This story was originally published by ProPublica.

A few days after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Michal Freedhoff settled into her cramped home office in a suburb of Washington, D.C., to get to work as the nation’s new top chemical regulator.

It was a key role, charged with protecting Americans from toxic substances used in agriculture and manufacturing. But going back decades, the office had gained a reputation for being captured by the companies it regulated. Under the Trump administration, the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, like many federal agencies, had taken a hard turn away from science. Important new rules, years in the making, had been delayed or diluted.

In Freedhoff, Biden had found a public servant steeped in the risks of chemicals and what it takes to police them. Testaments to her drive surround her desk. On one wall hangs a framed front page of The Washington Post from the day that automakers struck a deal she helped broker with California on vehicle emissions standards; on another is an original copy of a 2016 law that gave the Environmental Protection Agency sweeping new authority to protect people from toxic substances. Seven senators had signed it, thanking her personally.

Freedhoff has long kept up a frenetic pace. The mother of four would stay out late for work events and then send emails at 4 a.m. before heading out on a pre-dawn bike ride. And she knew her new job would require a massive cleanup effort, working with a traumatized staff to rework decisions the Trump administration had pushed through based on skewed science. She was guaranteed just four years, and she had a list of critical to-dos that ranged from finally banning asbestos to fixing the process for authorizing new chemicals. A clock was ticking.

When Freedhoff dug in, what she found was often just … weird. Like a pile of simple, low-level tasks that had ended up on her desk: two hundred perfunctory notices that hadn’t been sent to the federal register, the daily log of official government actions. Fifteen months worth of new chemical rules that had been approved but not publicly announced. They weren’t controversial. It’s just that nobody but the office head had been allowed to click a button.

Gradually, Freedhoff, a hyperlogical fast talker who occasionally flashes a big smile when something amuses her, realized that her predecessor under then-President Donald Trump simply hadn’t delegated routine duties — a symptom of the distrust within the office between career employees and political appointees.

In those first strange weeks, Freedhoff would gaze out on a sea of staffers’ faces filling a Microsoft Teams grid on her screen and ask why something happened the way it did. No one would respond. Later, she’d learn that there was no thoughtful answer to “why”; the person responsible was simply following orders. Often, Freedhoff found, staff had been detailed to trivial projects to help companies that had relationships with Trump appointees.

“We thought we knew which rules were messed with, we thought we knew which policies and which offices were shrunk,” Freedhoff mused last fall, sitting on a bench in the courtyard outside the EPA’s imposing headquarters in Washington. “But I found the damage to be a lot more pervasive than that.”

There’s a saying in Washington that “personnel is policy”: Political appointees in federal agencies are essential to carrying out the president’s plans. With Biden’s legislative agenda stalled, progressives are pushing people like Freedhoff to make good on the president’s promise that government can tackle big problems again.

Biden’s own campaign slogan had been to “build back better.” But Freedhoff’s first year has been a process of learning just how much she’d need to build just to get back to the way things were before Trump arrived. She told me about it in a series of interviews that provide a window into the Biden administration’s struggles to deliver on the president’s promises.

“We all just assumed that everything would sort of snap back to normal,” said Freedhoff, who has been sleeping even less than usual these days. “There was this initial burst of, ‘Thank God, we made it,’ and there were expectations that things would change more quickly than they have.”

Her budget only recently got a small boost, after years of starvation. Her staff remains overstretched. Unexpected roadblocks have cropped up, both inside and outside the agency, hampering her ability to execute decisions. And now, while they acknowledge the positive steps taken so far, the environmentalists she once worked alongside are increasingly voicing frustration that Freedhoff isn’t doing enough.

“I’m concerned,” said Daniel Rosenberg, director of federal toxics policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I firmly believe that she is committed to protecting public health and the environment. I think the jury’s still out as to where they’re going, and there’s been enough things that are worrisome.”

Freedhoff got her political education in an era when environmental protections were in retreat, and she quickly learned how to operate in a world where a hold-your-nose compromise was often the best-case scenario.

She had grown up in Toronto as a theater kid, attending a high school for the performing arts. Freedhoff took up science in college, taking a cue from her mother, who was a professor of theoretical physics. After Michal Freedhoff received a doctorate in chemistry in 1995, she moved to Washington and landed a job at the American Institute of Physics. There, she translated science into language that policymakers could understand, trying to protect basic research funding from a Republican drive to slice budgets.

