Midwest EPA chief outlines steps to tackle PFAS and brownfields

Underscoring a new push to advance fairness and justice, a head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Monday that the federal regulator was hiring about five full-time staff to work on environmental justice.

Debra Shore, whom President Joe Biden appointed in October to oversee the EPA region, including Wisconsin, said agency studies show historical and systemic issues have led to deteriorating water quality. air and water in underserved communities. In an interview on WPR’s “The Morning Show,” she also supported the use civil rights protections “in a much more vigorous way than (the) EPA ever did.”

Shore answered questions about climate change, “chemicals forever” known as PFAS, federal funding, brownfields and the Enbridge pipeline.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Kate Archer Kent: How do you plan to fight climate change?

Debra Shore: Let me start by saying that the passing of the bipartisan Infrastructure Act last fall is a game-changer for the EPA and for many, many communities in Wisconsin and across our country because of the significant dollars that will be invested – not just in things like replacing lead pipes but specifically (like) a program for electric school buses.

There is $5 billion to, over the next five years, install electric school buses in particularly underserved communities and tribes to replace diesel buses, which emit air pollution that causes health problems. respiratory health to so many children and the people who work around them. . This is only a small part of what happens to the EPA. But it addresses climate change in terms of air quality and removing some of those diesel buses from the streets.

READ MORE: Dane County sues Wisconsin DNR over PFAS requirements in wastewater license

KAK: How will the new PFAS health notices inform new drinking water standards — setting enforceable standards for these compounds — that are expected to come out of the EPA?

DS: They go. We continue to do the scientific research that should underpin all of our regulatory and enforcement work. But we believe that new standards could come out next year. (These) will set maximum contaminant levels for some of these PFAS. In the meantime, we will be working with some of the sources of these chemicals to study the quantities and try to limit their dispersal into communities and our environment.

KAK: The EPA announced a $1 billion grant for small, disadvantaged communities facing PFAS contamination. How will these funds help Wisconsin?

DS: Communities can apply through the state. (The State Department of Natural Resources) is the one distributing these funds, but we are directly supporting a groundwater research study (that) the DNR is conducting to examine the prevalence of PFAS in shallow groundwater and the source tracing. We announced it in February of this year. This is a voluntary sampling effort from the municipal water supply. As of May, the DNR was investigating 74 locations where PFAS were confirmed in Wisconsin. We need data to inform how we work in the future.

READ MORE: Marshfield, Adams among latest towns to shut wells over PFAS contamination

KAK: Where does the EPA go from here trying to ensure clean drinking water in places like French Island, near La Crosse, where PFAS have been found? PFAS are called “forever chemicals”.

DS: We know that there are technologies available now – granulated carbon, reverse osmosis – that can be installed in public water systems that will filter these harmful chemicals out of the water. So first we need to identify the source.

We must work with the Department of Defense and other sites to prevent these PFAS from entering the air, water and land. And then you have to fix it. There may be ways to remove some of the contamination – prevent the migration of these PFAS into drinking water sources. But it can also mean the installation of technologies (such as filters).

KAK: How is the Midwest faring when it comes to brownfields, those properties that contain hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants?

DS: We have industrial history here in the Midwest. It’s not only a legacy pollution hotspot, but vigorous enforcement, rigorous inspections, and plenty of cleanup work that has been done and is still being done. The good news is that we have already seen that where we can undertake remediation work and remove contaminated soils and sediments etc., then those sites become available for redevelopment.

I was just in West Allis (recently), actually visiting a brownfield site. Some of it is still being remediated, but there is a major new development right next to the Farmer’s Market – 400 new apartments, people moving in. It’s so exciting to see, and it invigorates this city, this community. (There is) more to do, but this is happening across the country. We have seen it in Sheboygan and other places where we can do this cleaning.

KAK: Listening takes time. The public process takes time. Action takes time. How do you influence change when people have lived too long in extremely unhealthy environments?

DS: What you will see in this administration is a much more assertive and robust approach to law enforcement based on science and the law. We are also stepping up inspections of existing polluting industries through air and water inspections. When we find that authorized limits are exceeded, we take enforcement action. So it’s not just about listening. We also use all the tools we have in our toolbox to try to advance fairness and justice and improve the environment.

KAK: What is the EPA’s role in upholding Native American lands and treaty rights while working with Enbridge, the Canadian oil transportation company that is seeking to reroute one of its pipelines through counties of Ashland and Iron?

DS: The EPA is not the licensing agency for this proposed pipeline relocation. However, we have provided very thorough comments on Wisconsin’s draft environmental impact statement. Wisconsin asked us to work in tandem with them to review the environmental impact statement, which we did. We think a lot of the comments that we’ve provided—to consider climate change and to do a much more thorough examination of the potential impact on the tributaries and on those wetlands—will contribute to a better examination. So that remains to be seen.

This administration (works with tribes and) is committed to respecting treaty rights. Treaty rights to hunt fish and gather wild rice are vitally important to the sustenance and cultural history of so many tribal nations. EPA is committed to working with them to ensure that these rights are protected.