Rumored EPA closings alarm local environmentalists


Esther Bell

Reports that the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chicago office may close sent shockwaves through the environmental community.  

By Caroline Bowen

Circulating rumors that the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chicago-based Region five district office will be closing, first raised in an April 15 Chicago Sun-Times article, continue to concern local environmentalists despite official denials.

Robert Kaplan, acting regional administrator at the Region five office of the EPA, that serves Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, told employees in an email April 17 that the office closure rumors are false. 

Kaplan said the EPA is still focused on and committed to supporting Region five communities—particularly Flint, Michigan and East Chicago, Indiana.

“These stories are not true, are pure speculation and undermine our ability to communicate with the public [about] real information we have,” Kaplan said in the email. Requests for an interview with Kaplan were denied. 

The rumors coincide with President Donald Trump’s proposed 31 percent EPA budget cut.

“The budget cuts would undermine the initiatives that are currently underway that protect our air and water—that are trying to work toward cleaning up any existing pollutants,” said Elizabeth Kocs, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Energy Initiative. 

According to Kocs, closing the office would put additional pressure on less-equipped agencies —including the Natural Resource Defense Council—to fill the void. 

“It has this ripple effect that all of these other agencies and institutions would have to do what the EPA specifically would have done,” Kocs said. “It falls upon people that don’t necessarily have the authority to do so.” 

Other environmental experts predicted Trump’s budget cuts will greatly  affect the Midwest’s environmental initiatives—particularly plans to combat the water crisis in Flint and minimize pollution in the Great Lakes—even if the office stays open.

According to David Archer, professor of geophysical science at the University of Chicago, one of the jobs sanctioned to the EPA’s fifth region is monitoring lead levels in the soil and water in East Chicago, where high levels of manganese and petroleum coke were recently discovered, as reported Feb. 20 by The Chronicle. 

Relaxed enforcement of EPA regulations directly leads to more pollution from coal industries and in turn, greater harm inflicted on the community, Archer said. When children are exposed to dangerous levels of lead, it could cause lower IQ scores and patterns of aggressive violent crimes later in life, he added.

Trump’s EPA policies are reminiscent of former President Ronald Reagan’s when he first took office and removed more than a dozen high-level officials from the EPA, including administrator William Ruckelshaus, according to Archer. 

“After a year or so, people pushed back on not wanting to breathe smoggy air,” Archer said. “I expect there will be a lot of pushback [should the Chicago-based office close].” 

Renner Barsella, a press secretary for the Sierra Club said residents should be concerned about the hundreds of people employed by the EPA who could lose their jobs if the office closed. 

“[EPA employees] are vital to the health of this community and the region as a whole,” Barsella said. “Before the EPA, rivers were catching fire. This is not some controversial, new age idea.”

The drastic budget cuts follow the Feb. 3 introduction of a bill in Congress from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, to abolish the EPA, according to a Feb. 5 NBC News article.

Archer said he doubts this will ever be possible, and Gaetz’s bill has reportedly received little traction, according to a story in  Roll Call, Feb. 15.

“They can’t abolish the [EPA],” Archer said. “What they can do is try to starve it and demoralize the people.”