By late December 2020, then-NC DEQ Secretary Michael Regan was the clear frontrunner to be President-elect Joe Biden’s EPA administrator. There was excitement and a fair amount of pride that a Black North Carolinian from the Coastal Plains would lead the agency.
Many national environmental groups celebrated the pick. “Regan will Restore Science, Integrity, and Justice to the Environmental Protection Agency,” the Audubon Society said in a media release. The Natural Resources Defense Council called Regan, “a seasoned fighter in the battle for clean air and a champion for environmental justice.”
But in North Carolina, the view was different among some in the environmental community who believed that Regan had been too accommodating to industry. Robeson County environmental justice activist and Friends of the Earth’s Senior Fossil Fuels Campaigner Donna Chavis issued a statement expressing her disappointment in the pick.
“While we are disappointed that Secretary Regan will likely be nominated as EPA Administrator by President-elect Biden, we are prepared to work with the Agency and the Biden Administration on policies that support a healthy and just world.” The statement went on to say that Regan “has not always followed all avenues in support of or on behalf of communities who face disproportionate and cumulative environmental impacts.”
During his first year as EPA administrator, responses to his actions have run the gamut from hopeful to pleased to befuddled to disappointment and, last month, to outright anger.
In October 2020, six environmental and social justice organizations petitioned the EPA to require Chemours to fund a comprehensive research program to address PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River. The Trump administration denied the petition but the Biden administration reopened the case in March and granted the petition last December.
“Today’s actions advances the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to improve understanding of, and to protect people from, the potential risks of PFAS,” said the EPA news release.
The petitioners (Center for Environmental Health, Cape Fear River Watch and Clean Cape Fear, the NC Black Alliance, Toxic Free NC and Democracy Green) were not convinced.
Petitioners had asked the EPA to require testing on 54 PFAS chemicals; the agency ordered “limited” testing on seven. The decision said that 30 of the chemicals requested for testing would be included in the national testing strategy; another nine might be included in future testing, and the last 15 didn’t meet the agency’s definitions of PFAS. Oh, and by the way, there would be no epidemiological studies of contaminated communities either.
Dana Sargent of Cape Fear River Watch didn’t mince words. “I am furious with EPA’s failure to act; I am heartbroken. EPA has failed us,” she said in the joint press release. Toxic Free NC said the EPA granted the petition “in name only.”
In announcing EPA's strategic roadmap plan for addressing the problem, Regan acknowledged the ‘decades of unchecked devastation’ that Cape Fear communities have suffered. The group accused Regan of failing to honor his promise to protect Cape Fear communities and vowed to take action.
On January 27, petitioners filed a joint motion and amended complaint in the US District Court in the Northern District of California to restart the lawsuit. “We are returning to court to exercise our right under TSCA to challenge EPA’s disappointing refusal to hold Chemours accountable,” said petitioners’ counsel, Bob Sussman.