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The EPA has a team in Texas to lead the environmental response to Hurricane Harvey, which could pose a severe test for an agency the Trump administration is moving to shrink as early as this weekend.
The hurricane struck as the Environmental Protection Agency prepared to buy out as many as 1,228 employees, or roughly 8 percent of its workforce, by Sept. 2.
“I’ve got to hope there has been a sudden and drastic culture change within the agency, and the political appointees from [EPA Administrator Scott] Pruitt down, I hope and pray, are listening to the EPA career staff,” Judith Enck, who served as EPA Region 2 administrator during the Obama administration, told Bloomberg BNA. Enck led the agency’s response to Hurricane Sandy, which swept across the Northeast in 2012 and left areas of the New York and New Jersey coastline devastated.
The Category 4 storm that ripped through the Houston area late last week and is now making its way through southeast Texas and Louisiana has caused historic flooding, but it is also leaving behind environmental hazards—from flood waters littered with chemicals, sewage, bacteria, and debris to large releases of toxic gas and pollutants into the air from the heavy concentration of refineries and chemical plants in the area.
The Trump administration’s plans to shrink EPA staff pose a significant concern for the agency’s Harvey response, Enck said.
“If a large number of EPA staff are walking out the door then, that is a huge problem,” she said, suggesting the EPA should freeze that round of buyouts.
The people who would be leaving due to buyouts are the “ones most experienced, the people who worked on the Katrina and Sandy responses.”
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency serves as the lead agency in emergency response, the EPA will work to address environmental threats caused by the storm—a recovery effort that is likely to take months, if not years.
To respond to Harvey, the EPA has activated its Emergency Operations Center, as well as the National Incident Management Team composed of response personnel from EPA Regions 3, 4, and 5. That team arrived in Dallas on Aug. 30, according to David Gray, acting deputy regional administrator for EPA Region 6, which covers Texas and Louisiana.
“EPA has an organized emergency response program and is positioned to support FEMA, state, local and tribal partners,” Gray said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA.
Typically, the EPA serves as the lead agency for cleanup of hazardous materials in the aftermath of an environmental disaster. It also coordinates with other federal and local agencies to assess and respond to other potential environmental impacts.
Gray said the EPA is working with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas General Land Office, and the Coast Guard, with seven teams in the field. The EPA Aug. 30 sent teams to inspect two Superfund sites near Corpus Christi that are on the agency’s National Priorities List, according to Gray. The agency also will send teams to inspect two drinking water and waste water systems, as well as aircraft to assess pollution in the impacted area.
Trump administration officials, including Pruitt, have dismissed the link between climate change and worsening storms. Critics say that climate skepticism could hamper efforts to rebuild affected regions to withstand similar storms in the future.
Just 10 days before Harvey made landfall, President Donald Trump revoked an executive order on climate resilience, which had set federal flood risk management standards requiring developers using federal funds to mitigate the risk of flood damage.
“If the federal government actually carries forward on the spirit of that order, it will rebuild just as before and subject new...infrastructure to exactly the same hazards that destroyed the old infrastructure,” Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told Bloomberg BNA.
Gerrard suggested career staffers at the EPA and other agencies might mask efforts to incorporate climate resilience focus by avoiding the use of terms like “climate change.” Other “more bashful” civil servants, however, may be reluctant to try that.
“Effective response requires energy and dedication at every level,” Gerrard said. “Counterproductive leadership zaps the energy and dedication that we need.”
Enck, the former Region 2 administrator, said Pruitt and other Trump officials are “dead wrong” to dismiss climate change’s effect on the storm. She called for Trump to put the flood standards and other climate resilience polices back into effect.
“It is the height of irresponsibility for the head of EPA to dismiss the science of climate change around the storm,” Enck said.
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