A coalition of 55 environmental groups is urging the U.S. Senate to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the enforcement office within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), citing a need for stronger agency actions to protect vulnerable communities from illegal pollution.
Biden nominated former Department of Justice (DOJ) environmental crimes division head David Uhlmann to take the top EPA enforcement spot in June 2021 and then renominated him in January, but Republican opposition has stalled the move.
Uhlmann would be the assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA), which is charged with pursuing civil and criminal cases for violations of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other environmental statutes. Uhlmann is currently director of the University of Michigan’s Environmental Law and Policy Program.
A May 4 letter to Senate leaders written by the Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of 55 environmental organizations and 144 former EPA managers and staff said the Senate needs to confirm Uhlmann’s appointment without further delay.
The letter says that between the 2018 and 2021 fiscal years, the number of EPA inspections, criminal investigations, civil cases initiated or concluded, defendants charged with environmental crimes, and amounts violators paid for cleanup declined about 50 percent when average annual results are compared to 2002-2017.
“Political indifference or hostility to environmental enforcement” explains part of the decline, along with budget cuts that slashed more than 20% of the EPA enforcement workforce since President George W. Bush’s second term, according to the letter.
“For many years, Republicans and Democrats have agreed that weakening enforcement of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and other environmental laws enacted by Congress jeopardizes public health and our natural resources, undermines environmental justice, and gives violators an unfair advantage over companies that work hard to stay in compliance. Confirming Mr. Uhlmann’s appointment as EPA’s enforcement chief would signal a welcome return to this bipartisan tradition,” the letter states.
Also stalled is the nomination of environmental justice expert and law professor Carlton Waterhouse to lead the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste. Waterhouse is currently working at the agency as deputy assistant administrator in the office, a role that does not require Senate confirmation. Longtime EPA career official Barry Breen is currently heading the waste office in an acting capacity.
Republican Sens. Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.) and Bill Cassidy (La.) have had holds in place preventing the full Senate from voting on Uhlmann’s nomination, hoping to win concessions from the EPA on policy issues in exchange for allowing a vote to occur.
Lummis’ Press Secretary Abegail Cave told The New Lede that the senator has lifted her hold on Uhlmann “[i]n a show of good faith” while talks continue with the EPA and others over the Clean Air Act regional haze program. But Lummis’ holds preventing the other agency nominees from receiving a Senate floor vote remain in place, Cave said.
Even with Lummis lifting her hold on Uhlmann, the OECA nominee could not get a Senate floor vote if Cassidy does not also lift his hold. At press time, Cassidy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Photo credit: University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability