McCarthy: We're Nearing 'Second Wave' of Environmental Action

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy has faced intense scrutiny surrounding the majority of actions taken by her agency over the last four years, but she remains unwaveringly energetic and optimistic about the future of environmental protection. The EPA, she said, will continue to attract the best and brightest who want to fight climate change, all while remaining the “rock star” internationally for how to structure environmental protection initiatives. McCarthy said she intends to be active until the end of President Barack Obama's administration and hopes to “tee up” a number of high profile regulations, like the Clean Power Plan, to withstand legal battles during the next administration.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Bloomberg BNA reporter Anthony Adragna April 14 on the sidelines of the Environmental Council of the States spring meeting in Nashville, McCarthy acknowledged “mistakes were made” in responding to the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis and the Gold King mine spill. But she said “the worst thing we can do is put our head in the sand and not face them.” Those incidents underscore the need for greater collaboration between states and the EPA and the need for significant additional investment in our national infrastructure, she said.

The world is on the verge of a “big leap” in environmental protection—a “second wave,” McCarthy called it—that will see greater reuse of materials and a more sustainable integration of materials to reduce waste of natural resources, like food, she said. One component of the next wave of environmental protection is to have public health officials work more closely with environmental regulators, McCarthy said, noting human environmental activities “are directly impacting public health.” This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

By Anthony Adragna

Bloomberg BNA:

Obviously, you will be turning over a lot of these rules to the next administration. EPA General Counsel Avi Garbow said the Clean Power Plan litigation, for example, will run “through 2017.” How do you feel about turning over some of these regulations to the next administration—even if it's a Democratic one? Does that prospect make you nervous at all?

Gina McCarthy:

No, I think we recognize that we're a part of a continuum, and I think people are, right now, as invested as they've ever been in making sure that their public health is protected—and looking to EPA as part of that protection process. That's why I'm at ECOS: to reinforce the fact that local government, state government and federal government need to work together to make sure that we're protecting public health in the best we can and in a way that allows the economy to grow.

Every rule that we've done is really solidly based in the science and in the law. And we have a terrific track record of winning these court battles. Where the Clean Power Plan is concerned, we were tracking the energy transition that's already happening toward a low pollution and low carbon future.

I'm perfectly happy that what we've done is good work, it's solid and it's going to be part of a continued effort on the part of the American public to protect themselves and their kids, as well as continue to benefit from the innovation and investment that the Clean Power Plan represents. One of the greatest gifts I've had is that I have a president who doesn't just see the environment as a narrow public health or environmental issue, but he sees the issue of climate as being multifaceted. It's about how you keep your economy strong, how you keep your national security. So, it's part of a web of protections that I think will continue well beyond this administration.

Bloomberg BNA:

That's something else I wanted to ask you. How do you see President Obama's environmental legacy shaping up in the history books, obviously recognizing the fact we have a number of months left to go?

McCarthy:

I'm pretty excited about the legacy that he is going to leave behind. He has completely changed the dynamic about climate change by being so clear and vocal about its implications, about how the U.S. is positioned to be a leader and what that can mean for the country moving forward. We have done an awful lot of work under his leadership—not just on climate—but on other air quality issues like ozone, like particulate matter pollution, like our mobile source rules, [like] our mercury and air toxic standard.

We have done great work on the water side. Our Clean Water Rule is a significant step forward. We just released a report just a few weeks ago that looked at the current state of our rivers and streams. We have huge work to do to protect our rivers and streams. To keep them healthy, for our fish, but also as source water for our drinking water systems.

So, I know we're all focused on Flint—and we should be—about how we continue investments in water and wastewater technology that are consistent with our core values, but we also have to recognize that the source water needs to be kept clean. We've made tremendous steps forward, but we've also identified tremendous gaps in the system—and needs moving forward— that I hope will position the next administration to be informed by, so that investments can be made to make sure people have the safe drinking water that they expect.

Bloomberg BNA:

You've spoken many times about running through the tape for this administration. Are there already things on the horizon that you recognize you won't get to?

McCarthy:

There's always things you want to get done, but I think we've done a good job. And we're trying to make sure we position it so that rules like the Clean Power Plan will be positioned to be successful in court moving forward.

There are always going to be new things. I think the issues I just identified, which is Flint and Toledo [Ohio] and others, are making us see that there are both legacy issues and emerging contaminants that we need to be concerned about. And that means developing a strategy to actually get investment in infrastructure that we haven't had for a while. We're going to be able to tee up that issue, but not get that issue over the finish line. That is a multiyear strategy.

There are other issues like the work we're doing in oil and gas on methane. We're going to do our best to do what we can during this administration, but we know there's a longer trajectory for everything we're doing on climate. We're not going to be able to get at the full range of emissions sources in oil and gas on the methane side that we think are both achievable, cost-effective and necessary to address our climate impacts. How do we tee up the information necessary that the next administration is going to want to see?

