Meet Cathy Stepp, the EPA leader now overseeing Minnesota and making environmentalists nervous

Cathy Stepp, the new EPA regional administrator
Cathy Stepp, the new EPA regional administrator, brings a worrisome past for environmentalists. Minnesota officials, though, aren't concerned with what her leadership may bring.
Shawn Johnson | Wisconsin Public Radio file

When Cathy Stepp became head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2010, Gov. Scott Walker said she'd bring a "Chamber of Commerce mentality" to the job.

By the time she left the DNR late last year, critics say Stepp, a home builder by trade, left Wisconsin's DNR "in tatters" following a tenure that included declines in environmental enforcement actions, increased fees for state parks, cuts to the agency's science personnel and two incidents of federal authorities intervening after manure from dairy farms began to contaminate drinking water in the northeastern part of the state.

Now, she's in a bigger job, leading the Environmental Protection Agency regional office that oversees Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and 35 tribes.

Leadership at Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency say they aren't concerned with Stepp helming EPA Region 5.

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But ask environmentalists and conservationists, and it's a different story.

"If Cathy Stepp brings her approach to managing EPA Region 5 to what she did to Wisconsin DNR, I think we could be in trouble," said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a regional environmental advocacy group.

President Trump appointed Stepp as EPA Region 5 administrator in December, after she had campaigned for him in the 2016 presidential election. Her boss is now Scott Pruitt, the climate-change-denying EPA chief who's rolling back environmental regulations across the U.S. and is now steeped in another ethics controversy, this time relating to an apartment he leased from an energy lobbyist friend.

Stepp said in an emailed response to questions from MPR News that she has the same priorities for Region 5 that Pruitt does: "Focusing on our agency's core work, promoting cooperative federalism, and being transparent and consistent with the application of laws."

Stepp spells worry for environmentalists

Regional EPA offices don't set policies like the federal agency; rather, their job is to enforce rules, administer funding and provide support to local authorities.

For environmental organizations, Stepp's past is worrisome for how she'll handle a bigger job.

Bill Davis has worked parallel to Stepp in Wisconsin for years at environmental organizations and as a consultant. Now the Wisconsin Sierra Club's director, Davis said "my heart sank" when Trump's administration invited her aboard its EPA.

When she left the DNR, Stepp left her staff "demoralized," Davis said. "She thought that the DNR was always guilty of massive overreach and too heavy handed, and she made that very clear to the staff."

Those feelings were perhaps reflected in staffing declines across the Wisconsin agency during her time as secretary.

Stepp's concerns with what she viewed as excessive environmental regulation were what got her into politics in the first place, the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper reported.

She built homes for a living through most of the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Stepp got a seat on the Wisconsin DNR's policy board in 2000, the State Journal reported. And in 2002, she defeated the Democratic incumbent to win a state Senate seat. She served for a 4-year term before leaving to work as a private consultant.

Steam rises from Lake Superior as the St. Clair comes to harbor Sunday.
One issue on which Minnesota and federal environmental officials collaborate is preservation and restoration of the Great Lakes, including Lake Superior.
David Joles | Star Tribune via AP file

Stepp says her background gives her a "unique perspective" on what businesses experience when dealing with regulatory agencies.

"I personally had some very inflexible and uncooperative dealings with regulating agencies. I was not treated like a customer. That's not to say that I felt I should always be right as the adage goes," Stepp said, "but I do feel that all customers should be treated with respect and the regulating agency should try to walk in the customers (sic) shoes."

She said she brought those ideas to Wisconsin's DNR, and now EPA Region 5.

After she became DNR secretary in 2011, and environmental and conservation groups saw a decline of environmental oversight.

One study found that fines for polluters in Wisconsin dropped 78 percent in 2015 — with Stepp helming the DNR.

The Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau found backlogs in the DNR's wastewater permitting and low enforcement levels under Stepp.

Critics are concerned lax oversight and other practices from Stepp's DNR will only continue at the EPA.

"What will happen to their enforcement record?" said George Meyer, the Wisconsin DNR secretary from 1993-2001. "I really worry about that at the federal level."

Stepp said she's proud of the Wisconsin DNR's compliance record under her leadership.

"At the end of the day that is what we are charged to do ... make sure businesses and customers we deal with comply with regulations. If they don't, we work with them to bring them into compliance quickly to protect the environment," she said.

For Henry Henderson, the Natural Resources Defense Council's Midwest director, the EPA is a "backstop" for enforcing environmental laws. Region 5 has seen a decline in "enthusiastic application of science" in recent years, he said, and Stepp won't do anything to change that.

"It's a continuation of a lack of forcefulness of having a federal cop on the beat," he said.

Minnesota officials don't bat an eye at Stepp's new role

Ask top Minnesota natural resources and pollution control officials about Stepp, and they don't share any of the concerns environmentalists hold.

John Linc Stine, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner, has worked with Stepp in her jobs at the Wisconsin DNR and at the EPA. He had nothing but positive things to say about the new Region 5 administrator.

"She's very enthusiastic about her work and she I thought was very eager to hear people's concerns" while Wisconsin DNR secretary, he said. "She's very personable and very engaging. I thought she had a pretty solid grasp of both the technical and political issues that she had to face."

Officials discuss 3M settlement over PFC contamination in groundwater
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency head John Linc Stine
Tim Nelson | MPR News file

Stepp said state agency directors have told her they haven't always felt respected by the EPA, and she wants to change that.

The MPCA receives grant money through Stepp's current office, and works with the EPA on things like implementing the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and crafting the state's impaired waters list.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' work also intersects with the EPA on areas like wetlands permitting, permit-to-mine projects and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Barb Naramore, the Minnesota DNR assistant commissioner, said she hopes and expects Stepp will bring a "robust and balanced approach" to the Region 5 office.