Freedhoff soon jumped to Congress to handle science policy for then-Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, dealing with everything from nuclear waste to vehicle emissions standards. She followed Markey to the Senate in 2013 and worked her way up to become director of oversight on the powerful Environment and Public Works committee.

By then, the limits of the nation’s main chemical safety law were all too obvious. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, was never as strong as its older siblings, the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. What power it did have had been largely gutted in 1991, when an appeals court voided the EPA’s attempt to ban asbestos.

Freedhoff was haunted by stories about workers who’d died from exposure to chemicals that the EPA had never managed to take off the market, driving her to act.

“I remember meeting with families of young adults, who were trained, properly equipped, wore respirators and nevertheless dropped dead while refinishing someone’s bathtub from methylene chloride poisoning,” Freedhoff recalled. “The law was broken for so long.”

Even chemical manufacturers were looking to strengthen safety laws to bolster public confidence in their products. So Freedhoff began working with a close-knit, bipartisan group of staffers to craft an overhaul of the TSCA, relentlessly pushing both sides until they found something they could all live with.

“Trying to solve problems is at her core,” said Dimitri Karakitsos, who was formerly a counselor for Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe and now lobbies for industry. “Because it’s not ideological, it’s like, ‘How do we fix this.’” (Freedhoff also remains friends with Ryan Jackson, the committee’s Republican staff director who became the EPA’s chief of staff under Trump and now works for the National Mining Association.)

The amended law wasn’t perfect, but it was a step forward. It mandated new risk evaluations of chemicals already in use to decide if they should be restricted. It also made it easier for the EPA to order companies to test their chemicals to prove they are safe. In exchange, the chemical industry got a uniform federal regime that could preempt state governments from imposing their own rules — which Freedhoff called the “price tag” for passage.

After the bill was signed in June 2016, Freedhoff recalled talking to a lobbyist at one of the many parties that the group of staffers and interest groups threw to celebrate. He asked if she’d thought of running the toxics office in a prospective Hillary Clinton administration, which would implement the law she helped write. “It didn’t even occur to me,” Freedhoff told me later. But she warmed to the idea.

Instead, after Clinton lost, Freedhoff sat in her Senate office, working furiously to thwart the new administration’s efforts to weaken chemical regulations. When Trump picked a notoriously industry-friendly toxicologist to lead the chemicals office, she made sure enough Republican senators opposed the nomination to force the White House to withdraw the name. After that rare defeat, Trump subbed in a widely respected environmental lawyer.

But the office still finalized chemical risk evaluations that ignored harms to vulnerable populations. Another division, led by an official hired straight from DuPont, sped new chemicals through the vetting process.

Freedhoff wrote letters and issued warnings as key tasks prescribed by the new law were carried out very differently from how she had intended. “This is where I’m going to become the skunk at the garden party again,” she said on a panel with consultants and agency officials in the summer of 2020, predicting that many actions the agency had undertaken would have to be redone because they didn’t comply with the law.

One of the many fronts on which Freedhoff fought the Trump administration — and that she would later inherit responsibility for when she went to work for Biden — is the spread of a class of toxics known as “forever chemicals.”

So named because they don’t break down in the environment over time, these per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS) have been used for decades to repel liquids in products such as food packaging and nonstick pans. The chemicals have also found their way into most Americans’ blood. In higher concentrations, they’ve been associated with an array of health problems, including several cancers, autoimmune disorders, and fertility challenges.

As a Senate staffer, Freedhoff chastised the Trump EPA for dragging its feet on regulating PFAS and helped draft legislation that would force the agency to take action. Freedhoff had also already strengthened another tool that could help address PFAS: The 2016 TSCA amendments bolstered the agency’s authority to order chemical manufacturers to pay for testing regarding the effects of their products.

It seemed like the perfect tool for one community that was facing a PFAS disaster.

In 2016, researchers determined that North Carolina’s Cape Fear River contained alarming levels of several PFAS, potentially affecting 300,000 people. Many of the substances came from Fayetteville Works, a chemical manufacturing plant owned by Chemours, which spun out of DuPont in 2015. Critically, the local public utilities weren’t able to filter the chemicals out.

People look on at the Cape Fear river as it crests from the rains caused by Hurricane Florence on September 18, 2018.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The discovery prompted a flurry of activism as residents mobilized to secure safe drinking water. In 2019, the state brokered a consent order that required the company to essentially stop releasing the chemicals. But it did nothing to help Cape Fear residents understand what decades of exposure to Chemours’ emissions meant for their health.

