Cathy Stepp (l) and Gov. Scott Walker at deer hunting season press conference in Wisconsin. — photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
A Wisconsin state official who has doubts about the existence of climate change and who oversaw the elimination of the science bureau of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is the Trump administration’s choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA)’s regional office that covers Iowa.
The selection of Wisconsin DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp as deputy EPA administrator in charge of Region 7– which covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and nine tribal nations — was announced on Tuesday. Stepp, a former Republican state senator, was appointed DNR secretary by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2011.
“I’m excited about the possibility of bringing some of the reforms we’ve been able to put in place here in Wisconsin to the national stage,” Stepp wrote in a farewell message to DNR employees, the Racine Journal-Times reported. “There is so much to share about what we have all done together.”
“Based on what she’s done in Wisconsin, what Cathy Stepp has to share is an antagonism to sound science,” said Kimberlee Wright, the executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, a Wisconsin-based public interest law firm. “Under her watch, we’ve had targeted cuts to core science and research positions. Professional staff have been starved of resources and robbed of professional autonomy.”
In 2015, the jobs of half the senior scientists at the DNR were eliminated, and the department’s Bureau of Science Services was eliminated as a standalone bureau. DNR scientists had been under steady criticism from members of the Republican-controlled State Assembly for conducting research on climate change and the environmental impact of mining on the state’s waterways.
Stepp has repeatedly stated that she believes there is no scientific consensus on climate change, and in 2016, she had all references to climate change removed from the DNR website. That same year, Stepp began enforcing new agency rules that restricted which DNR employees could speak to the media, legislators and the public about environmental issues.
Gov. Walker, who said he wanted a more “customer-friendly” DNR when he appointed Stepp, issued a statement on Tuesday praising her tenure at secretary. “Cathy is a strong, trusted reformer who will serve the country well at the EPA,” the Republican governor told the Journal-Times.
A statement from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s chamber of commerce, echoed Walker’s praise: “Secretary Stepp used her significant private sector experience to improve the Department and make it more accountable all while ensuring it continued to serve its vital mission to the people of Wisconsin.”
Environmentalists like Wright offer a very different assessment of Stepp.
“I’ve been in Wisconsin for 41 years, doing statewide conservation work for 30 years, and most of that time we had a system in which our DNR fulfilled its duties as trustee of our environment,” Wright said. “The DNR had been in decline in the years before Stepp was appointed, but under her it fell off a cliff.”
“For example, a 2016 audit by the Legislative Auditor’s Office found the DNR was only enforcing its own rules on wastewater in 5 percent of the cases that violated standards.”
Stepp had very little background in environmental work prior to being appointed to the DNR. She and her husband owned a residential construction company, and she had served as president of the Racine-Kenosha Builders Association. Stepp was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate in 2002 and served one term, during which she co-chaired the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee. As a senator, Stepp was severely critical of the DNR, accusing it of inhibiting business growth in the state.
As the official in charge of EPA Region 7, Stepp will oversee all EPA-funded programs in the state, and any enforcement actions the agency undertakes in Iowa.
“It’s government’s job to balance all our interests, as well as the needs of today against the needs of tomorrow,” Wright said. “Cathy Stepp has proven here in Wisconsin that that is not on her agenda.”
Stepp’s appointment does not require confirmation by the U.S. Senate.