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Former EPA Chief Talks Climate Change, Political Action in Exeter

Annie Ropeik

Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy told an audience in Exeter Monday night not to be discouraged by rollbacks of policies she penned under President Obama.

Instead, she said, they should take their own action at the state and local levels.

McCarthy is now a fellow at Harvard University. She said it’s frustrating to see the Trump administration and the EPA under her successor, Scott Pruitt, try to dismantle many of her programs, including the Clean Power Plan.

But she said repealing those rules isn’t simple, and the matter will likely be sorted out in the courts.

“In the real world in which we live, the clean energy train in this country has left the station,” McCarthy said. “And it is not going back, because that’s what the market is demanding.” 

At the helm of the EPA, McCarthy also led the U.S. into the Paris Climate Accords, which Trump has since exited.

“It was really disappointing,” she said. “We’re going to lose a lot by not being at the table. Mostly, it’s going to be the rest of the world not having the EPA look over their shoulder. … That’s a problem, because you want everybody to be accountable.”

At home, McCarthy said she feels Pruitt’s EPA is stepping back from enforcement and aligning itself with industry and anti-science attitudes, which she said she finds disturbing.

She said other sectors – such as business, academia and local government – will need to step in to continue telling young people and budding engineers they want to invest in green technologies.

“We need to send those long-term signals, because on an issue like climate change, we don’t have the solutions that will get us to the level that science dictates,” she said.

Before joining the EPA, McCarthy led several New England state environmental departments. In Connecticut, she was an architect of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, where big polluters pay into a fund for efficiency initiatives.

New Hampshire has debated its role in that project for years, and funnels most of its RGGI proceeds to consumer rebates.  

“I think New Hampshire should at least be proud that they’re part of a group of states that recognize that climate change is happening, and there are ways that it can be addressed without diminishing our health and wellbeing and our economy,” McCarthy told NHPR. “While I’d hope that a lot of the money would be directly spent on keeping those costs down for consumers … you’re in the game, and I want to congratulate you for it.”

McCarthy’s talk came as the EPA announced a new list of the highly contaminated Superfund and pending Superfund sites it said would be “targeted for immediate, intense action.” The list includes a former leather tannery on the Nashua River, which the EPA says is not an immediate health threat.

The listed sites won’t receive new funding, but they have upcoming milestones – many related to redevelopment or the planning process, rather than active cleanup – that the EPA plans to push toward.

McCarthy said she hadn’t read the list, but she told NHPR that Superfund was designed to prioritize funding for sites that posed a risk to human health.

“I think [that] was pretty essential, to figure out how you would tackle so many sites on limited dollars and make sure that you were focused on protecting public health first,” she said. “That seemed to be a reasonable way to do it.”

State Rep. Mindi Messmer, a Democrat from Rye who’s running for Congress, said she felt the EPA was now playing a less active role in the conversation around the Seacoast’s Coakley Landfill Superfund site than it had under McCarthy.

“We’re kind of at a situation now where we need to make some action move forward, and I don’t know how to effect it,” she said.

Messmer said she hadn’t necessarily expected Coakley Landfill to make the EPA’s new Superfund priorities list, but she’s disappointed some of the listed sites’ goals relate to redevelopment.

“It should be based on, like it was in the past, what priorities are the biggest public health threats,” she said. “And those are clearly not the biggest public health threats.”  

She and McCarthy exchanged contact information after the talk.  McCarthy will also address students at Phillips Exeter Academy during her visit. 

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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