The Environmental Protection Agency is looking to shake up some key offices as part of a plan it says will elevate environmental justice results while expediting permit approvals to meet the president's infrastructure development goals.
The changes were first floated by Samantha Dravis, a top aide to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, in an email obtained by E&E News that discussed merging two areas of the agency with the Office of Policy. That change would "enhance the agency's ability to advance the administrator's priorities in line with EPA's mission to protect human health and the environment," according to a statement from the agency.
The two merged offices would include one that handles the potentially contentious area of environmental justice, which is tasked with making sure environmental results are shared equally around the country and another office that handles federal permitting activities.
"EPA will continue to consider and incorporate environmental justice concerns into our regulatory process and this move enhances our ability to achieve this core function," according to the statement provided to the Washington Examiner that details the proposed changes.
"It will also enable EPA's [environmental justice] program to maximize its ability to support meaningful engagement and public participation across the agency and lead federal level coordination of considering overburdened community needs and the application of federal resources to meet those needs," according to the statement.
The change would allow the Office of Compliance and Enforcement Assurance, which oversees EPA's penalties for environmental violations, more time to focus on its core mission, the statement explained. The environmental justice office is currently part of the enforcement office.
E&E reported that some critics believe the proposed changes are politically motivated to ensure certain activities have more central oversight by the administrator. An EPA official said the "story makes this about politics when it isn't — it's about organizational changes to benefit the Agency and its customers."
By moving the Office of Environmental Justice to the policy office, "this administration is elevating [environmental justice] concerns, not minimizing or politicizing them," according to the EPA statement provided to the Washington Examiner.
"The Office of Federal Activities will also join the [Office of Policy], and will continue to carry out its vital responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)," the statement read.
Within the federal activities office will be the "Permitting Policy Division," which will be used "to build on the successful streamlining efforts in the NEPA program," which handles environmental permitting and review processes for infrastructure projects. "This administration is committed to expediting federal infrastructure projects and streamlining permitting processes," according to the EPA statement.
The office change will "lead a corporate approach to reforming the agency's permitting and NEPA roles that will streamline the entire environmental review process and reduce subjectivity, providing our stakeholders with more clarity and certainty on their projects," it added.
It will also ensure that staff "are able to quickly elevate high visibility issues to the Administrator for resolution," in addition to coordinating on permitting, "which will allow the agency to drive to solutions to expedite the entire environmental review process, as directed by the President under Executive Order 13766, under one central office."
EPA anticipates that the reorganization will go into effect near the beginning of the new fiscal year, or Oct. 1.