It can take awhile to settle into a new job in a federal bureaucracy, but Jared Blumenfeld managed to get his feet wet within months of taking over as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.
He’d barely taken the oath of office in 2010 before he was sloshing through acid water at a polluted mine in Northern California. A few months later he was in waders picking up plastic trash in a Bay Area waterway. It wasn’t long before Blumenfeld was mingling with Native American tribes and personally overseeing toxic waste cleanups in California, Arizona, Nevada and the Pacific Islands.
His was a hands-on approach the federal agency hadn’t seen in a long time and, it turns out, may not be seeing again anytime soon.
The EPA’s activist administrator announced to his staff Monday that he will be stepping down next month. His last day will be May 6.
“It’s been fascinating. I loved it,” said Blumenfeld, 46, who plans to spend the next four months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. “Hopefully what I’m leaving behind is a stronger agency that is able to deal with the complex challenges of the future.”
Blumenfeld’s departure comes seven months before his term as Region 9 administrator was set to expire; he was appointed to the position by PresidentBarack Obama in January 2010. His deputy, Alexis Strauss, will become the acting administrator until the end of the Obama Administration. The next president will choose the new regional administrator.
Blumenfeld said he is leaving now because he feels he has done most of the things he set out to do with the EPA. And he realized recently that his greatest love is the outdoors, and he wants to spend more time in it.
“I’ve worked every single day since I graduated from law school at UC Berkeley,” said Blumenfeld, who was head of San Francisco’s department of the environment before joining the EPA.
Blumenfeld made a name for himself during nine years in San Francisco government championing the city’s plastic-bag ban and mandatory composting laws. As EPA administrator he was in charge of enforcing federal environmental regulations throughout the west and the Pacific Islands, including 34 air districts.
When he took office, he vowed to make the EPA relevant again. He said he wanted to reconnect with citizens after the regional office went under the radar during the eight-year term of his predecessor, Wayne Nastri, who was appointed by President Bush.
Blumenfeld created an enforcement division and immediately set about cracking down on polluters and those who were exploiting resources in downtrodden inner-city communities, Indian reservations and around San Francisco Bay.
Shortly after his appointment, he toured the Iron Mountain Mine outside of Redding, a hellish pit where acid water splashed against his boots, greenish bacterial slime gurgled out of the walls, and stalactites and stalagmites of acid salt, copper and iron jutted out like rusty daggers.
He was soon being photographed in hip waders plucking discarded bits of plastic that sicken fish and birds out of the water at Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline in San Leandro, to highlight an EPA crackdown on dumping by plastic manufacturers.
“I'm a huge admirer of his energy and creativity and knowledge on a wide range of environmental issues,” said David Lewis, executive director of the environmental group Save the Bay. “The EPA has been a big leader in reducing runoff pollution, especially trash, from getting into the bay and ocean.”
The EPA under Blumenfeld emphasized the protection of wetlands, tidal marsh restoration and efforts by communities to prepare for sea level rise. It also began enforcing climate change regulations and took an active role in Gov. Jerry Brown’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
The EPA at one point forced the Brown Administration to go back to the drawing board when it ruled that a proposal to build twin tunnels to siphon water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta did not adequately protect fish and wildlife.
The regional office forced California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources to re-examine regulations that had been allowing oil companies to inject their wastewater into California aquifers.
He has focused particularly on poor communities in California, where he said about a million people, many of them migrant farmworkers, lack access to water that meets federal drinking water standards.
“He raised the profile on safe drinking water issues in California and that was really important,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board who served as EPA regional administrator during the Clinton Administration. “He shined a light on disadvantaged communities that weren’t getting help.”
He actively supported the work of the Comite Civico Del Valle Inc., an Imperial County outreach group that helps disadvantaged people, many of them farmworkers. Among their causes was ongoing hazardous waste dumping on tribal land owned by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.
“The EPA stepped in and did enforcement — brought in their muscle — and Jared was there when it happened,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico Del Valle. “Jared has always had a willingness and open mind to tackle big issues. He’s not afraid to dive in and roll his sleeves up. That’s not always the case with top executives.”
Among Blumenfeld’s proudest achievements was his work with Native American tribes. He has visited American Indian leaders from 140 tribes across the west, and expects to have visited every tribe in his region by the time he leaves office.
Under his tenure, the EPA secured almost $1 billion in settlement money to help clean up about 50 abandoned uranium mines in and around the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the country, covering an area about the size of West Virginia.
Blumenfeld’s agency took legal action against the Bureau of Indian Affairs for not providing adequate drinking water to schools on Indian land. He approved a plan after some 50 consultations that drastically reduced pollution emitted by theNavajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant that had covered the area in a brown haze for decades.
Since 2009, the EPA’s regional office has reviewed 47 solar, 20 wind and 17 geothermal projects, an emphasis on renewable energy that Blumenfeld pushed.
Blumenfeld said it was during a hike last year to the spectacular Havasu Falls, the brilliant blue waterfalls on Havasupai tribal lands in the Grand Canyon, that he decided he wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
“I realized then that I love hiking and being in nature and that this was something I wanted to do,” he said. His time in the EPA “was an incredible privilege and a real learning experience. I’m confident the agency has a goal of advancing the values I’ve set forth. Now, I just need time to figure out what I want to do next.”