Michael Regan loves a good photo op. The EPA administrator spent much of his first two years in office crisscrossing the country, attracting a phalanx of local reporters wherever he turned up. But instead of welcoming veterans home or cutting the ribbon on bright and shiny bridges, the sites of Regan’s press junkets have included a community plagued by coal ash in Puerto Rico, a Louisiana area in the shadows of petrochemical facilities where residents face high cancer rates, and a West Virginia county with a faulty wastewater-treatment plant.
On a blistering summer day in 2022, I watched as he brought the cameras to a trailer home in the back roads of Lowndes County, Alabama, where more than 40% of residents have raw sewage on their properties. On rainy days, which are increasing in severity as a result of climate change, the sewage often backs up into people’s showers and sinks. Regan sat with a resident in front of a pool of raw sewage, seemingly unperturbed by the smell or the gargantuan bugs flying nearby on that humid morning. “We have a mission,” he said. “No one in America in 2022 should have to have a hole in their backyard where waste flows in the very places that our children play.”
Later that day, in an air-conditioned meeting hall, he shared the dais with a member of Congress, a state environmental administrator, and other Biden Administration officials to announce a new commitment of federal dollars to tackle the issue. The town hall couldn’t avoid an airing of the grievances and allegations that lurked just beneath the surface: past money had been misspent by government officials; residents need to be willing to pay for the costs of better sanitation; it’s too hard for local communities to access federal funds. Regan observed quietly, before chiming in to make peace. “This is a top-to-bottom government partnership, from the White House on down to the mayor’s office,” he said. “I feel the sense of urgency; everyone at this table does.”
Making peace in pursuit of progress is the core of Regan’s job. For decades, the EPA has been a lightning rod for industry and conservative states while environmental advocates have demanded the agency do more faster. The Biden Administration’s approach to tackling climate change requires buy-in from all of those constituencies. Achieving that consensus is Regan’s challenge.
Perhaps nowhere else is that reconciliation harder than in the pursuit of environmental justice. Centuries of systemic discrimination have left people of color and low-income Americans vulnerable to environmental hazards. Fixing such entrenched problems is the work of generations. But as the EPA marks three years with Regan at its head—with the potential for a second Trump presidency around the corner, as well as an upcoming Supreme Court ruling that could gut the agency’s authority—it’s a daily mission that has gained new urgency. Regan’s task: not just getting conservative states to spend on solutions and businesses to accept new regulations, all while staying engaged with environmental-justice leaders, but also to make sure those changes stick.
“It’s exceedingly difficult,” says Margot Brown, who heads the Environmental Defense Fund’s Equity & Justice program and previously worked for a decade at the EPA. “If he agrees to something that industry is advocating for, environmental-justice groups are going to question his actions. And if he provides more support for the environmental-justice groups, then industry might call into question what he’s doing.”
To strike that balance, Regan deploys an affable manner and a smile. And he modulates his rhetoric. Corporate executives hear about how he’s trying to create regulatory certainty; environmental-justice leaders hear about his willingness to sue companies and states that move too slowly. Complaints are many, but Regan has thus far avoided the revolt from either side that has characterized his predecessors’ tenures—and the money is flowing to communities in need.
The outcome of his efforts will be measured not just in dollars spent but in the health and quality of life of millions of poor Americans. Federal climate and infrastructure spending will total in the trillions in the coming years. If carried out well, these programs could help improve conditions on the ground across the country; if not, it may take another generation—or longer—before another opportunity comes along to address entrenched injustice. “For the first time in history, we have the resources to actually execute on these infrastructure changes,” Regan told me in North Carolina not long after the meeting in Lowndes. “We are trying to meet that moment.”
When Regan was less than 10 years old, the foundations of the modern environmental-justice movement were taking root less than 100 miles north of his hometown of Goldsboro, N.C. It was the early 1980s, and the era of legal segregation in the South had passed. But local activists found themselves in a new civil rights fight as they protested the state’s plans to build a disposal facility for soil contaminated with the cancer-causing chemical known as PCB in a small African American community. Studies have suggested that the chemical can change children’s brain function and harm reproductive health. Activists demonstrated daily for seven weeks, leading to the arrest of more than 500 protesters.
