Maria Response Awaits New EPA Regional Office Head

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By Abby Smith

Pete Lopez, the EPA’s newly appointed Region 2 administrator, has experience dealing with hurricane recovery, but he will still face a steep learning curve when he joins the agency Oct. 1.

A Republican New York state assemblyman since 2007, Lopez will now be responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency’s region that includes his home state, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—the latter two recently devastated by powerful hurricanes. His appointment was announced Sept. 28.

The EPA will play a vital role in the islands’ recovery from Hurricane Maria and other recent storms—both the immediate response and longer-term rebuilding efforts. And for Puerto Rico, which was particularly ravaged by Maria, the EPA serves as a critical partner to the territory’s environmental regulator, the Environmental Quality Board.

Judith Enck, who served as Region 2 head during the Obama administration, told Bloomberg BNA the agency needs to provide leadership on a multitude of issues, including drinking water quality, sewage treatment, assessment of toxic sites, and debris management. And Lopez will need to get up to speed quickly, she said via email.

Lopez, whose father is from Puerto Rico, has experience with hurricane recovery from his decade in the New York state assembly.

“That experience will prove helpful with the humanitarian and environmental crisis that is unfolding before our eyes in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but it does not really compare to the crisis” in those places, Enck said.

She said Lopez should also visit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands “as soon as he can to see the devastation first hand. This is a tall task, but he is up to it.”

First Steps

The EPA has approximately 137 personnel assisting with hurricane response in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to a Sept. 28 update from the agency.

Enck said Lopez should immediately be briefed by Region 2 career staff, including the 50 staffers based permanently in Puerto Rico, and the two staffers based in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Ramon Cruz, a member of the Sierra Club’s national board of directors who served on Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board, said the EPA’s Caribbean office will be a good resource for Lopez. The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg L.P., the global business, financial information and news leader. Bloomberg BNA is an affiliate of Bloomberg L.P.

Cruz said the EPA provides critical assistance in environmental monitoring as well, noting that right now there is “just a handful of staff” to evaluate the territory’s rivers and beaches for contamination and damage.

“We know the local EPA office is working and functioning now, but they need all the support they can from the region and the federal government,” Cruz said. “The president mentioned that they have gotten good grades. Unfortunately, the population in Puerto Rico does not think that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Smith in Washington at asmith@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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