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New Regional EPA Administrator Visits Albany

WAMC Elizabeth Hill
Pete Lopez & Casey Seiler

The new regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency was in the Capital Region Tuesday and his visit comes at a controversial period for the EPA.

Peter Lopez, the EPA’s Region 2 Administrator, spoke with the Times Union’s Casey Seiler at the Hearst Media Center in Albany to answer questions about his appointment, the administration’s policies and the EPA itself. 

Lopez spent more than a decade in the New York State Assembly. The Republican formerly of the 201nd District was on the Environmental Conservation Committee and the Taskforce on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy.  His appointment to the EPA came during his sixth term. Lopez said there was no trepidation about joining the Trump administration, whose environmental policies have been criticized since before the election.

“I’ve lived through floods, we’ve lived through pipelines, we’ve lived through hydrofracking, we’ve lived through any number of issues.  We’ve lived through massive budget deficits, So, controversy to me and some degree of adversity is not something I’m afraid of.” said Lopez

Lopez fielded questions from Seiler and took written questions from the audience.  Asked about pending budget cuts, Lopez said he isn’t worried about the numbers as long as the EPA can complete its mission.  He said between New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, The Virgin Islands and eight tribal nations, his region has about 1,000 employees.

“In terms of our function we have a staffing plan that responds to the proposed cuts from the administration, and that plan allows the individual units to function and allows them to continue their mission.  So whether it be Superfund, or water division or air division or enforcement, which is something that has to be in the toolbox, there is a staffing plan that allows Region 2 to continue its function and its mission.” said Lopez

Lopez took over his post eight days before Hurricane Maria, and has family in Puerto Rico. 

“So our first focus was on how do we restore basic services for human existence?  Where water systems were not functioning we were trying to provide generators, we were trying to do emergency repairs.  We were working with FEMA and Army Corps to bring supplies, and if we were the first point of contact.” said Lopez

Lopez said he believes the U.S. is doing all it can.  He said the challenge with Puerto Rico was it was facing a $75 billion deficit before the storm, and communities were effectively insolvent.  Lopez also discussed Hudson River dredging.  He said the EPA is taking a pause at the request of the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation while sediment and flood plain soil samples are examined.  Lopez said the problem doesn’t begin and end with a 40-mile stretch of the upper Hudson, and preliminary testing on the lower Hudson needs to be reexamined before any certificate of completion is granted to General Electric.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has said the state will sue if the EPA declares the cleanup complete.

“When I look at Superfund sites or intervention I use the analogy of a human body in surgery.  We have a patient who is suffering we do an interdiction, a surgery, then we have to step back and assess what’s happened with that surgery and what other processes are at work that return the patient to their normal healthy condition.  It’s a living organism, the river itself is not devoid of other aspects that effect fish population then ultimately human health.  We are working to assess if there is any new information we need to act on and just encouraging everyone to understand we are here for the long haul.” said Lopez

The hour-long discussion wrapped up with Lopez’s thoughts on climate change, which President Trump has called a Chinese hoax.  When Lopez was appointed he said he could not rule out human impact on the environment, but that he wasn’t a scientist.  Seiler asked Lopez if his point of view had changed while working with scientists at the EPA.

“Human activity does have an impact, we’re spending all our lives and careers cleaning up after human activity.  Intervening where human activity is causing serious impacts.  In terms of motion I can’t get too far ahead of my leadership.  We’ve heard Mr. Pruitt talk about human actions and activities impacting the environment I agree with that.” said Lopez

Lopez said it would be foolish to ignore increasingly intense storms.

Reporting from the Hearst Media Center in Albany, I’m Elizabeth Hill for WAMC News.