The protests that activists recall as a foundational moment, a young Regan knew as kitchen-table talk. He recalls listening to updates about the demonstrations and hearing his parents express admiration for the protesters. “It started here in Warren County,” he told me during a visit there. “It sparked a national movement.”
Regan is a self-described “proud son of North Carolina” and roots his personal narrative both in the stories of Black environmental-justice pioneers and in more conservative language. He talks about the Warren County protests and growing up with asthma, but also about enjoying hunting with his grandfather. He decries environmental racism in one breath and touts economic prosperity in another.
He made good use of that broad outlook when he took over North Carolina’s department of environmental quality in 2017. Almost immediately, he began engaging on justice issues. He toured communities of color challenged by hazards and touted the Civil Rights Act as a tool for environmental protection. Still, he tried to avoid the conflict-laden language that often characterizes interactions between activists and industry. Recalling his first year in office at the time, he described this work as an effort to protect the state’s “growth and competitiveness.”
Nothing else epitomized his style during that time more than his approach to pushing change at Duke Energy, the massive utility that provides electricity across the state. The company had left coal ash at multiple coal-fired power plants. Environmental groups were up in arms, and with good reason. Coal ash contains toxic chemicals like mercury that can contaminate water supply and harm local communities. But the company complained that a cleanup done as regulators wanted would cost far more than the company’s preferred solution. In 2019, Regan won big as state courts upheld his directive to Duke. He could have celebrated and left it there. But in the midst of litigation that could have resulted in even greater costs for the company as well as potential appeals, Regan brokered a deal. Duke would accept the remediation cost, expected to total up to $9 billion; environmental groups would drop their push for further litigation. Duke took the deal, and everyone left happy.
It was big news, and it came at a fortuitous moment for Regan. Less than a year later, Joe Biden was elected President and found himself stuck with the difficult challenge of delivering on his climate promises. He needed the support of environmental-justice activists and the communities they represent, but he also needed the support of the private sector to pass and implement legislation. Regan fit the bill. “Democratic governor, Republican-controlled legislature—I had to figure out how to get things done, and work across the aisle,” he told me. “That’s exactly what I’m trying to do as administrator.” His appointment garnered support from activists and business leaders. Duke Energy tweeted its support.
From the moment he took office, Regan has sought to place environmental justice front and center. As soon as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in the fall of 2021, he launched what he called a “journey to justice” tour, hopscotching from one hot spot to another. He got a glimpse of the broken water infrastructure in Jackson, Miss. He saw how the Houston Ship Channel polluted the air in the city’s predominantly Black and Latino Fifth Ward. And in New Orleans he visited a low-income housing development built on the site of a former landfill.
Yet the visits represent just a small glimpse of America’s challenge. Some 2 million people lack access to running water and sanitation, a disproportionate number of them in communities of color. Black children are twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma, an ailment caused in part by air pollution, as their white counterparts. And people of color are far more likely to live in close proximity to waste-disposal sites.
The blatant injustice can enrage even the most dispassionate outsider. Lowndes County, Alabama, for example, is a community in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, yet the front yards are awash with raw sewage, a scene more common in the poorest parts of the globe. Researchers have noted an uptick in health ailments among residents, and walking around I spot children playing near raw puddles of waste. But despite how horrible the situation is, Regan maintains the demeanor of a diplomat. “Thank you to everyone that I’m having the privilege to share the stage with,” he said, concluding the contentious town hall in Lowndes with a demand for action without pointing a finger. “The people on this stage are finally saying we want to be held accountable.”
I asked him about his approach a few hours later, sitting at a coffee shop in Montgomery just steps from where Rosa Parks caught the bus every day. Regan does not mince words about the challenges. “I am very in tune with some of the systemic, structural racist structures that exist,” he says. But he also sees the value that quiet authority can bring in some situations. “When someone’s watching, you have a tendency to perform a little bit better,” he said. “And we have put a lot of our stakeholders on notice that we are watching and we are paying attention.”
