Shared from the 12/11/2016 The Providence Journal eEdition


Spalding to depart worried, hopeful

Former Save The Bay chief unsure what’s next



PROVIDENCE — Curt Spalding is stepping down as regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at a time of serious doubts about the new administration’s interest in preventing water and air pollution, controlling carbon emissions and protecting natural resources.

As the Cranston resident and former longtime leader of the largest environmental advocacy group in Rhode Island — Save The Bay — leaves his EPA post of seven years, it already appears that some of the regulations he was tasked to enforce could be relaxed, ignored or eliminated .

In the clearest signal yet of President-elect Donald Trump’s attitude toward the EPA, he has selected as its leader Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a longtime foe of the agency and ally of the oil and gas industry who has expressed doubts about climate change and joined a lawsuit against a key Obama policy to rein in greenhouse gases.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said that if Pruitt’s nomination is confirmed, the EPA “will be sabotaged from within.” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Pruitt has worked consistently to undermine clean air and clean water protections. His colleague in the Senate, Sheldon Whitehouse, called Pruitt “a sickening and saddening choice.”

Spalding, who as a political appointee must give up his position upon Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, was more circumspect, acknowledging that he must respect the transition. But, in an hourlong interview with The Providence Journal, he acknowledged “trepidation” and “anxiety” about the future of the nation’s environmental watchdog agency.

“I’ve been looking for the right word,” said Spalding. “Some people say gloom.”

That’s not necessarily the mood at the New England headquarters in Boston, which, like other regional EPA offices, has a great deal of autonomy, Spalding said. How Washington will fund programs is a crucial question still to be answered, he said. But in some key areas, the new administration may have little say.

Spalding pointed to the Clean Power Plan, the EPA initiative that aims to control carbon emissions. Trump has vowed to trash it, and Pruitt has worked to overturn it. But in New England, the effort to reduce carbon emissions is already being achieved through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a nine-state cap-and-trade program that is independent of the federal government.

Spalding described a tight-knit “environmental enterprise” of federal, state and local government agencies, advocacy groups and businesses in New England.

“That enterprise is going to keep going towards cleaner, healthier communities and cleaner air, cleaner water and less carbon from our power infrastructure,” he said. “For the New England EPA, we’re going to be part of that regardless of who sits in the chair in Washington.”

Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, expressed a similarly cautious optimism. She talked of a “general concern” about what direction the EPA will take on a national level but is less worried about the region because of existing environmental initiatives and backing from Gov. Gina Raimondo and the governors of neighboring states.

“Our programs are strong,” Coit said. “We feel like things are in pretty good shape.”

Spalding is a highly respected figure in Rhode Island’s environmental community. He worked for 18 years at Save The Bay, rising to the position of executive director before being tapped by President Barack Obama for the EPA post in 2009.

“We know him well, trust his deep understanding of key Rhode Island issues, and know how to get in touch with him when we need to,” said Meg Kerr, senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. “No previous EPA administrator has been so approachable and so helpful to the advocates working on Rhode Island’s environmental issues.”

Jonathan Stone, who took over as director of Save The Bay after Spalding, agreed with Kerr, saying that Spalding has never forgotten about Rhode Island even though he has responsibility for all of New England.

“Curt has been outspoken about issues in Rhode Island because of his history here,” Stone said.

He referred in particular to the EPA’s quick action when the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management notified it of the years-long failure of the Department of Transportation to prevent polluted stormwater from flowing through highway drainage systems into Narragansett Bay and other local water bodies. The EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice moved forward last year on a consent decree under which the DOT will spend $112 million over a decade on drainage improvements.

The response would not have been as fast if another person had been regional administrator, Stone argued, attributing Spalding’s work on the issue in part to his long history with DEM director Coit. When Spalding led Save The Bay, Coit held the equivalent position in the Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy. As directors of two of the most influential environmental advocacy groups in the state, they worked closely together.

Coit said the consent decree — which has become a model for enforcing stormwater pollution regulations in New England — was achieved through collaboration between state and federal agencies. That relationship wasn’t the same before Spalding took over as regional administrator.

“Instead of being heavy-handed, it’s been more of a partnership,” she said.

Of course, not everyone supports the work of the EPA, as was made clear by the election of Trump, who has argued that the agency impedes business. He has promised to “get rid of it in almost every form.” And the libertarian Conservative Enterprise Institute characterized the agency’s work as “unlawful regulatory overreach.”

Spalding argued against that point, saying that many who raise concerns about the agency in the abstract find no fault when they look closer at rules that improve quality of life by helping to clean waterways and reduce air pollution.

He listed the work on the DOT stormwater issue as an important achievement during his tenure. He also talked in detail about jump-starting cleanups of Superfund sites and other brownfields, including New Bedford Harbor, the Peterson/Puritan property in Cumberland and Lincoln, and a series of projects in Waterbury, Connecticut — work for which he was awarded the key to the city.

And he expressed pride in the creation of the Southeast New England Coastal Watershed Restoration Program, which he called for while at Save The Bay and then helped administer after Senator Reed won funding for it.

“We’re laying foundational work for benefits we will see for years to come,” Spalding said.

What he will do next isn’t clear. Kerr, of the Audubon Society, said that “at his heart,” Spalding is an advocate, not simply a bureaucrat. Spalding said he may consider another advocacy position, but he isn’t limiting himself

He is most interested in building resilience in coastal areas to rising seas, severe storms and other projected effects of the changing climate, which he said is among the biggest environmental challenges facing the region. But he also talked about the importance of urban development and sustainable transportation.

He would prefer to remain in Rhode Island. A onetime sailing instructor, he regularly takes his 32-foot sailboat out on Narragansett Bay and fishes for striped bass with former Save The Bay colleague John Torgan, who is now at The Nature Conservancy.

Throughout the interview, Spalding expressed a strong belief in the importance of a clean environment to the welfare of the nation.

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