Checking in With Gina McCarthy, Obama’s Environmental Watchdog

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We last spoke with Gina McCarthy, the administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in November 2013. Since then, the EPA has been getting hit hard from all sides in issues ranging from fracking to power plant pollution, as environmentalists press for stricter regulations while interest groups seek to curtail them. We sat down with McCarthy after she spoke at the American Meteorological Society annual meeting in Phoenix to talk about the biggest battles facing the EPA right now.

We spoke with you not long after you were confirmed as the head of the EPA. What has changed since then in your job, Congress, and public opinion?
The Clean Power Plan has come out, and that’s been a major topic of conversation. Public opinion on climate has gotten much stronger and much more positive. Around 70 percent of people recognize that the climate is changing, and that it’s a result, to a great extent, of human influence, and want us to take action. The business community is stepping up significantly, in terms of telling us that it’s time to take action on this, and we had a whole meeting with the UN in New York, where it was not talking head politicians, but the business community basically saying, “We’re factoring carbon into our decisions. Why aren’t you?” It’s been a great year.

The EPA recently issued rules labeling coal ash a non-hazardous waste, even though it has arsenic, lead and other toxic materials. How is that true?
Because there’s a lot of components in any waste. If you take a look at your computer, that has lead and mercury in it, but there are ways of managing the waste effectively. Part of the challenge we had was to recognize that these facilities are best regulated as solid waste facilities working through states, and we wanted to make sure that we were addressing that as well the critical issues that prompted these rules to be put in place [such as] making sure that these impoundments were structurally sound, and [looking at] the groundwater impacts from some of these unlined impoundments. We will still be addressing those issues in an effective way while recognizing that it is better regulated on a solid waste category than as a hazardous waste category. We’ll still get the protections that people want us to.

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The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge questioning whether the EPA must take costs industries face into consideration when creating rules. Should you?
There are statutes where cost cannot be considered in making the decision. We still do a cost-benefit analysis, so people understand the full implications, but we have to make the decisions based on the science only. We have other statutes that tell us we have to take actions that do take cost into consideration. We just follow the law as it was given us by Congress, but we also do a tremendous job, frankly, of estimating what the impacts and the costs are of our actions are, regardless of whether or not costs need to be considered in the actual decision.

The Supreme Court is looking at that very question related to the Mercury and Air Toxic Standard, and we feel pretty confident that cost was not supposed to be considered. But the most important thing for people to understand is that even if it were, the decision would have been exactly the same. We did a cost-benefit analysis, and the Mercury and Air Toxic Standard is hugely beneficial from a cost perspective on the order of nine to one. For every dollar you’re spending, you get nine dollars in economic benefit.

This past November, the House passed a bill limiting the EPA’s ability to use scientific research that is confidential, often due to private medical data, when making policy decisions. If the so-called “Secret Science bill” becomes law, how would it affect your work?
We’re pretty confident that it’s not going to become law, because I think as all those scientists will note, we actually base all of our decisions on really good peer-reviewed science. Every time our science has been questioned and the “secret science” issue has come up, we have proven that we are doing the science the way it’s supposed to be done. It would seriously handicap any medical science, not just EPA’s, if you had to give out information that was protected by another law, to ensure that people’s privacy was protected. So that is not likely to happen, and we’re not particularly concerned about it.