Outgoing DEQ Secretary Michael Regan is now the new EPA administrator

Michael Regan at his Senate committee hearing in February: The outgoing Secretary of the Environment in North Carolina was confirmed by the full Senate on March 10 to be the next EPA administrator. (Screenshot from Senate committee hearing)

The U.S. Senate confirmed Michael Regan as the new EPA administrator Wednesday evening by a vote of 66-34.

Regan, the outgoing Secretary of the Environment in North Carolina, is the first Black man to serve in the EPA’s top leadership role.

“It’s a profound responsibility,” Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, said, a few hours before the vote. “He believes we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of the planet.”

President Joe Biden nominated Regan to be administrator in December. Last month, Regan, who served under a Democratic governor in North Carolina, received the support of the state’s two conservative Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis. 

Nonetheless, Regan faced tough questioning from members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, many of whom seemed to view him as a proxy for more controversial executive appointments, such as climate czar Gina McCarthy, whose positions didn’t require congressional input.

That attitude had not shifted yet Wednesday, at least among some Republican senators.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, opposed Regan’s nomination over concerns that McCarthy and EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe, both veterans of the Obama administration, would actually be in charge. “I can’t support Michael Regan when Gina McCarthy is leading the orchestra.”

It was during the Obama administration that the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rules were proposed, although neither was fully implemented because of legal headwinds. Coal-producing states like West Virginia, Capito said, were “devastated” by Obama-era environmental policies.

“I really liked meeting and getting to know Michael Regan,” Capito said. “He’s a good public servant and an honest man. But this vote is about someone who would execute President Biden’s agenda. … And I can’t support that agenda.”

Regan will inherit an EPA whose ranks under the Trump administration were hollowed out by budget cuts and whose morale was wounded by the political undermining of scientific integrity.

In his support of Regan’s nomination, Carper lauded the North Carolina native’s commitment to tackling climate change — an existential threat to the planet. “Climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Carper said.

Because of Regan’s experience in North Carolina contending with perfluorinated compounds, or PFAS, in several drinking water supplies, environmental advocates hope the EPA will regulate the compounds, which are widespread in the drinking water supply.

Regan also received the support of dozens of major national agricultural organizations, generally known for their conservative politics. 

At his committee hearing, Regan said “regulation is not the sole answer. I’ll be partnering with agriculture, energy and defense interests about how to solve [environmental] problems.”

Regan earned a reputation in North Carolina for his ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans, although the GOP majority often reciprocated by cutting his agency’s budget and passing laws that defanged its authority.

In the Biden administration, Regan could have more opportunities to bridge the political divide.

“Michael Regan can bring people to gather and bridge the political divide,” Carper said. “He made clear he will be an EPA administrator for red states and blue states. Leaders unite, not divide. They are humble, not haughty. Leaders are purveyors of hope. Michael Regan is that kind of leader.”

Even Capito, by the end of her remarks, had accepted that Regan would likely be confirmed.

 “I hope he makes good on his promises about climate change,” she said. “I hope Michael Regan can cut McCarthy out of power and let her know who is calling the shots. And that he embraces President Biden’s theme of unity.”

North Carolina environmental advocates lauded Regan’s confirmation. Derb Carter, director of the North Carolina offices of the Southern Environmental Law Center, released a statement:

“Just as we worked with the state agency under Regan’s leadership to secure cleanups of coal ash and PFAS pollution in North Carolina, we look forward to tackling the serious problems facing our communities across our nation with a rejuvenated EPA under his leadership.

“Under Regan’s leadership, we hope EPA will take swift, strong action to protect America’s families from toxic chemical pollution like PFAS in our drinking water sources; restore protections to wetlands, streams and lakes that the Trump administration removed; and extend to other communities in the nation the protections against coal ash pollution that are now in place in North Carolina.

Dan Crawford, director of Governmental Relations for the NC League of Conservation Voters, also issued a statement:

“Michael Regan knows first-hand how pollution harms our health and quality of life. We’re excited to watch him do for the EPA what he did for North Carolina: put people and policy over politics, and work with scientists, stakeholders, lawmakers of both parties, and above all, the most impacted communities, to protect all Americans from polluters and climate change.”

Breaking: DEQ’s Michael Regan is Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator

NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan is the President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator, according to multiple news sources.

Policy Watch reported yesterday that Regan was the leading contender for the job. A Goldsboro native, Regan has been DEQ secretary since 2017; he was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper.

A DEQ spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Regan worked at the EPA for nine years in the late ’90s and mid-’00s before joining the Environmental Defense Fund.

EDF issued this statement from Hawley Truax, Southeast Regional Director of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Regan previous served as EDF’s Southeast regional director.

Secretary Regan has led a complex state agency with a positive spirit and a steady hand for the past four years. He’s been a collaborative, energizing force, putting into action his core belief that when you make decisions with input from a diverse group of stakeholders your outcomes are better and more durable because of it.

During Secretary Regan’s tenure at North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, the state launched its most ambitious clean energy and climate resilience plans. Thanks to Michael’s leadership and his belief that science drives sound decision-making, we are positioned to make meaningful progress on reducing carbon emissions and securing a healthier, safer and more equitable future for our state.

As an environmental advocate working in North Carolina, I am sorry to lose Michael Regan as the Secretary of our Department of Environmental Quality, but he is an outstanding leader who will be an asset to the Biden administration. I wish him the best.