The last time Chemours’ corporate predecessor DuPont poisoned a drinking water supply with a type of PFAS, in the early 2000s, residents of Parkersburg, West Virginia, were able to use litigation to force the company to fund large-scale tests. Ultimately, 69,000 victims participated in a study that cost DuPont $33 million. The flood of data linked the chemical to health issues including ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, and testicular cancer.

While Cape Fear residents and the state of North Carolina have also sued Chemours and DuPont, the companies have opposed the lawsuits, and any settlement would likely take years.

But Emily Donovan, a Christian youth group leader turned local community activist, found a potential shortcut.

In traveling the country talking about what was happening in Cape Fear, she learned that the TSCA has long allowed anyone to petition the EPA to compel polluters to pay for testing. Doing so got slightly easier in 2016, thanks to the amendments Freedhoff helped craft.

“Every time I go to conferences and talk to scientists, they say, ‘You need the statistical power to prove it. Who’s going to fund it? How about the manufacturer,’” Donovan told me. “And guess what, TSCA allows that.”

Community activist Emily Donovan at her home in Leland, North Carolina.
Emily Donovan works from the desk where she wrote a last-ditch appeal to the EPA last year.
Cornell Watson for ProPublica.

So starting in 2019, Donovan worked with a nonprofit advocacy group and scientific experts to draft a 42-page petition for testing and build a coalition to campaign for it. Along with lab and animal studies on the mixtures of PFAS in the river, they wanted tests of at least 100,000 people who had been exposed to the company’s waste.

Such tests could help answer crucial questions for people like Marianne Ashworth, a freelance translator who lives on the outskirts of Fayetteville and started receiving dozens of jugs of water from Chemours after her well tested positive for PFAS. Ashworth had discovered a fibroid in her uterus, which a recent study suggested could be linked to PFAS exposure, although Chemours says that the types of PFAS examined in the study are not among those associated with its plant. She wonders if it might have to do with showering in, washing dishes in, jumping in a swimming pool full of the contaminated well water for the past seven years.

She has two young kids and wants to know what conditions she should be on the lookout for in them. “As a parent, you blame yourself,” Ashworth said. “There’s all this extra exposure that they didn’t need. You don’t think that there’s something in my water that’s going to slowly kill us.”

Donovan’s coalition filed its petition in October of 2020. Two weeks before Trump left office, his administration denied the request. The groups responded by suing the EPA last March. But then they paused the case, hoping that Freedhoff — who had just taken over the chemical safety office — would use her authority to grant the petition after all.

In January of last year, then-acting assistant administrator Freedhoff got to work in a room off the kitchen, within shouting distance of four middle and high schoolers doing remote classes and a wriggly black puppy. Freedhoff is short — barely peeking over the wheel of her sunshine-yellow Honda Fit — with frizzy blond hair; she favors chunky necklaces, wide-leg pants, and practical shoes. A copy of Barack Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” props up her laptop.

At Freedhoff’s confirmation hearing in May, her former colleagues in the Senate hailed her nomination. Inhofe, an arch climate skeptic, addressed her two daughters sitting behind her. “Your mama probably is the only person in America that will have equal praise from Sen. Markey and me,” Inhofe pronounced. She sailed through on a voice vote.

For Freedhoff, it was a chance to finish what she started.

“That’s what I came to do,” she told me. “It wasn’t just, ‘Write a rule for this chemical or that chemical.’ It was, ‘Implement a law that I had the opportunity to help write.’”

But before she could make progress, she almost immediately had to make a big concession to corporations.

In 2016, Congress directed the EPA to prioritize regulating one class of hazardous chemicals. The Trump administration finalized rules limiting how the substances can be used and handled just before the end of Trump’s term in January 2021. Many industries apparently didn’t realize the implications. Out of nowhere, businesses that make everything from farm equipment to semiconductors began calling and sending letters to top EPA officials warning of dire consequences if the agency didn’t delay a compliance deadline.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Are you kidding me? The first thing I have to do under TSCA is weaken a rule?’” Freedhoff said. But if they didn’t, whole product lines would have to be taken off the market until supply chains could be re-engineered. Freedhoff held up her iPhone cable. “Do you really want another charge cable? It was really that ubiquitous.” The rule was pushed back for years.

Emily Donovan shows photos of PFAS-contaminated foam and points to a map of the area where samples were collected.
Emily Donovan shows photos of PFAS-contaminated foam and points to a map of the area where samples were collected.
Cornell Watson for ProPublica.

