The 1,000 or so employees of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who cover a six-state region from Chicago may epitomize the faceless, nameless federal bureaucracy.
Few of us come in contact with them in their daily work or understand what they do, which doesn’t make that work any less important.
That’s why I sat down with four of those employees last week to put a face on the agency that President Donald Trump’s administration is looking to dismantle.
Felicia Chase, 39, is a geologist who has worked at the EPA for nine years, currently in water quality enforcement. It’s her job to ensure local communities take steps to prevent stormwater and sewage discharges from polluting local rivers and streams.
Frank Lagunas, 40, is a chemist who came to the EPA six years ago after six years with the Air Force as a crew chief on a Stealth fighter. Lagunas’ main responsibility is to certify the laboratories that test drinking water to make sure the public can trust the results.
Jon Peterson, 57, worked his way through college shoveling the toxic slag that was a byproduct of his hometown steel plant and has spent 32 years at the EPA working to clean up the mess factories like that one left behind.
Michael Mikulka, 62, is a civil engineer by training who has been with the EPA for 40 years in a variety of roles, overseeing construction of wastewater treatment plants and reclaiming hazardous waste sites across the Great Lakes region. Now, he’s the union rep.
Between them, they’ve worked on major projects in Decatur, Rockford, Gary, East Chicago, Hammond, Oshkosh and Green Bay, to name just a few.
At least one in five EPA employees would be eliminated under a budget proposal being floated by the Trump Administration, which regards the laws meant to protect our air and water quality as an impediment to economic growth.
In truth, the EPA has always been a bit of a mystery to me, too. We haven’t really had anyone at the newspaper covering environmental issues full-time for a while, and my own work has rarely brought me into contact with the agency.
But I’m old enough to remember the time when our air was unfit to breathe and when our lakes and rivers were open wounds. And I don’t want to revisit those days under the mistaken notion that it will restore prosperity, as if that were even a valid tradeoff.
We’ve never even marshaled the resources to clean up all the old messes, and now the Trump budget would all but eliminate the $300 million annual appropriation for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, one of the most ambitious efforts undertaken in that regard.
That program alone employs 60 people out of Chicago, although most of the money goes toward grants to local projects, Mikulka said.
As civil servants, EPA employees must take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the ones with whom I met convinced me they take their responsibilities seriously.
Chase and Laguna were each sent to Flint, Mich., to deal with the tainted drinking water crisis. They believe the EPA played a crucial role in giving residents confidence the water was safe again after the failings of state and local officials.
The budget cuts now being proposed would have prevented EPA from being able to do that work, Chase said.
“Without us being there, I think they would still be having lots of issues to this day,” she said.
Mikulka said EPA currently has some 15,000 employees nationwide, down from 18,000 at its peak in 1999.
If Trump manages to sufficiently hamstring the EPA bureaucracy, he won’t need to roll back the laws that protect the environment because there won’t be anyone to enforce them.