Photo by Richard Lovrich
Former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Judith Enck recently joined the AltCast to discuss a host of local, state and national environmental issues. Enck talked about the fight for clean water in Hoosick Falls, the resistance from local residents against the Empire State Plaza microgrid in Albany, and her recent visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. She also encouraged people concerned with the dramatic shift in environmental policies at the federal level to get involved with the national midterm elections this November.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space; a video of the full interview is available here.
PFOA in Hoosick Falls
David Howard King: You first came on a lot of peoples’ radar with your involvement in what was going on in Hoosick Falls and your relationship with the Cuomo administration that seemed to not want to take ownership of the issue. Can you tell us what it was like battling with an administration that did not want to take ownership of what appears to be a life-and-death situation?
Judith Enck: It was not fun. The story goes as follows: the Village of Hoosick Falls has a public water supply. It was heavily contaminated by a toxic chemical called PFOA—it’s what makes teflon slippery and is used in a huge number of manufacturing processes. I was sitting at my desk at the EPA, buried in paper, and the phone rings, and an elected official asks if I have two to three million dollars to give to the Village of Hoosick Falls to install a carbon filtration system on their public water supply that serves thousands of people.
I explain, “No, I don’t really have that kind of walking around money. At the EPA, it’s all very scripted, and we give a lot of money to the state of New York for clean drinking water in a competitive grant process. I’ll look around, but tell me what situation is. I’ve never heard about a problem with the drinking water.”
Residents of Hoosick Falls were told they have high levels of contamination. I was told the mayor and polluters Saint-Gobain were meeting for years on how to fund a carbon filtration system. My first question was, “Are people actually drinking contaminated water?” The response was, “Yes.” That led me do a lot of work to try convince the New York Health Department to, first and foremost, alert the public to stop drinking the water. I was really surprised that I encountered lots of resistance.
I traveled to Hoosick Falls and spoke at the high school with a packed audience. It was a really hard meeting, explaining why PFOA was a problem, the levels in the water, what the health impacts are, and the EPA’s view of what has to happen to clean this up. There was blood sampling in the community showing people with particularly high levels of PFOA in their blood, particularly in young children. That’s one of the things that really troubles me—for pregnant women in Hoosick Falls, parents of small kids—if the health department had done their job and alerted people right away that there was a health problem with the drinking water, a lot of people could have avoided that exposure.
So I think this is a very sad chapter in New York State history and in the Cuomo administration’s unwillingness to take action on this since it became public. I actually want to commend the Cuomo administration, because when they finally decided to focus on it they’ve taken it on in a significant way. The challenge for them now is keeping permanent filtration on a public water supply and private wells. In my view, Hoosick Falls needs a clean new source of drinking water and preferably not groundwater. We’re just understanding how extensive contamination is, and there’s problems with PFOA in North Bennington, Vermont and St. Petersburgh, New York. I call it the PFOA belt. What we desperately need is a comprehensive groundwater study and getting people on clean, unfiltered water. That’s the least we can do for the residents who have suffered so much.
There’s a new mayor in Hoosick Falls, just like new sheriff in town, Mayor Rob Allen. He is so fantastic and well-informed on this issue. They were trying to negotiate with Saint-Gobain, but they were still pushing the town around, and earlier this week the village announced it’s going to sue Saint-Gobain. They had no choice—they’ve got to make their community whole. It’s really crazy, this big, wealthy, influential company won’t take responsibility. I started a hashtag called #writethecheck. This is a rounding error for Saint-Gobain. They can write the check for a new public water supply, and provide just a little relief for a community they devastated.
Community organization and the Albany microgrid
JE: This is such a mistake by Gov. Cuomo. He has said he wants to be a leader on renewable energy and climate change and yet in last year’s state budget he provided $88 million dollars to the New York Power Authority. They are an authority, part of state government, so he controls them, and they want to build a 16-megawatt microgrid. We like microgrids—they provide some resiliency, if there is a major storm like in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Sandy, because they can get back up quickly.
