Regan recuses from EPA cases over potential conflicts from time as NC environmental chief

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan recused himself from five cases involving the agency in April after ethics officials found that his prior role at the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality could pose conflicts, an EPA official told McClatchy.

Under Regan, North Carolina’s environmental agency took sides in a series of lawsuits between states and outside groups and the Trump administration over air and water quality standards. Several of those cases are on hold as the Biden administration determines its policy positions, but many of them remain unresolved.

After an initial review conducted before Regan took office, an EPA ethics official found he holds no financial conflicts of interests involving business before the agency.

But the official also made an “impartiality determination” that Regan should recuse himself “on the very same specific party matters I worked on personally and substantially while employed with the NC DEQ,” the administrator wrote in an internal memo to the agency’s inspector general and general counsel on April 27.

Regan’s recusal was first uncovered through a Freedom of Information request by E&E News.

One case involves North Carolina’s decision to join California in opposing the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, a policy of the Trump administration that limited the Clean Water Act by removing federal pollution standards on wetlands and streams.

In May 2020, North Carolina was one of 17 states that filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration policy, a lawsuit helmed by then-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, now the Biden administration’s secretary of Health and Human Services.

Regan and N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein initially filed comments opposing the rule, saying it used “arbitrary distinctions” to lift protections from wetlands and streams.

“This historic rollback of protections will result in a significant loss of natural resources and it is not based on science and runs counter to decades of EPA policy,” Regan said in a prepared statement when the May 2020 lawsuit was filed.

The other four matters revolve around actions taken by North Carolina’s agency as the Trump administration moved to modify enforcement of the Clean Air Act.

In one case, environmental organizations challenged a waiver granted to North Carolina by the Trump administration that eased penalties for excess emissions from plant startups and shutdowns. In another, Trump’s EPA determined that Haywood County had met agency ambient air quality standards for sulfur dioxide.

“Given my previous role at the NC DEQ, I am recusing myself,” Regan wrote. “If any other specific party matters arise at EPA, in which I participated personally and substantially while at NC DEQ, I understand that I must recuse myself from participating in those particular matters.”

News & Observer staff writer Adam Wagner contributed to this report.

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