One by one, the witnesses described the stench, a rancid odor that befouled the air and ruined your clothes, made you close your windows in the summer and run from your car into church on Sundays lest you bring that smell into God’s house. They talked about undrinkable tap water and swarms of yellow flies. The cause of this pestilence, they said, were the hog farms, sprawling industrial operations that disposed of vast amounts of pig shit by sinking it in lagoons or spraying it across fields. To live near one of these farms was to live in an environmental nightmare.
North Carolina is home to some 2,000 swine farms and nearly 10 million hogs. In 1995, the bursting of a hog-farm lagoon in the town of Jacksonville sent 28.5 million gallons of waste into a tributary of the New River. After years of raising the alarm about the industry’s reckless practices, environmental groups filed a civil rights complaint in 2014 on behalf of the black, Hispanic, and Native American communities near those farms, asking the Environmental Protection Agency to “protect communities of color from the injustice of being forced to live and work near inadequately regulated industrial pollution sources.”
The Republican Party that controlled North Carolina’s government offered no help in the fight. Then, in 2016, Democrat Roy Cooper won the governorship. He named as his top environmental regulator a young policy expert named Michael Regan.
Regan’s appointment was cause for optimism among environmental activists. He was a former EPA employee who pledged to rebuild the state’s Department of Environmental Quality after years of funding cuts, industry-friendly policies, and the sidelining of its scientists. He was also a black man from eastern North Carolina who knew about the daily indignities of living close to industrial hog farms. During one of his first speeches after being picked for DEQ secretary, Regan said the agency had “a special obligation to the underserved and under-represented.” He underscored the commitment to environmental justice by quoting a Union Army commander: “Let’s fight them till hell freezes over and then we’ll fight them on the ice.”
Five years later, he faces a far larger battle. Chosen by President Joe Biden to lead the EPA, Regan, 44, takes over an agency that perhaps more than any other suffered under the Trump administration’s assault on science, incestuous relationship with industry, and undermining of career public servants. The Trump cronies who ran the EPA cuddled up to coal and oil companies, helped gut more than 100 regulations, and tarnished the agency with one cartoonishly corrupt scandal after another. (Remember Scott Pruitt’s secret phone booth?) Almost 700 scientists left the agency in the first three years of Trump’s presidency, and only half of those vacancies were filled, according to The Washington Post.
Regan, who will be the first black man to run the EPA, tells Rolling Stone that rebuilding the agency is his first priority. “We have world-renowned experts at EPA,” he says. “We should be listening to them, and we will.” With the Biden administration vowing to use every bit of executive power to tackle climate change, a revitalized EPA will be at the center of its ambitious targets to reduce emissions. “I will be laser-focused on how we limit methane emissions,” Regan says of the potent greenhouse gas released in natural-gas operations. He lists environmental justice and water quality as his other priorities, but guiding his approach on all of these ambitions is the belief that what’s good for the planet can also be good for workers and for business — a conviction Biden shares. “All of those priorities that I just laid out will be good for people, the planet, and profit,” Regan says. His personal philosophy is one “of trying to meet people where they are, understand everyone’s challenges, whether it’s an individual or a company, and then think through, ‘How do you get to the solution in a way that can possibly work?’ ”
Every good politician knows to say this. But judging from his tenure as North Carolina’s top environmental official, Regan means it. For better, and sometimes for worse.
REGAN’S ENVIRONMENTAL education began in the woods and rivers outside his hometown of Goldsboro, in eastern North Carolina, population 40,000. On weekends, he fished and hunted with his dad and grandfather. “It was all about getting out before the break of day and seeing who’s going to catch the first fish and the biggest fish,” he remembers. Next to young Michael’s rods and reels, his grandfather’s old cane pole was an antique. Regan would watch his grandfather walk the river’s edge, humming a tune and digging up earthworms. Baiting his line, he told his grandson, “I can make the worm dance and I can make the fish bite.” Sure enough, he’d catch the first fish every time.
Regan’s grandfather didn’t have more than a formal sixth-grade education. But when they walked in the woods together, his granddad rattled off the names of the trees they passed, holding court about the plants and animals native to the region. “You look up to your father, but your grandfather’s just that next level, like that’s dad’s dad,” Regan says. Yet there were times when a respiratory condition that flared up on low-air-quality days forced Regan to stay indoors. If the walks with his grandfather nurtured a love of the outdoors, those days stuck inside sparked a curiosity about the connection between nature and pollution.
