“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Judith Enck said. The former regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has become increasingly concerned with the state of federal environmental protection since stepping down from her presidentially-appointed position during the Trump transition in January.
Before serving seven years in the EPA, Enck spent several years working in the interest of environmental conservation in and out of government organizations. She served as New York state deputy secretary to the environment under governors Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson. Prior to that, she served as the executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York (EANY) and a senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).
As regional advisor, Enck was active in a number of major projects bringing federal authority to local cases concerning the preservation of clean air and water. In 2014, she was a key player when Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration hoped to divert $511 million from program funding under the Clean Water Act—-designated for Hudson River cleanup and upkeep–towards the building costs of the Tappan Zee bridge.
“She was the one to back up our claims that they were raiding clean water funds. She was the one to step in and say, “No, New York state can’t use these funds,” Peter Iwanowicz of EANY told The Alt.
Additionally, Enck stepped in to draw state attention to the Hoosick Falls water crisis in which alarming levels of Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in their water sources.
“When she was alerted, she jumped right to it. Sometimes I think, ‘would they still be drinking that water due to inaction in the state?’” Iwanowicz said. “It was clear that he feds had to step in. Her actions saved a lot of lives.
Since his inauguration, President Trump has taken several legislative actions against environmental regulation that he claims have hurt the economy and job market in a big way. While allowing a break for farmers and small agricultural business owners across the country who have been hit with large fines from organizations like the EPA, the total removal of environmental regulation paves the way for businesses to pollute their property, surrounding land and water sources without consequence.
On Feb. 16, Trump signed a federal law disapproving the Stream Protection Rule. The legislation addressed the productivity of mining operation sites and environmental impacts of surface coal mining operations on surface and groundwater. On Tuesday, Feb. 28, he revoked the EPA’s Clean Water Act which regulated the majority of U.S. rivers, streams and wetlands. The act was part of the larger 2015 Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) environmental protection rule from the Obama administration.
“They are short-sighted,” Enck said. “Protecting public health is not a priority for this administration.”
Now a visiting scholar at Pace University’s Elisabeth Haub School of Law, the former regional administrator continues to be active in and around her Rensselaer County community in the fight to maintain citizens’ right to clean water and air and preserve the steps taken to slow climate change.
Most recently, Enck stood alongside the Hoosick Falls Village board on Monday (Feb. 27) during their decision to table the $1.04 million settlement from companies Honeywell International and Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, held responsible for the PFOA contamination.
She and other representatives criticized the language of the settlement, which would contractually prohibit the village from suing the companies any further should future contamination or damages to public health arise. Furthermore, the contract did not appear to cover the costs of future biomonitoring which has included the testing of private wells and household blood sampling, conducted by the New York State Department of Health, for anyone in and around the Hoosick Falls area.
Enck has also been involved in Albany’s South End community, where community members have been fighting over the past three years against Global Partners oil company in the Port of Albany. The oil trains parked behind the Ezra Prentice neighborhood have been polluting the air with highly toxic tar sands. After residents wrote to her pleading for federal attention, Enck met with the community to see what could be done.
“Those meetings spurred New York state government action,” said Iwanowicz. “It led to inspections of the facilities in the Port of Albany and the cleanup of air violations.”
Today, the community is still riddled with respiratory issues. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is set to begin an intensive air monitoring study within the next few months. “The state has promised hundreds of thousands of dollars to the community to clean the air and they need to follow up with that,” Enck said, stating that the concern of slow progressing results from state and federal organizations like the the EPA or DEC all comes down to a lack of funding.
On Monday, Feb. 27, sources revealed a White House proposal that would cut the EPA budget by $2 million and cut down its staffing by at least 20 percent. The full details of the White House budget plan will not be available until May, however the news has advocates like Enck calling for defensive action.
“Have your congressmember on speed dial,” she advised. “I have already called John Faso to tell him cuts shouldn’t be made to the EPA budget, it should be increased.”
Congressman John Faso has been openly opposed against the WOTUS regulation. On Tuesday (Feb. 28), Faso released a statement applauding President Trump’s executive order that day, saying, “Before it was correctly paused by the courts, WOTUS would have required local farmers to apply for federal permits for routine work involving drainage ditches or dry streambeds on their property, a costly and time-consuming process for a seasonal enterprise.”
The Alt reached out to Rep. Faso’s local and DC office for comment but did not receive a response before publication.
“They are mistaken in thinking that environmental protection hurts our economy,” Enck said.
The argument against environmental regulation in terms of economic cost, Iwanowicz explained, “is coming from the associated businesses and industries that are worries about their profits and spending their resources on things like shortening smokestacks and cleaning spills.”
To combat regression on environmental protection protocol, she suggests people look for ways to become more involved at the local level and stay informed about the impending executive orders. As for those with more time and energy on their hands, Enck hopes to see people step in at a more committed level.
“People who are upset about these laws should consider going to law school. One of the most important strategies in fighting the Trump administration is litigation. When the travel ban was set, we had lawyers in the airports, doing pro-bono work. We need new troops with new perspectives. [Law study] gives people a skill set in fighting these executive orders.”
In her final speech before leaving the EPA, Enck told the agency’s career scientists to “get familiar with the federal whistleblower law.”
While Enck has been vocal in speaking out against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, she remains supportive of federal workers who stayed with the agency throughout the transition.
“They are the firewall. If the agency isn’t doing something sensible, we need them to be there to say, ‘that’s not right,’” she said. “We should all be baking them cookies.”