CHICAGO – The Trump administration’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s Midwest office is a former Wisconsin state official who rolled back enforcement of anti-pollution laws, reduced funding for scientific research and scrubbed references to human-caused climate change from government websites.
Cathy Stepp, who since August has been a deputy regional administrator in the EPA’s Kansas City, Kansas, office, will take over the top spot at the agency’s Chicago outpost less than two years after the Obama administration ousted a predecessor over the agency’s lax response to the Flint, Mich., water crisis.
The Midwest office traditionally has been one of the agency’s biggest and busiest, prosecuting companies that pollute the air, water and land in Illinois and five other states around the Great Lakes. The Trump administration has been pushing for deep cuts in the EPA’s budget and proposing massive layoffs of agency employees.
An EPA statement announcing Stepp’s appointment Tuesday included references to her background as a homebuilder, Republican state lawmaker and director of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources under Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
“Cathy Stepp’s experience working as a statewide cabinet official, elected official, and small business owner will bring a fresh perspective to EPA as we look to implement President Trump’s agenda,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in the statement.
“I have no doubt that she will take a common-sense approach to environmental oversight, just as she did for nearly seven years in Wisconsin,” Kurt Bauer, president of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce trade group, said in the release.
Environmental groups were less enthused, accusing Stepp of routinely siding with polluters instead of protecting public health and the environment during her tenure in Wisconsin state government.
Fines for environmental violations fell sharply during Stepp’s tenure at the Wisconsin DNR. She cut funding for a science office that had studied potential environmental damages from iron mining in northern Wisconsin and researched the effects of climate change in the state.
Stepp also prompted an outcry when she ordered information purged from the agency’s website about heat-trapping pollution from “human activities.”
“Her track record is rolling back safeguards,” said Howard Learner, president of the nonprofit, Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center. “It’s out of touch with what the public believes are core environment and public health values.”
“Groups like ours are going to be very, very busy because it’s unlikely the feds will come riding in to deal with messes on Chicago’s Southeast Side or in northwest Indiana,” said Henry Henderson, Midwest director of the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council and former commissioner of the now-defunct Chicago Department of Environment.
Stepp will join the EPA’s Chicago office as several enforcement actions initiated during the last days of the Obama administration remain unresolved.
The Tribune first reported in July that EPA inspectors had documented hundreds of air pollution violations at the Indiana Harbor Coke Co. on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan, where coal is baked into high-carbon coke for the steel industry. Work on a legal settlement negotiated by the EPA and the Department of Justice has stalled since Pruitt and Attorney General Jeff Sessions took office.
Other cases include S.H. Bell, a bulk storage company cited for high levels of brain-damaging manganese at facilities on the Southeast Side of Chicago and outside East Liverpool, Ohio; and Behr Iron and Metal, a Rockford scrap metal processor cited twice last year for violating federal limits on lead, another metal that can permanently damage the developing brains of children.
All three companies were cited after receiving requests for air pollution testing from Chicago-based EPA officials. Testing requests in the Midwest have declined sharply this year, dropping to 12 since Donald Trump took office from 23 during the last year of the Obama administration and 76 the year before, according to EPA records.
Robert Kaplan, who has been acting regional administrator since Susan Hedman was forced out during the Flint crisis, told colleagues in an email that Stepp “will hit the ground running as we implement the administrator’s priorities.”
But the president of the EPA employees union, who has been sharply critical of Pruitt, said choosing Stepp to run the Midwest office is akin to “asking the fox to guard the henhouse.”
“About the only thing I can assure you is after Cathy steps away from her new role … the dedicated civilian workforce at the agency will still be here (I hope) to protect human health and the environment,” John O’Grady, an environmental scientist who leads the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, said in an email to the Tribune. “Hopefully, there will not be too many disasters to clean up at taxpayers’ expense.”
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