Former Wisconsin regulator to lead EPA's Chicago office

FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2017 file photo, Cathy Stepp, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, speaks during an interview in her office in Madison, Wis. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, that Stepp will be in charge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 5, which oversees the EPA's operations in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She previously led Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources. (M.P. King/Wisconsin State Journal via AP File)

CHICAGO — Former Wisconsin regulator Cathy Stepp was named Tuesday as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in Chicago, drawing praise from business groups and criticism from environmental activists fearful she will weaken enforcement of rules protecting the Great Lakes and air quality in the Upper Midwest's industrial centers.

The assignment came four months after Stepp was named a deputy administrator for another EPA regional office near Kansas City. Previously, she served six years as director of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and was a Republican state senator from 2003-07. As head of EPA's Region 5, she will oversee operations in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

"Cathy Stepp's experience working as a statewide cabinet official, elected official and small business owner will bring a fresh perspective to EPA as we look to implement President Trump's agenda," EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said.

Henry Henderson, the Natural Resources Defense Council's Midwest director, said Stepp's record "fits nicely with the lax mode of enforcement favored by the Trump administration," adding that environmental groups will be "very, very busy" under her tenure.

A former homebuilder with no scientific background, Stepp was chosen by Gov. Scott Walker to lead the Wisconsin natural resources department, where she oversaw a reorganization that included staffing cuts in its science and research bureau.

The number of enforcement cases fell sharply during her tenure. The department replaced some passages on its website describing humans as partly responsible for climate change, saying instead that scientists were still debating the matter.

When she accepted the earlier EPA posting in August, Stepp told staffers with the Wisconsin department she was leaving behind an agency that ensured businesses were not "delayed by bureaucracy."

The head of the EPA's national employee union said Stepp, 54, is unqualified and has a history of favoring business interests over environmental protection.

"I see her cutting back on enforcement and fines and doing things that certain aspects of industry will appreciate," said John O'Grady, president of AFGE Council 238, which represents about 9,000 EPA staffers.

Howard Learner, executive director the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the Wisconsin natural resources department under Stepp "turned back the clock on basic safeguards" of water and air.

"Heading up Region 5 means protecting the Great Lakes, the world's largest freshwater resource that supplies safe, clean drinking water to tens of millions of people," Learner said. "We hope Ms. Stepp will bring a different perspective ... than her track record in Wisconsin would suggest."

The region includes most of the Great Lakes and manufacturing cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, plus rural areas challenged by rapid accumulation of industry-scale farms. The EPA Chicago office criticized Michigan for failing to prevent lead pollution of drinking water in Flint, but some members of Congress said the federal agency also should have done more.

With her Wisconsin roots, Stepp is well-acquainted with the lakes' pollution problems such as algae blooms, invasive species and harbors coated with toxic chemicals, said Cameron Davis, a former EPA senior adviser who oversaw an ambitious restoration initiative during the Obama administration.

"Her key challenges — and where the public will be watching — are to ensure compliance," Davis said. "Because of the Midwest's history, EPA can't just clean up past problems. It has to work with states to make sure the region's sustainable businesses aren't disadvantaged."

Walker said Stepp was "a strong, trusted reformer," while Kurt Bauer, president of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said she had "routinely balanced the needs of a growing economy with the importance of protecting our natural resources."


Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan.

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