The key with the microgrid is, what’s the fuel source? The governor supports bringing in fracked gas from Pennsylvania to power this microgrid, when it’s entirely possible that they could do a mix of clean renewables—most notably, geothermal solar and maybe a fuel cell. And so what we really need is a feasibility study on, How do you do a clean microgrid?
But the New York Power Authority doesn’t seem to be listening to the community. They’re plowing ahead, but what has changed the landscape on this is that just in the last couple of weeks [Cuomo] said he wants state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli to seriously look at divestment of state investments in fossil fuel. So that’s terrific, and the state comptroller should do that, just as New York City has announced it will do, but you can’t say that as governor you want to divest in fossil fuels and then give tens of millions of dollars to the New York Power Authority to invest in fracked gas in downtown Albany.
Things have to give. I think the more media coverage on this, the better. Tip of the hat to the grassroots advocates organizing against this. They shouldn’t have to spend time on this. If you’re a green governor you should kind of know better than to bring fracked gas to a low-income minority community in downtown Albany that’s already suffered years ago with the Albany ANSWERS garbage incinerator. You can’t write this story any worse.
I think what’s really encouraging, what we’ve seen with environmental issues over the years, when a bad project like this pops up. Add water and stir: a community group does its own research, organizes, and holds government accountable for bad decisions. I know this is so Pollyanna, but I love the public getting involved and these agencies listening, because what often happens in public policy decision-making is what I call the “dad” approach of decision making. Decide, announce, defend. We all love our dads, but we don’t all like that kind of decision making. NYPA would be wise to sit down with the people that are going to be breathing in this air pollution and have a serious conversation about renewables—
Trump and the EPA
DHK: So, in some ways, you have an even larger opponent now. What was your plan? I assume you thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. Were you planning to stick around at the EPA?
JE: No, I loved working for the Obama administration, and I don’t think it would have gotten better than that. I was big believer that every president should bring their own team in. So I was physically and emotionally planning to leave a year ago today. I was planning to exit.
I expected the Trump administration to be really bad, and they have met my expectations. It is absolutely heartbreaking how they are dismantling the EPA and attacking every federal environmental law and regulation we have. What’s interesting is they are smart enough not to go to Congress and say, “We want to repeal the Safe Drinking Water Act or want to repeal the Clean Air Act,” because even in this Congress it wouldn’t fly.
So what they’re doing is what Steve Bannon described when he spoke at CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference] almost a year ago. They’re trying to “dismantle the administrative state.” So they’re reducing staff size at the EPA. Just earlier this week, Scott Pruitt—who I believe is the worst EPA administrator in history—proudly put a list of important environmental regs they’ve either eliminated entirely or are in the process of rolling back. I’m a big supporter of the EPA—I worked there, I respect the work they do there. The bigger issue, though, is this is more air pollution, water pollution, and climate change. It will take decades to repair the damage done by the Trump administration in the environmental arena.
But the timing—this will sound weird—the timing of the Trump administration could not be worse in terms of the climate change issue. Because there are many scientists who believe we are approaching the point where it may be too late to really avoid catastrophic climate change.
Just look at what’s happened in the last few months—Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Irma. We can’t say that climate change causes hurricanes, but it makes hurricanes more intense.
Look at the wildfires out West. Again, climate change doesn’t cause the fires, but the dry timber, the droughts make the wildfires more damaging than they would have been. And then, of course, in the west, followed by mudslides.
We are living the effects of climate change already, and the longer we delay finding solutions to drive down carbon pollution, the harder it’s going to be.
We finally had a strong international agreement in the Paris Climate Accord. The president pulled us out of [that]. He’s repealing the Clean Power Plan, every EPA regulation that finally got to the point of reducing carbon emissions.
The Trump administration is even sacrificing fuel-efficiency standards. I mean, we all benefit when we pay less for gasoline.
