John O'Grady, the recently retired head of EPA's biggest union, says there is an urgent need to rebuild the agency's dwindling workforce but fears any such effort is unlikely until the next presidential administration, adding that criticism of EPA from President Donald Trump and Congress risks discouraging younger people from working for it.
"Here is the problem. Congress can do nothing but speak poorly of us," O'Grady said in an exclusive June 21 interview with Inside EPA ahead of his retirement from the agency late last month. Conservatives call agency staff the "dregs of society," he said. "They don't want to acknowledge that people at EPA are highly educated and highly motivated," which makes it hard to retain or recruit staff at a time of buyouts and retirements.
"When are [EPA's critics] going to wake up and realize that the environment is not a partisan issue?" he said of EPA's foes. "It is about protecting human health and the environment," he said, adding that the criticism might spur young people to say "Do you think I am nuts?" when asked about working at EPA. "I wouldn't."
O'Grady is retiring from EPA Region 5's Chicago office after multiple stints at the agency that began in the 1980s. His last day at the agency was June 29, but he says he hopes to continue working in the future with Save the U.S. EPA, a union-backed effort fighting proposed cuts to EPA's staff and budget.
His work at EPA included Superfund, water, and pesticide programs but recently he has been most prominent as president of the the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National Council #238. O'Grady has been president since 2016, representing more than 8,000 bargaining unit employees.
Since Trump's election, O'Grady has repeatedly faulted efforts under EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to undo Obama-era regulations and pursue major cuts to the agency's funding and staffing.
O'Grady during the interview tempered expectations for a quick turnaround in EPA's deregulatory agenda even if Pruitt leaves or Democrats prevail in the November election.
And he argued Democrats also need to be more aggressive than recent Democratic administrations in defending the agency's mission, given a drop in agency staff resources that predates the Trump administration.
"The agency needs better staffing, more people, more money needs to go to the states," O'Grady said, ticking off several agenda items any future Democratic Congress or future administration should pursue.
"Look, at enforcement, enforcement is going down the tubes," O'Grady added, citing a drop-off in enforcement activity under the Trump administration.
But O'Grady during the interview also gave a "strong shout out to all of the environmental NGOs," which he said are "working very very hard behind the scenes to support" EPA.
He also gave a degree of credit to some Republican lawmakers in Congress for resisting the deepest proposed Trump administration cuts to EPA programs.
And he includes in his comments a rebuke of the Obama administration, which he argues should have not acquiesced to Hill-imposed staff cuts that have only grown worse under the Trump administration.
"The environment and the agency were irreparably harmed by artificially lowering the number [of staff] to 15,000, and it has just gotten worse under this administration."
Inside EPA interviewed O'Grady before the Supreme Court issued its ruling last week in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees that said public sector workers cannot be required to pay labor dues, even if they benefit from any contract. The decision could undercut EPA workers' bargaining rights for benefits and employment security just as union officials battle a Trump executive order limiting their ability to organize. O'Grady in a statement after the ruling said that the decision, together with Trump administration limits on federal unions' organizing, may be a "death blow" to unions.
The interview also took place before Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement effective July 31. In a separate statement, O'Grady bemoaned Trump's power to nominate a likely more-conservative successor to the justice. "Not only have the Supremes decided against working women and men in the Janus case, but now our Twitter in Chief will have the opportunity to appoint a new Justice that will bend the pendulum of justice ever further to the right for years to come. We can only expect more and more decisions limiting the rights of American workers," he said."
During the interview, O'Grady acknowledged that his successor at AFGE will have their hands full in dealing with attacks by the Trump administration on federal unions, including recent executive orders that are not fully in effect but which target union activities on official time, as well as space provided for union-related activities.
And he expressed concern that the prior successes at cleaning up the environment have created something of a political problem for the agency. "People . . forget what the environment looked like in the 1960s and 1970s."
But O'Grady added there are still pressing environmental needs today, including the need to: put substantial resources into failing drinking water infrastructure to avoid more water crises like in Flint, MI; fix the Superfund program by either re-instituting the expired Superfund tax or funding more cleanups directly; and address climate change sooner rather than later.
"For this administration to deny climate change science is really pathetic . . . Do we have to wait and see a severe catastrophe as a result of climate change [when] it might be too late?"
O'Grady stopped short of saying that he chose to leave the agency because of current political attacks on it. "I am 66 and it is time," to go, said O'Grady, adding that the calculus may be different for younger staff for whom it arguably makes sense to "wait out" the Trump administration until the next presidential administration.
In the short term, he tempered expectations for immediately reversing the Trump administration's deregulatory bent, even if Democrats take over one or both chambers of Congress in November.
"It would slow things down, prevent a lot of outlandish things from happening at EPA" O'Grady said, adding that newly energetic oversight of the Trump EPA by Democratic committee chairs would be "good."
But O'Grady said that the Trump administration would, still "have the authority to set the direction" of policy at EPA under such scenarios.
While Pruitt could leave or be fired in the wake of his ethics problems, O'Grady says he has few illusions on a replacement. "This administration has no intention of replacing him with someone good on the environment," he added.
O'Grady says one of things he is most proud of during his tenure representing EPA employees is his work related to implementing a program for flexible work schedules in Region 5, known as Maxiflex, that offers flexibility for working mothers and fathers to be with families when they need to be.
He also praised the "unsung heroes" at EPA, particularly -- but not only -- in agency regions and laboratories, who work to safeguard human health and the environment.
Elaborating on his reasons for retirement, O'Grady said, "I don't know how long I am going to live and I would like to enjoy some things," noting he has completed a masters of arts in pastoral studies from Catholic Theological Union. "I'd like to put that into practice."
O'Grady also would "love" to continue working with Save the U.S. EPA but has more immediate plans, including a vacation. -- Doug Obey