WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency abruptly pushed out its top regional official for California and other points West, touching off an unusual public dispute between the two over the reason why.
Mike Stoker, the EPA’s chief for California and other far West states and territories since 2018, said he got a call Wednesday from senior agency officials in Washington telling him to resign.
The flare-up marks the latest political road bump for the Trump administration in California, a Democratic stronghold leading the ranks of states fighting the president on environmental and climate rollbacks and immigration issues.
In his farewell note to regional EPA staff, which Stoker provided to The Associated Press, Stoker said he believed his repeated clashes with the agency’s headquarters over unspecified “policy and non-policy items” helped prompt his removal.
But Stoker also wrote that he had been warned recently “that it wasn’t going unnoticed how many Democrat members in Congress were commending me for the job I was doing” on a contaminated site in San Francisco and other environmental issues in his region.
Aides for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, confirmed Friday that she had praised his work..
“Many thanks for your commitment to the clean up and transfer of the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard,” Pelosi wrote in a June, 28, 2018 letter to Stoker. “Your work to ensure public health, hold a transparent process that engages the public … is critical and greatly appreciated.”
EPA spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer in Washington disputed Stoker’s account of the reason for his dismissal, however.
In a statement Friday, Schiermeyer said it was normal for EPA regional bosses to “work in a bipartisan way.”
Instead, the EPA spokeswoman pointed to what she said was excessive travel and poor decision-making.
“We … had to relieve him for severe neglect and incompetent administration of his duties. His excuses and stories are simply all made up and we cannot allow them to go without response,” Schiermeyer said in the statement. Stoker called that “100 percent false,” saying Friday he had never gotten any reprimand from his EPA bosses.
Stoker’s work before the EPA included posts in agriculture and in state and local government. A supporter of candidate and then President Donald Trump, Stoker is credited with originating the chant “Lock her up” at Trump rallies, in regard to Hillary Clinton.
His stint at San Francisco-based EPA Region 9 came at a time when the Trump administration has been accused of trying to weaponize the EPA and some other federal agencies to punish California and other states for opposition to administration policies.
Last fall, for instance, Trump accused San Francisco of allowing used needles and human waste from drug addicts and homeless people to wash out into the Pacific Ocean. San Francisco officials insisted that its sewage treatment system prevented any contamination, but the EPA followed up with warnings alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.
Stoker’s heavy travel in the EPA job had prompted a review by the agency’s independently funded Office of the Inspector General. The EPA watchdog in 2019 tallied his 35 trips for an eight-month period throughout California and the West and as far as American Samoa, Guam and Japan, at $43,875. Stoker was traveling on half of his work days for the period, the watchdog office said.
The EPA at the time defended Stoker’s trips, calling them appropriate for an official presiding over a far-flung region.
EPA spokespeople did not respond Friday when asked why they now objected to Stoker’s travel.
A senior attorney for an environmental group active in California on Friday said Stoker had been at the center of the Trump EPA’s efforts against the state.
“This guy should not be in charge of protecting the environment, so good riddance,” Hollin Kretzmann, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said.
The region’s deputy administrator, Deborah Johnson, takes over as acting head.
Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.