Regan’s balancing act may be most difficult to maintain in his efforts to regulate electric utilities. American power companies are responsible for about a quarter of the country’s climate-change-causing emissions. And they pollute nearby communities, creating a slew of environmental-justice challenges. Pollution from coal-fired power plants contributed to some 460,000 premature deaths from 1999 to 2020, according to a study published in the journal Science last year.
From his early days in office, Regan promised a new approach to power-sector regulation that would please climate advocates, address environmental-justice concerns, and, at the very least, minimize industry protests. In past administrations, Regan told me, companies have complained that EPA regulations amounted to “death by 1,000 paper cuts.” Instead, Regan designed “a suite of regulations,” he told me. “The power sector then can take a look at the economics to comply with those rules one at a time, or they can say, ‘Hey, to hell with the past, let’s invest more quickly in the future.’” In other words, smarter communication with companies can ease industry’s pain without sacrificing environmental-justice goals.
The centerpiece of this work was Regan’s long-awaited power-plant emissions regulatory move. Under the new rules, first announced last May and still pending, the most-polluting power plants would be required to incorporate carbon-capture or hydrogen technology to reduce emissions. Neither industry nor activists were entirely happy with the result. On the one hand, upgrading facilities with carbon-capture technology is expensive and many utilities are likely to close them rather than make the investment. Environmental-justice activists see these closures as a win because it means fewer polluting facilities in backyards. But nonetheless, adding carbon capture and hydrogen does little to address the concerns for communities where the facilities remain: neither reduces other pollutants that cause health ailments.
Regan has earned something closer to an unequivocal win using some of the $369 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to fix long-standing problems. He is distributing $3 billion in funds from that law explicitly for environmental justice with the money flowing straight to community organizations. To help these access and use that money, he set aside $200 million of it to train the groups. Beverly Wright, who heads the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, describes the approach as “going from theory to practice.” For years, activists have demanded that money flow directly to their communities rather than through knotty middlemen like state governments. Regan found a way to make it work. “These last two years have been amazing for the EJ community,” she says. And then there’s the rest of the approximately $100 billion that the EPA has received from the IRA and the so-called bipartisan infrastructure law. Regan has implemented programs to require that the projects that receive funding also advance environmental justice, even as they are advancing other priorities too.
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In theory, helping communities clear raw sewage, eradicate lead pipes, and clean up toxic air would be uncontroversial, but in giving away funds under the environmental-justice frame Regan’s progress-through-peacemaking approach may have met its match. Republicans have targeted the IRA’s environmental-justice provisions, calling them wasteful. It’s a useful reminder: in this political climate, even the best efforts at bridge building can go unrewarded.
In the fall of 2022, Regan called environmental-justice leaders from across the country to Warren County, North Carolina. Activists reunited with hugs, and speakers blasted Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.” The event was not only a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the culmination of the protests that had inspired Regan as a child, but also an opportunity for him to announce a new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, complete with an assistant administrator appointed by the President and, eventually, billions in committed funds—a milestone for the movement.
The office is also a key piece of Regan’s strategy. He hopes the new addition, and other systemic tweaks, can ensure environmental justice is embedded in the agency’s work, no matter who wins in November or what the Supreme Court says. “You’ve got to have environmental justice at the beginning, the middle, and the end of every process at EPA,” he told me. “That’s why having a Senate-confirmed person in the room matters.”
Regan is by no means responsible for elevating environmental justice to the status that it occupies today. His appointment coincided with a national reckoning around race and growing concern, at least in some quarters, about climate change. But if environmental justice is to survive as an issue of federal concern, he will have played a key role making it happen.
TIME receives support for climate coverage from the Outrider Foundation. TIME is solely responsible for all content.
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Write to Justin Worland at firstname.lastname@example.org