After studying environmental science at North Carolina A&T, the country’s largest historically black university, Regan leveraged an EPA internship into a slot in the agency’s two-year management-training program in Washington, D.C. On the second or third day, he says, he wanted to thank then-EPA chief Carol Browner for supporting the program. So Regan, a lowly trainee oblivious to the concept of “controlled correspondence,” sent Browner, his boss’s boss’s boss, an email. It was caught by a senior staffer who, in Regan’s recollection, “thanked me for my enthusiasm but asked me to refrain from emailing the administrator.”
He spent the next decade at the EPA, spanning the last two years of the Clinton presidency and most of George W. Bush’s administration. His time there introduced him “to the connection of policy, politics, and regulation,” he says. “To look at where we wanted to be as an agency on the policy issues and navigate the politics of the day, to navigate selling that vision to Congress and to the White House.” But the Bush-era EPA’s lackluster investment in environmental justice, as well as its controversial decision not to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act, left Regan frustrated and conflicted. “It was tough because the work at EPA was very important,” he says. “The choice was, as an individual, where do I think I can make the biggest change?”
In 2008, he went to the Environmental Defense Fund, where he worked to retire coal plants in North Carolina and urge big utilities like Duke Energy to offer their customers more renewable-energy options. In the run-up to the 2016 election, a friend told him to check out then-Attorney General Cooper’s bid for governor of North Carolina. Cooper’s pledge to fight climate change by driving economic growth through clean energy clicked with Regan, and when Cooper won, Regan put his name forward for a policy job. Instead, Cooper picked him to run the state’s top environmental regulator, the Department of Environmental Quality.
JUST AS HE WILL at the EPA, Regan inherited a beleaguered agency and a portfolio of crises at the DEQ. Right before he started, the EPA had sent a 23-page “letter of concern” to Regan’s predecessor. After a lengthy investigation into the complaint brought by communities that alleged racial discrimination due to the hog-farm pollution, the EPA said it had “deep concern about the possibility that African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have been subjected to discrimination as the result of NC DEQ’s operation of the Swine Waste General Permit program.”
Regan’s approach to the hog-waste crisis, and his stewardship of DEQ writ large, give a glimpse of his strategy and style. First, he restored scientists’ rightful place in advising him on what actions to take. He launched the state’s first environmental justice and equity advisory board, which gave environmental activists a direct line to Regan himself. And he set out to hear from all the parties with a stake in the swine industry’s waste practices, holding hearings in affected communities as he decided what action he could and should take.
Regan tells me this hear-all-sides attitude is essential to the job of an environmental regulator. “We brought industry to the table,” he says. “We brought communities to the table. We brought everyone to the table, and we had robust conversations and dialogues about what the agency can and cannot do, what the law allows, and what the science promotes.” He adds, “People did not always like the decision, obviously. But most of the time, our decision has been respected over the past four years because they were involved in the process.”
This collaborative approach garnered him results and admirers. He helped broker the largest coal-waste settlement in U.S. history, in which Duke Energy will absorb $1.1 billion in costs to clean up coal-ash pits. He faced blowback in 2018 when DEQ approved a water permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have transported natural gas along the Eastern Seaboard (it has since been scrapped); but environmentalists cheered when DEQ rejected a more recent permit for a similar pipeline, called MVP Southgate, citing the “unnecessary risks to our environment.” Since his nomination, a coalition ranging from the Sierra Club to business leaders and Republican politicians has endorsed him. At his confirmation hearing, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, a lifelong Republican, praised Regan as someone whose relationship with “rural communities” had been “constructive and not adversarial.”
That style has also earned him critics. The battle over hog waste went to remediation and led to a 2018 settlement hailed by one leading activist as “groundbreaking.” But lawyers for Big Ag and the pork industry challenged the deal and gutted some of the air- and water-quality protections in the updated swine permit. Environmental activists and lawyers say they wish Regan had used more of his executive authority to force the hog industry to end the lagoon and spray-field system. Instead, they say, he saw himself as more of a mediator, which ignored the power imbalance between the multi-billion-dollar hog industry and the affected residents. “It’s not an equal playing field,” says Elizabeth Haddix, an attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represented the citizens in the hog-waste case. “The industry controls everything here.”
Regan says he fought for the toughest possible restrictions while staying within the letter of the law, adding that he was disappointed by the court’s ruling. Battles like these, he says, only solidified his belief that forging consensus was essential to enacting environmental policies with staying power. That a top-down approach wasn’t the best way to make the changes the climate crisis demands. “We’re not going to regulate our way out of this,” he says. “It really is: ‘How do we look at it in a holistic way?’ There are multiple ways to do things, and you can find win-win opportunities. And typically those opportunities or solutions last the longest.”