New Southeast EPA Administrator Faces Challenges Ahead

Guest Blog | March 13, 2014 | Energy Justice, Energy Policy
EPA Region 4 Administrator Heather McTeer Toney

In the first month of 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency appointed Heather McTeer Toney as the new Region 4 Administrator. The former Regional Administrator, Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, left to become chief of staff for EPA’s new chief administrator Gina McCarthy. Mrs. Toney, a private-sector attorney by trade, served as the first woman and first African-American mayor of Greenville, MS and served as the chair of EPA’s local government advisory committee from 2010 to 2012. While she does not specifically have an environmental background, her experience does include working to help historically underrepresented persons.

EPA’s Region 4 covers each of the 8 states SACE works in – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee – as well as 6 tribal nations. Region 4 has historically been home to low-income and minority communities who bear the brunt of the harmful effects caused by poorly regulated pollution sources. Mrs. Toney has her work cut out for her as she works to solve persistent problems brought on by 40 years of poor environmental protection in the Southeast.

In years past, environmental justice leaders were disheartened by Region 4’s bad facility siting and permitting decisions that seemed to result directly from EPA’s compromises with states and local governments, rather than from listening to concerns voiced by impacted communities. Former Admin. Fleming was the first African-American administrator to lead Region 4 and her appointment gave the environmental justice community hope for a fundamental change in how environmental regulations are crafted and enforced in the Southeast. Shortly after Mrs. Fleming’s appointment, more than two dozen environmental justice leaders from the region presented her with a “Call to Action.” These efforts resulted in EPA Region 4 hosting an environmental justice conference in Atlanta in 2012, which helped connect the environmental justice community with high-level decision makers within EPA as never before.

We applaud EPA for appointing another African-American leader to lead Region 4 in its efforts to address diversity and environmental issues across the Southeast. With the groundwork laid by the former Region 4 Administrator, Mrs. Toney is in a good position to continue to work with regulators, states, local governments and communities to find solutions that help protect or environment as well as the historically disadvantaged communities and address legacy public health and pollution problems.

One of the most pressing issues facing Mrs. Toney is how to address rampant pollution across the region caused by unsafe coal ash impoundments. The Duke Energy Dan River spill is the most recent and frightening example of how coal ash impoundments harm neighboring communities. On February 2, 2014, approximately 140,000 tons of toxic coal ash and waste water spilled from impoundments at Duke’s retired Dan River Power Station in North Carolina, coating the Dan River with some 70 miles of toxic ash. Now, a judge has found that the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) failed in its regulatory duties and ordered Duke to take immediate action to eliminate sources of groundwater pollution at each of the company’s coal ash impoundments across the state. Unfortunately, EPA Region 4 has been slow to reply to pleas from environmental groups to address the many outdated water permits at coal plants around the region, which is contributing to coal ash contamination in our region’s waterways.

Ruby Holmes has been directly impacted by coal ash in Perry County, AL.

We hope that cleanup of the Dan River spill does not result in another environmental justice debacle, like the cleanup of TVA’s 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster. After the Kingston spill, more than 3 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash were shipped by rail to an open landfill in Perry County, AL – where the unemployment rate is 17% and more than a third of the households live below the poverty line. The Perry County landfill debate brought up a common problem facing environmental justice communities, whether the jobs and economic growth created when an industry moves into town justify the permanent, negative environmental and health effects that usually accompany these industry operations.

Coal ash storage in the Southeast is only one of the myriad problems that Administrator Toney will have to address as she establishes herself as the new leader of the EPA in the Southeast. In June 2014, EPA will release its first ever carbon emission standards for existing coal-fired power plants.  Implementing these new carbon emission limits will require states to submit State Implementation Plans (SIPs) to EPA on how they will comply with the new carbon standards – this is the same process states must already undergo when complying with EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). EPA Region 4 will be tasked with approving the SIPs for our Southeastern states.

Hopefully, Admin. Toney will take advantage of this historic opportunity and work to put strict emission limits on dangerous carbon pollution from coal plants. If Region 4 pushes for maximum compliance flexibility in these SIPs it can help renewable energy and energy efficiency industries flourish in our region. For the more than 70 million people who make the Southeast their home, climate change will have a significant impact. Sea level rise and increased hurricane intensity will hit coastal communities in the Southeast the hardest, while increased incidences of extreme weather events (like droughts and floods) threaten the entire region. It is clear that Administrator Toney has big challenges ahead in order for her to affect positive change during her tenure as the leader of EPA Region 4, but we are hopeful that SACE, along with other environmental advocates, will be able to help her succeed.