An EPA union official says the agency's upcoming restructuring of its regional offices appears designed to overhaul existing enforcement policies and chains of command, likely bolstering political leadership's ability to push reduced regional enforcement and more-lenient compliance while limiting the national enforcement office's oversight of regions.
In an exclusive interview with Inside EPA, Association of Federal Government Employees (AFGE) Local 704 Chief Steward Nicole Cantello said that following a Nov. 8 briefing from officials at the Region 5 offices in Chicago, the staff union sees the prospect of newly-appointed regional enforcement heads as a way for the Trump administration to clamp down on those offices' work through micromanagement.
AFGE Local 704 represents Region 5 staff in particular, and its leaders have been particularly strident in their public opposition to the Trump agenda.
“The 'new' enforcement offices under the reorg will have new upper level managers, picked by HQ, who will oversee them. This person will (1) not be pro-enforcement and (2) will run every enforcement issue by the folks in HQ offices so they can interfere and quash. That was not happening before,” Cantello said.
EPA is moving quickly on Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler's plan to reorganize the 10 regional offices so that each has eight divisions, including region-specific enforcement divisions.
An EPA spokesperson defended the creation of new enforcement offices as an expansion of current practices that have been in place since before the Trump administration took office, telling Inside EPA that there is “no change” in how the agency plans to structure those offices.
The spokesperson says there are currently six regions with dedicated enforcement offices, while in the other four enforcement is incorporated into each of the region's program-specific offices, such as air, waste, water and toxics. The new structure will include enforcement offices at all 10 regions.
Wheeler, agency operations chief Henry Darwin and others are touting the restructuring as bolstering coordination with headquarters. But AFGE officials and other EPA staff have raised concerns that it will be a way for the administration to cut enforcement, and Cantello said those concerns deepened for the Region 5 union following its Nov. 8 briefing.
EPA under former Administrator Scott Pruitt and Wheeler has set out a series of nationwide policy directives designed to curb federal enforcement actions unless they are initiated at the request of a state -- part of a broader agenda of “cooperative federalism” that aims to give states more authority over environmental policy within their borders.
But Cantello says those memos have only had limited effects on regional work, because -- at least in Region 5 and other regions without enforcement divisions -- enforcement officials are largely career staff who have discretion on day-to-day operations and cannot be fired or disciplined without cause.
“The management in the Regional media offices were career folks running a 'business as usual' shop where enforcement was left alone without political interference,” Cantello said.
But, she continued, the union sees overhauls of the regional enforcement structure as a way around that safeguard, because it allows Trump administration officials to add new political oversight of the career officials in charge of enforcement.
“They created a structure where they could put 'new' management in charge of enforcement, who could stop enforcement from happening at the very earliest stages, before data and cases were developed, before there is any evidence that a public health risk is being suppressed,” Cantello said.
Moreover, she said, it is “fascinating” that the regional enforcement chiefs will report only to their respective regional administrators, and not to the national Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) headed by Assistant Administrator Susan Bodine.
“[T]he fact that the enforcement head is not a direct report to Bodine is fascinating, if true. Bodine is turning out to be a relatively apolitical lawyer-type. [EPA General Counsel Matt] Leopold, [EPA air chief Bill] Wehrum and friends are more interested in EPA’s political side, i.e. bringing relief to polluters,” she said.
However, the EPA spokesperson said that reporting structure is already in place for the six regional enforcement offices.
“Currently six regions have enforcement divisions. The enforcement division director reports to the regional administrator. In the realignment, all 10 regions will have enforcement divisions. The division directors will continue to report to the regional administrators. That is not a change,” the spokesperson told Inside EPA.
Cantello said that at the Nov. 8 briefing, officials framed the regional overhaul as a “realignment” rather than “reorganization” -- which she said seems aimed at avoiding a requirement for Congress to approve major changes in how a federal agency operates. Reorganizations require legislative review and approval, while realignment only requires the agency to notify Congress of its planned changes.
The “notification” requirement could arguably be satisfied by Darwin's Oct. 25 meeting with staff from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. If officials or lawmakers determine that the changes need approval from Congress, it would trigger a longer process -- but Cantello says agency officials told AFGE that they hope to have the new structure in place by the end of the year, including negotiations with the union that are required by its collective bargaining agreement.
“We don't see how all those things could happen by then, but that's their schedule,” she said.
Those negotiations will stem in part from documents EPA turned over to the union during the briefing that include new organizational charts for each regional office, and a “crosswalk” showing where each current employee will end up in the new structure. -- David LaRoss (firstname.lastname@example.org)