On the full range of climate issues, we know how far we can get but we know the investments that need to be made to continue the progress moving forward.

We're looking at continuing a variety of work on the water side that's going to be necessary, but I'm also looking forward to sort of rethinking the waste issues in the agency. One of the things we're looking at is our food recovery challenge, which I think is a great program. It basically is connecting the dots between opportunities to reduce methane from food waste, but it connects the dot to how we can advance issues of poverty in this country. It's about taking a waste, not generating emissions from that waste and instead reusing what would otherwise be wasted food so we can support the food kitchens and food pantries in communities.

There are kids today in poverty that have food insecurity in this country and we are wasting 30-40 percent of the food that we actually produce. There are ways in which we can connect dots now that open up the environmental world to be seen as—where I think it belongs—which is part of our core values as society.

Bloomberg BNA:

I wanted to ask, broadly, about the status of the relationship between EPA and Congress. By that I mean, you have eight of the 14 positions requiring Senate confirmation at the agency vacant or staffed with acting officials, subpoenas from Senate Republicans, you see inquiries about issues like airline travel and text messages. How is that relationship right now and what impact does it have on the ability to attract young people to public service?

McCarthy:

Well, you'd be surprised. Despite the challenges that EPA is facing—and clearly they are there, you've articulated many of them—two things I would like to point out.

One, when EPA puts out an opportunity for folks to come into the agency and fill positions, I still get a ton of applications. Young people really care about this issue [climate change] and they are willing to come into public service to address it, even when they know there are challenges, and the agency is under very close scrutiny. And that's because the work we do still matters.

I'm excited that we are continuing to have the best and brightest coming into the agency. And we continue to have really dedicated people who recognize that they are under close scrutiny, but [that] we can meet that scrutiny. I'm not afraid of it. We do great work and we work hard to make sure that we do it well and we meet all the rules.

Secondly, we know that the work we do is important, and we also know that the general public cares about EPA and the work we do. And you're going to see this over and over and over. Despite the fact that we have folks on the Hill that are concerned about EPA and the way in which we do our business, we'll be able to stand up to that scrutiny. But also the general public wants clean air, they want clean land, they want safe drinking water, they want the recreation opportunities that clean rivers and streams produce.

This is core value of what we do. I know that we're on safe ground in terms of continuing the work we do moving forward, whether we're under a Republican or a Democratic leadership. The environment has never been an easy partisan issue. It's always been a struggle, but it's always been that Republicans and Democrats care about the health of their kids. We're going to keep delivering on the promises that they made many years ago when [President] Richard Nixon started the EPA.

We're going to do our work in a non-partisan way, we're going to follow the science and the law, and we're going to protect our kids.

Bloomberg BNA:

That said, do you have any concerns that there would be fewer people like you who would step into a political position at the agency given the scrutiny that's likely to follow?

McCarthy:

It gets challenging. I've been in this work a long time and I think that people see that as we've been challenged, we've been able to meet that challenge. And show people that I'm doing the work I'm supposed to do in the way I'm supposed to do it. But I think people will want to continue to have a leadership position at EPA.

I think they know it's a great agency with 15,000 really passionate employees that do their jobs well. And let's hope they continue to want to have the leadership that will continue to move it forward in the future. I'm confident there'll be folks that want that position.

Bloomberg BNA:

What's the reception you've seen internationally to ongoing EPA efforts? Has the political chatter here carried over to how other countries view EPA's work?

McCarthy:

EPA is the gold star. We are the rock star of where other countries want to be in terms of how they can continue to grow their economy and have a really healthy place to live. So we are in constant demand to go internationally and help support developing countries all over—as well as developed countries—to share how we're moving forward on science and the law, how we have a system of government that allows environmental policies and rules to be rolled out and implemented and enforced.

We are seen, really, as a country that got it right and we'll continue to do that. I think, internationally, we're going to continue to be in constant demand. But also hopefully we're a model for how you can do it right.

Bloomberg BNA:

As you reflect now—and maybe its a bit early for reflection since you have many months left—but are there issues now where you say, ‘I wish I would have handled this differently' or used a different approach?

McCarthy:

My first message is we have eight, nine, 10 more months where we're going to be running like crazy and getting things done. We're not in, by any means, a slow down mode nor should we be. We're going to be running through the tape at the end of this race. So that's my first message.

My second message is we have to continue to invest heavily in the entire enterprise of protecting people. I tried to make sure that I consistently had that message. I think there has been some disinvestment at the state level and some challenges at the federal level with EPA and its budget that I wish I could have made a bigger impact earlier on. I think we've been trying to figure out how to work with states to fill gaps when they've had disinvestment. But there's challenges. There's challenges in state legislatures just as there are in Congress.

