2023 Science, Technology and Environment

Cheryl T. Seager

Initiated creative and extraordinarily successful techniques to identify and clamp down on violators of air, hazardous waste and water pollution laws, particularly in communities at risk.

In a vast south-central swath of the country, the Environmental Protection Agency must enforce the air, water and toxic waste laws in a heavily polluted region with a disproportionate number of vulnerable communities exposed to environmental harms. Cheryl Seager has forged ways to address both problems. 

As director of the enforcement and compliance assurance division for EPA’s Region 6, Seager has led the creation of a three-pronged process for checking industrial areas for hazardous emissions using aircraft, motor vehicles and inspectors toting hand-held equipment. Residents of nearby neighborhoods can suggest the best routes and times for the EPA monitors, and the data gathered by these Pollution Accountability Teams is used to force compliance with clean air, hazardous waste and other environmental requirements. 

“Cheryl’s transformational leadership has elevated the status of environmental enforcement to both reduce pollution and promote environmental justice,” said Earthea Nance, the agency’s Region 6 administrator. “She has been able to collaborate, build trust and bring social equity to places where it has been a really hard thing to do.” 

Region 6 encompasses Texas and New Mexico—two of the nation’s five largest states—plus Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and 66 tribal nations.  

That’s about 15% of the country’s territory. Yet 25% of all EPA enforcement actions last year came from there, more than any other region. The area is brimming with huge oil and gas fields and concentrations of chemical and paper manufacturing.  

Reducing harmful emissions 

Recent cases handled under Seager’s direction include a settlement with Firestone Polymers that resulted in improved air monitoring of facilities in Louisiana; a consent agreement with the Denka Performance Elastomer facility in LaPlace, Louisiana, charged with the improper handling of waste categorized as a likely human carcinogen; and a settlement agreement with Permian Resources Operating, LLC, covering nine oil and gas facilities in the Permian Basin, for violations resulting from unlit flares, leaking tanks and a combustor leak.  

One of Seager’s innovations has been the use of helicopters carrying infrared cameras and scanners that create images of escaping pollutants to check for emissions from oil and gas sites that are too large to measure using conventional techniques. Over the past three years, helicopter flyovers of the region’s sprawling Permian and San Juan Basins, major U.S. sources of oil and natural gas, have led to tougher enforcement and reduced pollution. 

From 2018-2023, Seager’s regional flyover team completed 62 legally binding settlements addressing violations at over 240 oil and gas facilities. This has meant an estimated reduction of nearly 32 million pounds of emissions that have potentially dangerous short- and long-term health effects. 

Seager also developed a way to analyze data to, in effect, conduct virtual on-site inspections of facilities during the restrictive COVID-19 pandemic. That let EPA show the regulated community, including the chemical industry, that “the cop was still on the beat,” Nance said.  

Employing creative enforcement techniques  

“Enforcement is usually just following a set of rules step by step every time,” Nance added. “But Cheryl has been able to find ways to improve and transform those rules.” 

One-third of the region’s industrial facilities are in communities that suffer disproportionately high amounts of pollution. They are often home to people of color, families who are nonnative English speakers and low-income households. Seager has prodded states and communities to reach out to those residents with materials in different languages, said Lilian Dorka, director of EPA’s external civil rights compliance office.  

One of Seager’s most notable efforts, yet unfinished, has been pressing Houston to halt overflows from a municipal wastewater plant that have long plagued nearby neighborhoods.  

“In Region 6, there is every kind of environmental problem you can think of. There are so many overburdened communities and people who are suffering,” said Seager, an EPA veteran of over 35 years. “While I can’t fix every issue, I can do a little. I can chip away at the mountain.”