Next, Freedhoff had to figure out what to do with the Trump administration’s reviews of the first 10 chemicals that the agency had decided to take on under the overhauled TSCA. They were a rogue’s gallery of mostly still-available toxics, including asbestos, which the agency had failed to ban back in 1991. She would have to balance redoing Trump-era risk evaluations that had narrowly defined hazards and downplayed exposure with the need to get the rules finalized before the end of Biden’s term.

Freedhoff had nowhere near enough resources to get it all done.

The EPA’s funding has been sliding downward since soon after the agency was founded. The decline began in the 1980s, when the EPA spent more than double (in inflation-adjusted dollars) what it did in 2020. As a result, its staff has contracted by more than 20 percent since the end of Bill Clinton’s administration.

Congress conferred heavy new responsibilities on the chemical safety office in 2016, fully anticipating that it would need more funding — but the Trump administration never asked for it. The law even allowed the EPA to assess higher fees on companies for their chemical reviews, but the Trump administration delayed doing so and then pursued less than it could have.

That put significant strain on the staff who remained. Freedhoff learned that under Trump, the staff routinely had 4:30 p.m. meetings involving tricky scientific questions and were asked to report back with answers the next morning at 8 a.m. Still, important duties had been neglected. Part of the office, the pollution prevention division, was raided to do more pressing work that was required under the revised TSCA.

Biden’s budget proposal for 2022 promised enough money to hire 87 new people, but it was tied up with one stopgap funding measure after another, while Biden’s $1.75 trillion climate and social spending bill floundered. As time dragged on with no reinforcements, Freedhoff started to go public with her appeals.

Last October, she was called to testify before her old colleagues at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in a room with sky-high ceilings and huge portraits of the committee’s former chairs on the walls. With a severe case of nerves, she prepared for hours, thinking about how best to convey her key message: In order to do anything that representatives might ask for — whether it was reducing the backlog of applications to approve new chemicals or finally dealing with asbestos — she needed more money.

She sat alone before the panel of politicians, facing antagonistic questions from Republicans — a startling departure from the bipartisan spirit in which the new law had passed five years earlier — and also impatience from Democrats, who wanted rules to be made faster. Each time, she answered calmly.

“It’s a series of compounding resource errors that prevent us from hiring the kinds of scientific experts we need,” she told them, measuring her words. “Everybody’s been working on a shoestring for a long time now. And that’s going to take time to get back on track.”

Within the chemicals office, Freedhoff has encouraged staff to take time off, saying that deadlines weren’t everything. Yet one deadline is critical: the 2024 election.

In previous eras, a change in party control, while certainly shifting priorities, wouldn’t necessarily derail an entire regulatory process. But if another administration like Trump’s came to power, anything not finalized before Inauguration Day could wind up being tossed.

And the delays are mounting, pushing the regulatory agenda deep into 2024. Freedhoff learned that during the Trump years, the chemicals office had clashed with others within the EPA, creating rifts that took time to smooth over. While in the Senate, she had admonished the agency to follow certain consultation procedures, which she has now realized would slow her own progress.

“This is one of those karmic things,” she said ruefully. Isn’t that how it should be? I asked. She sighed. “It is how it should be.”

David Fischer spent 10 years at the American Chemistry Council before serving as deputy chemicals chief under Trump’s EPA and then rotating back out to the law firm Keller & Heckman. He points out that his team was poised to regulate several chemicals more quickly than Freedhoff will, even though they would have done so less comprehensively. “That effort will now have to wait for years to happen,” he said.

Fischer is just one of many former EPA officials who now circle Freedhoff’s office, watching for missteps. The crowd includes Freedhoff’s predecessor and another Trump appointee who has penned several op-eds critical of Freedhoff’s decisions. One lobbying shop that focuses exclusively on chemical regulation has at least eight ex-EPA staffers who now help represent clients before their former colleagues.

Freedhoff figures that litigation is inevitable. Winning cases quickly requires a certain amount of dotting i’s and crossing t’s. That takes time, which is in short supply, especially since new funding took so long to arrive. When it finally came through earlier this month, the 2022 budget included less than a third of the $15 million increase she’d asked for.

“There’s a stars-aligning thing that has to happen, and I am worried about that,” Freedhoff said.

“It all just kind of adds up. You have one government shutdown that goes for a month, or you have one legitimate scientific thing that takes a while to work through, and you’ve got problems.”

