confirmation hearings. The confirmation process for Gov. Cooper’s other nominees has been smooth, although Regan can expect to field questions about his tenure with the Environmental Defense Fund.

The far-right Civitas Institute has already falsely accused him of telemarketing shenanigans while at EDF. (Civitas made significant math errors in calculating the amount of funds raised; plus, Regan never worked in telemarketing.) And that faction of the Republican Party has long purported, without basis,  that regulations are the enemy of the economy.

“I was reading an article about a young, urban environmentalist who wanted to kill jobs,” Regan said, laughing. “The story was pretty good until I got to the end and it had my name in it.”

Barring an unforeseen hiccup, the Senate will likely confirm Regan. Once Regan’s confirmation is official, then North Carolinians can hold him to his words.

“We choose to collaborate, to be bold, fearless and unwavering,” Regan said. He then quoted Union Army commander Capt. William Mattingly: “Let’s fight till hell freezes over and then we’ll fight them on the ice.”

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DEQ Secretary Michael Regan signals he will fight for environmental justice