Pennsylvania generates more coal ash than any other state. Michael Regan—who’s poised to become the next Administrator of the EPA—has a history of cleaning up coal ash pollution.
Michael Regan, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, is facing a four-year backlog of damaging environmental policies pushed through by the Trump administration.
During his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Regan—to be clear, not Pennsylvania state Sen. Mike Regan, who represents Cumberland and York counties—said he would focus his attention on marginalized communities, restoring science and transparency at the EPA, and combating climate change.
“We all have a stake in the health of our environment, the strength of our economy, the well-being of our communities and the legacy we will leave the next generation in the form of our nation’s natural resources,” Regan said before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Regan began his career at the EPA in 1998 within the agency’s air quality and energy programs. More recently, he served as the head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. During his time with NCDEQ, Regan oversaw the largest coal ash cleanup in United States history.
Coal ash is a powdery substance that remains after coal is burned. For decades it was stored in unlined water ponds that can contaminate groundwater and leach into drinking water. Coal ash typically contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and other toxic heavy metals.
In the January 2020 settlement between North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and Duke Energy, the utility agreed to clean out and close all of its basins by 2037. They will move the coal ash to dry landfills that are equipped to handle the toxic materials. They will also be responsible for safety measures like monitoring existing coal ash landfills.
“North Carolina’s communities have lived with the threat of coal ash pollution for too long,” Regan said in a statement at the time. “They can now be certain that the clean-up of the last coal ash impoundments in our state will begin this year. We are holding Duke accountable and will continue to hold them accountable for their actions as we protect public health, the environment and our natural resources.”
In Pennsylvania, the fight to clean up these storage sites continues. The state generates more than 15.4 million tons of coal ash per year, according to the Center for Coalfield Justice. A 2019 report from the Environmental Integrity Project found coal ash pollution leaking into groundwater at nine power plants around the state—a majority in the western part of the state. The amount of toxic chemicals leaking at these sites, according to the report, would make drinking water unsafe.
Over the course of four years, the Trump administration rolled back more than 100 climate policies and regulations that governed clean air, water, wildlife, and toxic chemicals. According to the Brookings Institute, Trump replaced the Clean Power Plan, redefined significant terms in the Endangered Species Act, lifted oil and natural gas extraction restrictions and weakened the Coal Ash Rule, which regulated the disposal of toxic waste, among other rollbacks.
During his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Regan told lawmakers that he would work to repair the damage the Trump administration caused.
“[It’s] the government’s responsibility to protect public health and the environment. It’s more important than ever in this era of rapid and profound change,” a spokesperson from The Nature Conservancy, a national environmentally-focused nonprofit, told COURIER in an email. “With so much to tackle and so many pressures, the administration will have to prioritize carefully to make any kind of progress toward improving and providing more equitable access to clean air and water.”
The spokesperson went on to highlight three basic issues they would like to see atop the EPA’s agenda under the new administration: restoring a scientific basis for addressing environmental risks, actively working to stem inequities, and vigorously confronting climate change.
According to the Nature Conservancy, protecting the environment is key to more than just healthy lands, “[it’s] the cornerstone of thriving communities and local economies.”
“Conserved natural lands and waters form an important basis for jobs and small businesses, and help keep communities healthy and safe while reducing costs and pressure on public infrastructure,” they wrote in the email.
Although there aren’t simple fixes to these issues in the United States, advocates have looked toward nature-based solutions as a long-term method of repairing the environment.
“Whether it is natural coastal areas that can better protect communities from storms and sea-level rise, or restored forests that can clean our water, we need to invest more in the power of nature to create jobs and build a healthy future,” the Nature Conservancy spokesperson wrote.