Environmental advocates are sympathetic to Freedhoff’s constraints, but they’re starting to lose patience.

Some decisions, they argue, wouldn’t take much time or money. For example, Freedhoff’s office decided to improve the Trump administration’s methodology for evaluating existing chemicals, which an independent panel had found to be flawed. But rather than simply switching to an already peer-reviewed playbook, as the panel recommended, the agency instead adapted the Trump version, saying the other options didn’t suit the requirements of the law. Public health experts have panned the revised method.

“It just is perplexing that they’re saying they’re following the best available science when they’re not,” said Tracey Woodruff, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco. “She has the potential to make very important structural changes that she is not taking advantage of.”

When faced with this kind of criticism, Freedhoff gets a little exasperated. She sees a “disconnect” between academic experts and regulators who have to map science onto statutes that are fundamentally political documents.

“It doesn’t do anyone any good to ignore the words in the law,” she said. “Science is one driver in every law, but it’s not the only driver.”

Donovan and her fellow Cape Fear advocates were among those who had high expectations for Freedhoff, hoping that she would instill a new sense of corporate accountability and reverse the Trump administration’s rejection of their petition.

A June meeting with Freedhoff and her deputies, however, turned out to be a surprisingly chilly affair. Donovan recalled that the officials seemed reluctant to order Chemours to pay for health studies. Alarmingly, a high-level manager named Tala Henry reiterated some of the company’s original arguments about how it wasn’t necessarily responsible for all 54 PFAS listed in the petition. (The company said that its manufacturing process involved all but seven, and acknowledged that some of the rest may have arisen when its chemicals reacted with the environment.)

Henry referred questions to EPA’s press office. “Comments made by EPA’s Dr. Henry during various meetings with Ms. Donovan sought to provide relevant, factual information on the specifics of stakeholder requests, informed by career EPA staff, and legal counsel, and not based on personal feelings or beliefs,” a spokesperson said.

Donovan’s concerns grew when she saw a story in The Intercept soon after the meeting about EPA scientists who alleged that during the Trump years, Henry and other managers had warped their work in ways that favored industry. Since Henry seemed to be overseeing the response to their petition, it didn’t bode well. (The EPA told The Intercept that the complaints were being investigated and that the agency was taking steps to shore up scientific integrity.)

Nevertheless, in September, Donovan and others finally got a bit of good news: The EPA told them that it would formally reconsider their petition and respond within 90 days.

A few weeks later, Biden’s new EPA chief, Michael Regan, came to North Carolina to announce a nationwide plan for dealing with the types of chemicals that Cape Fear residents had been begging them to study. It was a homecoming: Regan had previously been North Carolina’s chief environmental regulator and had brokered the deal that got Chemours to stop dumping PFAS.

Standing outside on a podium, with the EPA logo in front of them and Lake Raleigh sparkling behind them, the governor and his top environmental official welcomed Regan, describing how their state had been sickened by PFAS emissions. Cape Fear had become a national symbol of the dangerous chemicals’ spread.

To cap the event, Regan laid out what he called the PFAS Strategic Roadmap, a timeline for research, regulation, and cleanup. He promised to finally prioritize people over polluters. A forthcoming assessment of one of Chemours’ PFAS compounds, he said, would “ensure that no other community has to go through what the Cape Fear River communities had to endure.”

Donovan was in the audience, welling up with tears, wanting to believe him.

The EPA’s response to her petition was due on Dec. 28. Three days before Christmas, Donovan sat down at her desk to write a last-ditch appeal to Freedhoff and other top EPA officials. In her email, Donovan noted that the petition had been endorsed by the city of Wilmington, its county, and the local water utility (along with half of North Carolina’s congressional delegation and dozens of academic scientists).

In closing, she described two friends suffering from cancer, wanting to know whether the possibly carcinogenic chemicals in their water played a role.

“You have the power to protect and heal these communities,” Donovan wrote. “I pray you use your authority to lift up human health over corporate wealth.”

Freedhoff responded the next day. “I wanted to thank you for your continued advocacy on behalf of your family, friends, and community,” she emailed. “I also wanted to convey my hopes that the members of your community who are faced with the grave health challenges you described below are able to find peace and recovery in the new year.” She didn’t, however, betray what she was planning to do.

When the response came, in the form of a letter to the coalition’s legal counsel, Robert Sussman, the agency’s response at first sounded like a win. “EPA is granting the petition,” it began.

