Six former EPA heads from Republican and Democratic administrations joined over 100 ex-employees in a sweeping report on how a future administration should revitalize environmental protection, promote scientific expertise and remove political intrusion from agency decisionmaking.

The report, “Resetting the Course of EPA,” released by the nonpartisan Environmental Protection Network, argues the Trump administration has depleted EPA of credibility, scientific integrity and, ultimately, its core mission of protecting human health and the environment. Although it does not mention Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, the report lays out specific recommendations for how to “reset” EPA.

“EPA must restore science as the backbone of decision-making, building on its strength in understanding ecological systems to develop better systems-based approaches for addressing complex issues,” the report says.

The former administrators wrote in a letter, “We are at an environmental crossroads and we are hopeful that America will again muster the resolve, the will, and the action needed to protect public health, the environment, and our economy.” The group last year said it would set aside political differences to help Congress with oversight of the Trump EPA (E&E Daily, May 22, 2019).

The report uses a matter-of-fact tone and reflects on some problems that predate the Trump era, but in its entirety it reads as a thorough criticism of President Trump’s environmental rollbacks and departure from agency norms over the past 3 ½ years.

Asked for comment, EPA spokesman James Hewitt wrote in an email, “EPA Administrator Wheeler is proud of our record addressing environmental problems impacting Americans, including delisting Superfund sites that have lingered for years, cleaning up lead contaminated communities, and improving air quality.”

The report spans several topics, from vehicle emissions to drinking water to climate change, and offers a menu of short- and long-term strategies. They include building trust between political appointees and career staff, prioritizing communities that suffer disproportionate environmental burdens, improving conditions for front-line communities, and creating a more “open and respectful exchange” with reporters.

The authors specifically point to the “inappropriately-named” rule “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.” Critics say the rule’s limits on the scientific research used in EPA rules and decisionmaking were born out of the tobacco industry’s fight against regulation in the 1990s.

EPA leaders should revamp cost-benefit analyses to address benefits that are difficult to quantify and monetize, the report authors say. They stressed a new approach should zero in on “inequitable environmental conditions of communities of color, lower-wealth communities, and tribal and indigenous communities.” One way to do so would be to convene an interagency work group on the “social cost of carbon.”

Another key theme in the report is environmental justice, an issue that the authors say should be part of “every aspect of its work.” They identified the Flint, Mich., water crisis; climate change; and COVID-19 as cases where communities of color and low-income communities have been hit the hardest. They recommend driving additional resources to those communities.

In the long run, the authors say, the agency should consider the 21st century’s greatest threat: climate change.

To address the monumental problem, the agency should institutionalize cross-agency teams and expand collaboration, they say. The agency also needs to better publicize data and documents to enhance its reputation as being a reliable source for information.

Under the Trump administration, EPA has abdicated much of its authority to the states — such as with its approach to environmental enforcement during the pandemic. But many state environmental departments have diminished, with 40 states cutting environmental staffers in the past decade.

The authors think EPA should better communicate the relationship among the agency, states, tribes and local governments, creating a governance structure that supports nationwide participation.

Funding, hiring needs

In real dollars, EPA is spending less than half of what it did during the Reagan administration. And although Congress has rejected Trump’s steep cuts, the authors argue that the debate has distracted from the need for more funding.

In fact, the authors wrote, if the agency spending had kept pace with increases in discretionary federal spending as it ramped up its work, its budget would be three times bigger than it is today.

And, the authors say, EPA needs to hire more. They said EPA has an “urgent need” to strengthen recruitment and pace of hiring. They also stressed retaining staff members and helping them expand their career.

The report also makes several policy recommendations, including for reducing emissions by advancing electric vehicles, affirming California’s clean car standards, and establishing a work group on emissions and air pollution from highways. For drinking water, the report recommends restarting health advisories for unregulated contaminants; reworking the proposals for lead, copper and PFAS; and reconsidering “recent regulatory changes” under the Clean Water Act.

The authors acknowledge that none of their ideas will be easy, as noted in the section on reducing air emissions from facilities.

“The Office of Air and Radiation as a massive to-do list, a huge amount of pressure from outside groups, a demoralized and diminished career staff to tend to, and an incredible sense of urgency,” the report says. “Like no other time in history, it will be essential to make hard choices about priorities.”