Bloomberg BNA:

I mean, one of the things state regulators say is ‘we've got half a dozen Clean Air Act regulations that we're going to have to implement with shrinking budgets.' Are you sympathetic to those concerns as well?

McCarthy:

Oh sure. I worked at the state level for a long time. I am sympathetic to it, but I think they know the movement forward has to be continuous. We simply can't stop in our tracks, but we do have to find new ways of doing business together and investing in that so it makes it possible to do this work.

There are lessons that I've learned—some the hard the way—I think Flint is clearly one of those. There is the need for us to work so closely with the state as they face the challenges and with local communities. It's simply not enough to let the process play out. We need to be much more interactive and active and engaging together.

Bloomberg BNA:

And what are the steps to make that happen?

McCarthy:

Well, I think we're outlining them out right now. We are here at ECOS to ensure our partnerships with the states remains strong, so when they see challenges we work on them together, we don't bury them, we don't hide them, we don't find comfort in the fact that people don't have transparency. Transparency is where it's at. We need to work together to be much more transparent about the challenges we're facing, so that we can have the general public figure out what level of investment is necessary to meet those challenges. It's difficult.

Gold King mine was one of those issues that was obviously difficult as well. But that was another lesson about how we deal with tremendous gaps in the system. Nobody is accountable for all these abandoned mines, and how do we address that when Congress didn't squarely give that [authority] to us?

And how do we protect our waterways and our watersheds from contaminants that are not really being checked right now? And that's a challenge for us to continue to work with states as we move forward.

I guess the biggest lesson we need to learn is that while mistakes were made, the worst thing we can do is put our head in the sand and not face them. We need to have that be an opportunity for us to recognize that more leadership is necessary, more partnership is necessary. We need to figure out what we do with abandoned mines, and we need to understand how we deal with communities when they are so struggling to stay afloat like Flint, when they are essentially on the verge of bankruptcy.

And how do you make sure that when an emergency manager's only view is saving money that someone speaks for the people and their needs directly? That got lost in the decision-making and it never should have.

Bloomberg BNA:

There appears to have been heavier emphasis on the public health components on a lot of these issues. Was that a deliberate choice and do you think framing them in the public health context is something that should have been done sooner?

McCarthy:

For me personally, it's been my message since day 1. But I came from a public health background. I have worked for agencies at the state level and the local level who were public health agencies. I got into this through the public health lens. I see the environment as a public health issue in the agencies.

It's become more prominent as we've been able to get more traction. I have been visiting medical schools and working with folks like the Hispanic Medical Association for years. That's my background. That's what I did. I've been visiting community health centers. Because my concern is not only has there been disinvestment in the agencies that are front and center of protecting the environment and public health, like our state agencies and EPA, the concern I have is that, on the whole, there's been a disinvestment in research and development and teaching of environmental exposures overall.

As environmental pollution has become less easy to see, people think environmental exposures are no longer a problem for them. And I think that goes all the way to medical schools, not realizing that EPA is a primary prevention agency. We can address asthma in more ways than finding good treatment. We need to clean the air that keeps exacerbating asthma.

The evidence is there. We are directly impacting public health. And I think we have been limiting ourselves to just engaging with environmental agencies at the state level. I want to hang out with the health agencies. I want to hang out with [Health and Human Services] at the federal level. I want people to know that there are many ways in which you can win the fight on cancer. One is stop toxic pollution from impacting people.

There's a place for EPA at a larger table than we have set before and that's what this is all about: making that table larger. Even though we're not doctors that deal with health impacts one-on-one, we are a primary prevention opportunity. I want kids going into public health fields that focus on environmental exposures, I want more research on environmental exposures, I want more opportunity to really have broader impact on public health than one-on-one between physicians on patients.

Bloomberg BNA:

What gives you the energy to keep moving forward as aggressively as you are?

McCarthy:

I think we're at a really pivotal moment. I was around in the 1960s. I saw environmental pollution then and it was very visible and it led to a big wave of environmental improvements that we've enjoyed. I think we're on the verge of a second wave.

I think people are beginning to understand that we need to keep investing in this and that the more we learn, the more opportunities there are to produce products that are healthy. To look at eliminating waste not just by controls, but by reintegrating that waste as materials so that we live within the natural resources of the world more effectively. When I start talking about food being wasted and instead being shared with those that are hungry, these are just ways of looking at the environmental mission in ways that really focus and align with core values that people have.

There are opportunities today that I think, if we tee them up well, they will be invested in and we'll make the next big leap in environmental protection, because people really care about what we do and they care about their kids. I think we're able to articulate that today better than ever and generate the technologies and momentum that will eliminate pollution exposures but also create a much more sustainable way of living within the resources of the world. So, I'm really excited about it.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Nashville, Tenn., at aadragna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com