On Feb. 6, 2017, 300 people took to the streets of Chicago in protest of the impending confirmation of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of those in the crowd were EPA workers. ThinkProgress described the action as “what appears to be the first protest by federal workers against the Trump administration.”
The effort — led by the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents 900 EPA workers based in Chicago — wasn’t the last.
Three months later the broader AFGE Council 238, which represents Local 704 and more than 7,000 other EPA employees nationwide, launched the Save the U.S. EPA campaign to fight attacks on the agency, its staff, and their effectiveness in protecting the environment and public health.
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Nicole Cantello is one of its spokespeople and has been president of AFGE Local 704 in Chicago for the past five months. She’s also spent 29 years as an EPA attorney holding polluters accountable and currently works as senior counsel for water and water enforcement in the Great Lakes region.
Cantello spoke to The Revelator in her capacity as union president about how life has changed for EPA workers during the Trump administration, how those changes affect the environment and why we need a plan to rebuild the agency.
You’ve worked with a number of different administrations over your nearly three decades with the EPA. How much did things change with each one, and how does that compare to life now under the Trump administration?
The change that the Trump administration brought is the most devastating change that has ever been wrought on EPA.
My first administration was [George Herbert Walker] Bush. That was really the administration that was the most free of any political interference that I’ve ever worked under. Each administration after that had slight differences and slight biases based on politics. But you really didn’t feel that constrained, it was minor.
It’s so different now under the Trump administration, where every single matter that you might bring has a political tinge to it and you cannot bring a case under this administration that there isn’t some kind of issue that is going to raise alarm bells.
It seems like things have basically come to a standstill here. There are just so many hoops to jump through that it’s very difficult to bring enforcement cases.
What are the impacts of this on the ground, to human health and the environment?
Here in Chicago our job is to enforce the law. We don’t do any of the rulemaking like they do in Washington, D.C., where there are a lot of regulatory rollbacks coming out of [now current EPA administrator] Andrew Wheeler’s shop.
But the numbers on enforcement are down nationwide and where I am in EPA Region 5. A lot of times Region 5 does more inspections than the rest of the nation combined. We view ourselves as the engine of enforcement — as Region 5 goes, so goes the nation.
When our enforcement is very low, you know things are really wrong. It means that human health and the environment are not being protected. It means that polluters don’t fear the EPA and that means that they can pollute with impunity, or they believe that they can. And that means that there’s going to be more pollutants being discharged into lakes and streams or into the air.
What is daily life like for EPA staffers?
We had a contract that we had been working under since 2007 that was taken away from us and we were robbed of our workplace rights that we had collectively bargained. As of July 8, we now have what we call a Unilateral Management Anti-Employee Directive. It took away a lot of the things that we had under the old contract, including the right to grieve any disciplinary actions brought against us or changes in our performance reviews.
For my work with the union, it took away any ability for me to help my employees during work time — it basically took away the voice of unions in the workplace.
It also makes it very difficult for workers to feel like they can whistle-blow because what you could be disciplined for now you can’t file a grievance to respond to. That’s a very serious thing. There are three Office of Inspector General investigations going on in Region 5 due to employee whistleblowing — this is a hotbed of resistance.
Another issue is staffing. They have decided to drain EPA staff, especially here in Region 5, by not hiring to replace people. When Trump took office, he announced that he wanted to bring EPA staff down. We were at 1,160 here in the region [at the beginning of 2017] and now we’re down about 950 and it has just been devastating to us. There’s a lot of work not getting done and a lot of environmental protection not happening.
What are you hearing from people working in other federal agencies on environment-related issues? Are their complaints similar?
I don’t know about all of them — I do know that the Department of the Interior has the same workplace issues as we do from the standpoint of the contract. So, the National Park Service, for example, has no contract right now.
The thing about EPA is that when it comes to how much money someone or some industry is going make, we really have an influence on that in a way that the Department of the Interior or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or some of the other science people don’t.
We’re really more like the Securities and Exchange Commission [that regulates the financial industry] in that we can really have a say in exactly how much an industry is or is not going to be profitable because of how much pollution control we’re going to demand from someone.
EPA operates obviously more in a regulatory mode and so is not very industry friendly. And I think that industry has been wanting to turn that around — we’ve been in their sights for a long time. We’re just more of a target.
How long do you think it will take to undo the damage caused to EPA during this administration?
This is something that we have been trying to call the alarm on because the people that are going to have to work on climate change and hit the ground running right away if a new administration comes in January 2020 are my people. We are the people that have control of CO2 from the big sources that need to be addressed immediately — things like power plants — the low-hanging fruit. And it’s my people that are being hamstrung right now.
We really have to start thinking about the fact that we can’t be reducing EPA staff when it’s EPA staff that has to start working on all this stuff that the kids were just in the streets protesting about three weeks ago.
We need to start thinking about how we’re going to repair EPA right away, so that we can have EPA start trying to save the world.