It’s apparent that this administration is very responsive to the fossil fuel industry, the chemical industry. I think there’s a lot the states can do—and I applaud state leadership and private sector leadership on this—but the reality is, not only do we have the Trump administration rolling back important climate change reduction rules, but they’re proactively promoting fossil fuel development. We see it with the offshore oil policy. We see it with more fracking and gas drilling on our public lands.
This is really turning out to be the chaos presidency when it comes to environmental protection.
A post-hurricane visit to the Caribbean
DHK: You said you had spent some time in the Virgin Islands, a place that Donald Trump doesn’t know he actually has influence over.
What are you seeing? Are these places ready? Can they survive, the sort of—
JE: No. Hurricane Maria and Irma [are] Trump’s Katrina. And it pains me to think how the response would’ve been different during the Obama administration and how it is today.
Today, as we sit here, over 40 percent of residents of Puerto Rico still don’t have electricity. In the Virgin Islands it’s about the same. They don’t have consistent clean drinking water. I was in the Virgin Islands at the request of the governor there for a couple weeks, and it was just a war zone. Just getting around the islands—for instance, none of the traffic lights work. Thankfully, I was not driving. But the people who were driving go really fast and they find a tempo to get around. There was no cell coverage.
I was embedded with a couple of the territorial agencies to help them figure out—how do you negotiate with FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]? How do you do some long-term plans so you’re not just reacting to the many, many emergencies of the day? And then how do you deal with the emergencies?
We had no computer access. We had no cell phones that worked. So you literally had to physically move around to talk to people. It’s gotten a little better—but not much. So, the Caribbean is ground zero for future storms.
There’s a big difference between a Category 3 hurricane and a Category 5 hurricane. I don’t think the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico will recover from these storms for a decade or more. What I’ve been very involved in, just as a volunteer, is trying to convince Congress: Don’t let FEMA put the old electrical grid back up. That’s what they are currently doing. Both places have reliable, oil-fired, expensive, rickety, old grids.
I’m calling on our members of Congress, when they do the next budget supplemental bill, which will provide more money for the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, and also those states damaged by wildfires—they must include new language directing FEMA to fund a clean, renewable, resilient grid. Because right now that’s not happening. When hurricane season comes later this year, we may be—right when they get the lights back on again, which may not be until May, by the way—we’re gonna face this all over again.
I think we convinced the Trump administration that this was not a wise policy, but we’re getting tremendous resistance from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for some insane reason. We have a few weeks to try to change this policy.
DHK: Is there something that you recommend people who care about the environment deeply do at this point?
JE: Yeah. I think there’s a lot we can do. And we have to try. I think the best tool to stop the Trump agenda is in the courts. There are groups like Earthjustice and Natural Resources Defense Council that are litigating. And they’re actually having good luck blocking some of the policies.
We should also really thank [New York state] Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He has filed 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration—not all on the environment, but on immigration, health care, labor issues, and environmental issues.
I’m used to writing to my elected officials when I want them to do something, and I have to admit, I don’t always write or call to thank them. We should do that.
I also think there’s a lot we can do at the local level. If you really want to turn these policies around, work on the midterm elections, because our members of Congress, including John Faso and Elise Stefanik, are not exercising the right oversight authority over, for instance, the gutting of the EPA. I don’t hear Faso and Stefanik really standing up for the agency. They are not doing a good job protecting us from the Trump administration.
I know that the midterm elections seem like a long time away, but now is the time. There’s a big field running against Faso. They have to show that they can raise money, that they’re credible. If you’re thinking about sending a check to a candidate, invite ten of your friends over, educate them on that candidate’s position, and get them to write checks. And register people to vote.
As Kirsten Gillibrand says, we’ve got to get off the sidelines. I think our single most effective strategy is to try to elect pro-environmental candidates this November, while supporting groups and institutions that’ll be active in the courts.