In January, after eight years at the helm of Region 2 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Judith Enck will depart her post as Regional Administrator. Since her appointment by President Obama in November 2009, Judith has overseen federal programs in Region 2 (New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and eight federally recognized Indian Nations) that govern air and water pollution, industrial discharges, toxic substances, pesticides, protection of streams, lakes and the ocean, solid and hazardous wastes, the cleanup of chemical spills and abandoned hazardous waste sites, and much more.
A New Yorker through and through, and an environmentalist for many decades, Judith was raised in the Catskill Mountains and has been responsible for policies and operations of New York State’s environmental protection agencies including the Department of Environmental Conservation, Office of Parks, Adirondack Park Agency, Agriculture and Markets, Department of State, and others. She served as a policy advisor to the New York State Attorney General, was senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group, and executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. She is a past president of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, former executive director of the Non-Profit Resource Center, and a designer of her town’s recycling program.
We caught up with Judith to talk about her environmental work of the past, present, and future.
What have been the proudest moments of your environmental stewardship career, from your early work for nonprofit environmental organizations in New York through your tenure as EPA regional administrator for Region 2?
Passage of the New York State “bottle bill,” cleaned up communities, created jobs and jumpstarted recycling. Also, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeast—known as RGGI. This was the first carbon cap and trade program in the nation.
I was also proud to help pass first state-level superfund law and acid rain reduction law in New York. In addition, I worked to get mandatory recycling law adopted in New York State.
Over the last decade, what has environmental progress meant to the average New York and New Jersey citizen’s quality of life on a day-to-day basis?
We’ve made progress in environmental protection but we still have a long way to go. The last decade has seen great improvements, including in improving air quality by regulating air pollution from factories and power plants and from vehicles.
Locally, surface and harbor water quality improvements have provided tangible benefits to the environment and the economy. That said, we must continue to address the scourge of combined sewer overflows (CSO) and plastic pollution in our waters. Working with the EPA, New Jersey recently issued permits to better control pollution from CSOs across the state, but progress needs to continue. CSOs don’t just cause offensive sights and smells; they’re also a threat to public health. We are investing in our collective future by working closely with states and municipalities to help address CSOs. We must also continue to reduce plastic pollution in all of our waters—at the source— through waste reduction and recycling.
With every decade, I’m seeing environmental awareness grow and improvements made. Whether related to air and water quality, the dangers to our drinking water supplies, pesticide use and a host of other issues—public interest and active involvement are absolutely key to progress moving forward. I don’t want to see the environment just protected–it must be enhanced. It takes just a moment to spill, for instance, petroleum in a waterway, but can take years to clean it. It takes commitment and investment–and it takes everyone.
The EPA sets environmental standards and individual states implement those standards with oversight from EPA’s regional offices. With this in mind, how we can continue to make progress at the state and local level in the coming four years?
The EPA will continue its work with the states to implement environmental laws and regulations. We have strong environmental laws on the books. The Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and other laws provide protection for human health and the environment and could, of course, use further enhancements and refinements.
From consistent sunny day flooding in Broad Channel, Queens, to cataclysmic events like Hurricane Sandy, the waters around us are obviously rising. More than 97 percent of scientists agree that humans are causing global warming and that climate change is a reality. What steps do you think we need to take to address the threat of rising waters to our coastal cities?
It’s clear that sea levels are rising and will continue to impact coastal areas where significant portions of the world’s population live, including right here in New York and New Jersey. Superstorm Sandy caused devastating fatalities and damage to communities and critical infrastructure in a very short period of time. However, the long term incremental impact of sea level rise alone will likely cause significant flooding of homes and infrastructure (for example wastewater) and loss of coastal wetlands if we don’t plan for an appropriate mix of resilience and retreat.
I think it’s critical to remember that inland communities far from the coast are not immune to the indirect impacts of sea level rise as the economic and social costs mount. We need to continue and step up efforts to work with the states to make existing infrastructure and communities more resilient to climate change impacts. The integration of green infrastructure is a key component of that. At the same time, we should discourage additional residential and commercial development within FEMA mapped flood zones. If the development is deemed necessary, it must be built in a way that is sustainable in the long term. After Superstorm Sandy, the states of New York and New Jersey actively relocated a limited number of homes out of low-lying vulnerable locations here in the metropolitan area, such as Staten Island. As sea levels continue to rise, many more homes will likely need to be relocated to avoid repeated flooding and protect human health.
How will you continue to be involved in environmental work after you leave your post as EPA Region 2 administrator?
I will work every day to protect public health and the environment. I look forward to working with community leaders and elected officials on a range of issues to protect public health. I’m a big believer in “when people lead, the leaders will follow.” In that spirit, we must see more and more grassroots leadership to preserve our planet, and we need to encourage our friends and neighbors to get involved. I will especially be involved in the climate change issue—the single most serious economic and environmental threat of our time.
Thank you, Judith, and best wishes from the Waterfront Alliance.