Dan Crawford, director of Governmental Relations, NC League of Conservation Voters, also issued a statement:

“With Michael Regan, President-elect Biden continues adding to his historically qualified and diverse Cabinet, replacing a fossil fuel industry puppet with an experienced EPA air quality scientist, just as Gov. Cooper did when he put Regan in charge of our DEQ four years ago. Regan has gone to bat for North Carolinians against polluters, and now the rest of the country will get to benefit from his leadership. North Carolina’s loss will be America’s gain.”

Environmental justice advocates were mixed about his nomination. Many supported his ascension to the nation’s highest environmental post because of his work on the coal ash cleanup, climate change, and his opposition to offshore drilling; others said he had failed to address the PFAS contamination in drinking water, air pollution sources in communities of color, and the agency’s permitting of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which Duke and Dominion later halted.

However, the NC Black Alliance, which includes environmental justice leaders, supported the nomination. “We respect the voices in the environmental justice community who dissent with these views. However we hope to convey our belief that Secretary Regan would be an immensely qualified nominee to lead the EPA.”

DEQ had GenX info under Secretary Donald van der Vaart; under Michael Regan, delay attributed to scheduling conflicts

Donald van der Vaart, former Department of Environmental Quality secretary, was in charge when state officials first learned last fall there could be a problem with GenX in the Lower Cape Fear River. And the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority knew even earlier.

But not until June of this year, when the Star-News in Wilmington reviewed and reported on the study, did DEQ under the current administration begin to investigate the presence of GenX in drinking water.

According to a letter sent Aug. 14 from DEQ and the Health and Human Services department to  Sen. Bill Cook, and copied to the Senate and House leadership, in November 2016, “the previous administration” received a research report from the EPA and NC State University scientists regarding the Cape Fear watershed. This study, conducted in part by NC State professor Detlaf Knappe, showed GenX was present in the Lower Cape Fear and in untreated water at the Cape Fear utility. In 2013, the researchers found average levels of 631 parts per trillion of GenX in 37 samples of untreated water.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority received the same study in May 2016, according to the letter.

The letter was in response to communications sent last week from the Senate Republican Caucus. In that correspondence, lawmakers asked DEQ Secretary Michael Regan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen a series of questions about Chemours and GenX. Lawmakers also requested a justification for their departments’ combined $2.5 million emergency appropriation.

Lawmakers had set a deadline of Aug. 14, at 5 p.m. for Cohen and Regan to provide the information.

Jamie Kritzer, DEQ communications director, told NCPW that it’s unclear who at DEQ originally received the study last November. Kritzer said the reason the current administration didn’t act more quickly is because this past spring, several staff members from the Division of Water Resources had tried to meet with Knappe to better understand the study results, but scheduling conflicts prevented that meeting from happening.

But it appears neither Chemours nor GenX  rose to enough importance under van der Vaart to merit a mention in the transition documents provided to the new DEQ administration. (Transition documents are used to transfer institutional knowledge from one administration to another.)

However a different study by Knappe regarding another emerging, unregulated contaminant — 1,4 dioxane — does. Under the heading, “Special studies: 1,4-dioxane,” Jay Zimmerman, chief of the Division of Water Resources, notes that the presence of high levels of 1,4-dioxane in the Haw River “may be an indicator of things to come as previously unregulated emerging pollutants are studied.”

The chemical, used to stabilize solvents, is being discharged by industries upstream near Burlington and Greensboro. Zimmerman wrote that federal discharge permits would be modified to require additional sampling to “better isolate the issue.” He also wrote that “efforts to reduce sources will result in significant cost and potential loss of industry opportunities.”

A geologist, Zimmerman has been with DEQ since 1987. He managed the section overseeing groundwater protection and animal operations before van der Vaart promoted him to DWR head in 2015.

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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.

[email protected]_S_Regan: We have a special obligation to the underserved and underrepresented. Click To Tweet

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.

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Much ado about nothing: DEQ Sec’y Michael Regan has potential conflicts of interest; so did John Skvarla

Before Republican lawmakers get lathered up over State Ethics Commission findings that Michael Regan, nominee for NC DEQ Secretary has “potential for a conflict of interest,” they should re-read history.  The commission made the same findings in 2013 for former NC DEQ Secretary John Skvarla, nominated by Gov. Pat McCrory.

ABC11 reported the findings about Regan today.

Unlike Skvarla, though, Regan faces confirmation by the state senate on March 8.

High-ranking state officials, cabinet appointees, many state board members are legally required to file Statements of Economic Interest with the commission. Considering there are dozens of state boards whose members are subject to ethics rules, it is not unusual for the State Ethics Commission to find potential conflicts of interest in appointees’ disclosures.

The commission cited Regan’s previous job with the Environmental Defense Fund and his environmental consulting business as potential, but not actual conflicts.

“Because of these associations, Mr. Regan should exercise appropriate caution in the performance of his public duties should issues or entities related to his consulting practice, or the Environmental Defense Fund, come before Department for official action or otherwise seek to conduct business with the Department.”

The potential conflicts do not “prohibit service” with DEQ, the letter said.

The commission noted that Skvarla had been the CEO of Restoration Systems, LLC, a stream and wetland restoration firm. That company also owned financial interests in several mitigation companies that had business dealings with DEQ, the 2013 letter said.  Skvarla replied that he would sell  his ownership interest or place it in a blind trust.

As with Regan, the commission advised Skvarla to “exercise appropriate caution in the performance of his public duties should any entity in which he has a financial interest come before the department for official action.” In those cases, the commission said Skvarla and Regan should recuse themselves.