In October, President Joe Biden appointed Debra Shore to be the next Region Five Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), representing six states in the Midwest and the lands of 35 federally recognized tribes.
Shorewho was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 2014has a background is steeped in environmental rights. In 1997, she founded Chicago Wilderness Magazine, a quarterly publication devoted to the rare nature of the Chicago region.
Prior to joining the EPA, Shore was an elected member of the board of commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD)a $1-billion agency responsible for wastewater treatment and stormwater management for more than 5 million people.
Windy City Times: Congratulations on the new role.
Debra Shore: Thank you. I'm one lucky gal, I tell you. [Smiles]
I've been pretty good, overall. I've told people that, in the early days of the pandemic, I was zooming from sadness to gratitude, and grief to reliefand that continues, in a way. The sources of sadness have changed, from COVID to democracy.
WCT: It has been quite the roller-coaster for everyone. Tell me about how you came to be an EPA regional administrator.
DS: So, the Environmental Protection Agency, like many governmental agencies, has many regional offices; the EPA has 10 regions. Region 5 is headquartered in Chicago, and is [composed] of six of the eight Great Lakes statesMinnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohioand 35 tribal nations.
However, Region 5 also houses the Great Lakes National Program Office. That office dispenses the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding, so parts of upstate New York and Pennsylvania, along Lake Erie, also have an interest in Region 5. Those regional administrators are there to implement the president's and administrators' priorities. The positions are presidential appointments but don't require [U.S.] Senate confirmation.
WCT: What are environmental issues the tribal nations are going through that are different, say, the states'?
DS: There are issues, and they're longstanding, gnarly and fascinatingand I'm still learning about them. For instance, a number of the tribes in the Midwestand they're largely in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michiganhave what are called ceded treaty rights. As I understand it, it means they're entitled to continue traditional practices of hunting, fishing, harvesting wild rice and so on, even though they don't own the land. Some of these tribes, while large in membership, don't have much in terms of land they own. Most of Michigan would be under these ceded treaty rights because it was under [Native American] land. But if you think about it, that means that activities in neighboring communities or upstream from where they have rights to fish affect the ecological health of those landsand may detrimentally affect the rights of those tribes to exercise their hunting, fishing and gathering activities. So, as we see climate change and industries affecting waters, crops and animal populations, this is an issue that affects many tribes.
WCT: Looking back at your work with the MWRD, what are you proudest of?
DS: I would say three things. One was a project of mine that I spearheaded for many years to establish an independent inspector general for that agency, which did not have one but yet awarded contracts [worth] hundreds of millions of dollars each year for construction and maintenance. I considered the inspector general the kind of oversight that those entities should bring. I don't believe there's any corruption happening there but it's just good government practiceand you need another set of eyes. It's good to operate in a way that's transparent and accountable. And we established an intergovernmental agreement with Cook County so that the county's inspector general, with some additional staff, would provide some oversight for MWRD.
Secondly, I worked with Larry Suffredin, [of] the Cook County Board [of Commissioners] to draft a pharmaceutical collection ordinancea drug take-back program administered by the Cook County sheriff. It was adopted unanimously in the fall of 2016; since then, collection boxes have been distributed throughout Cook County where there were previously what we called collection deserts. It's important for people to have places to take their unused or expired meds, so they don't flush them down the toilet or pour them down the sink. It's an environmental issue, but also a public-safety one. I was proud that we were able to build a broad coalition with support from law enforcement and public-health agencies to work with communities suffering from drug abuse and environmental issues.
Finally, [it was great] just to have been part of an effort, with other members, to help steer the agency from a waste-treatment agency to a resource-recovery agencyto become a 21st-century utility. It was about realizing waste have valueand how to capture and monetize that value for the benefit of the public; that includes biogas, biosolids and the nutrients in the sewage as well as the water itself.
WCT: As you know, there are several people who are vying for the seat you've vacated. What do you hope your successor does, or what qualities do you hope your successor has?
DS: Let me just start with a caveat: I can't endorse candidates.
I hope any successor would bring a strong work ethic, a commitment to be a progressive advocate [and a willingness] to put climate change at the forefront of whatever they're doing. I think it's important to just be intent on paying attention to contracts and ensuring the agency is operating in a way that's transparent and accountable.
WCT: To help save the environment for future generations, what's the most important thing we can do now?
DS: I would say for each person and family to discuss what's important for them, and to pick one, two or several of the items that are doable. It may be setting aside some funds to make monthly contributions. There are some really great initiatives out there to help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, for instance. It may beas my volunteer work has beendoing habitat restoration so that our natural areas do a better area of capturing carbon, cleaning the air and making areas more livable. It may be replacing a gas-powered car with an electric one, or looking at the energy and water efficiency of our home, and using energy-efficient [appliances].
It really needs to start with research and a discussion with thousands of families to decide what is most importantand make a plan to do it.
WCT: People in different communities have different environmental issues, right?
DS: That's true, but all communities have assets. They may just be different. You have cultural capital, historical knowledge and other things. Communities, even if they're underserved and overburdened, have a wealth of resources if we find out what they are.
One of the things I'd like to try to do in my new role involves developing some demonstration projects with other agencies in Chicago to implement a block scale in some of these overburdened communities and tribal nations throughout Region 5. But we haven't historically gone into someone's dwelling to look at energy efficiency. But we haven't looked at stormwater management and ask how might infrastructure in a neighborhood reduce basement back-ups. We also haven't, at the same time, looked at not only lead-paint removal, but lead-pipe replacement. We haven't, at the same time, looked at the tree canopy and ask if more urban trees would provide more benefits in terms of quality of life but would help capture stormwater and reduce the urban heat island effect [when a city experiences much warmer temperatures than nearby rural areas].
A comprehensive assessment as well as deployment from a range of agenciesincluding HUD, HHS, FEMA and so forthwould be an interesting challenge. It's also one I'd like to try.