Donovan works from the desk where she wrote a last-ditch appeal to the EPA last year.
Emily Donovan works from the desk where she wrote a last-ditch appeal to the EPA last year.
Cornell Watson for ProPublica.

But while touting the agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap as a partial solution, the 29-page document promised to deliver little of what the petition had specifically asked for. Most importantly, it didn’t order Chemours to fund a human health study. The EPA argued that designing another study would consume scarce staff time, and that similar studies were underway elsewhere — a rationale also offered by the Trump administration in its initial rejection of the petition.

In a statement at the time, Chemours said it “supports national, industry-wide PFAS-related regulatory and testing requirements that are data-driven and based on the best available science.” (A spokesperson declined to comment further for this story.)

The petitioners were irate. Even Cape Fear River Watch, which wanted to stay on the EPA’s good side so it could get help with other campaigns, reacted angrily. “Their response was so unethical in its dishonesty,” said the group’s executive director, Dana Sargent. “If they had come out and said, like the Trump administration, ‘No we’re not going to grant it,’ I would have been less likely to come out so strongly.”

Freedhoff said she’d pushed as far as she legally could. In overhauling the TSCA, Congress had made it easier for the EPA to order companies to pay for testing — and in exchange, the agency had to prove the current data was insufficient before ordering new tests. Enough information is already either available or in progress that, she said, that if they’d ordered everything the petitioners asked for, Chemours could sue and might win.

“You can’t ask companies to spend a bunch of money producing data that already exists,” Freedhoff said, noting that her office also has some confidential company data on PFAS. “If you go in knowing that what you’re doing isn’t supported by science or the law, that’s not a good place to start. It’s not where anyone in this administration would start.”

That’s perplexing to Sussman, who served as deputy EPA administrator in the Clinton administration and as a senior agency adviser under Obama. The petitioners had done a comprehensive literature search and found that none of the chemicals had been studied enough to help residents understand the potential health consequences of Chemours’ pollution.

“These are weak arguments and EPA should not be afraid of taking them on,” Sussman said.

The decision is also perplexing to scientists who study PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River watershed, like Jamie DeWitt, a toxicology professor at East Carolina University who signed a letter endorsing the petition. The state has provided a few million dollars for PFAS research, including DeWitt’s, but it’s halting and infrequent. When I visited her lab in Greenville, she was scrambling to submit a National Institutes of Health grant for more PFAS work. Without Chemours bankrolling a large study, it’s not clear how it could happen.

“I do think people have the right to know what is getting into their bodies from the food they eat, the water they drink, the products they use. It should be free,” DeWitt said. “The question is, who’s gonna pay for it?”

Around the midpoint of the Obama administration, when Republicans hardened their resistance to the Democratic leader’s legislative efforts, the president turned to executive action to try to advance issues ranging from immigration to power plant emissions.

This time around, progressive activists don’t want Biden to wait that long. They’re pushing him to use the executive branch in as muscular a fashion as possible, as the Trump administration did, using bold legal means — like granting a petition asking a polluter to pay for tests — to crack down on corporate malfeasance.

“We’re frustrated, throughout the administration, with a lack of creativity and willingness to just throw up their hands when they get to the first barrier,” said Dorothy Slater, a senior researcher with the Revolving Door Project, which focuses on agency appointments.

The EPA scientists who blew the whistle on managers who allegedly manipulated their work in favor of industry also wanted Freedhoff to take more aggressive action. Optimistic about her appointment, they originally filed their complaints soon after the 2020 election.

A couple months into the job, Freedhoff sent out an all-staff memo recognizing several examples of political interference and affirming her commitment to scientific integrity. Later, she announced new advisory councils and recordkeeping requirements. But none of it did what the whistleblowers really wanted: remove the accused managers, most of whom remain in their positions, engendering distrust both within the agency and outside it.

The EPA’s inspector general is investigating the complaints, and Freedhoff has said that she can’t simply move people around without due process, as the Trump administration did. Moreover, it bothers her when people accuse civil servants of acting in bad faith — she thinks the staffers just implemented policies from political appointees who were higher up the chain.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan speaks to guests during a visit to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University on April 14, 2022 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan speaks to guests during a visit to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University on April 14, 2022 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Allison Joyce / Getty Images

“You’re supposed to do what they tell you to do,” Freedhoff said. “You can complain, but I don’t think you should expect everyone to be Paul Revere. Only Paul Revere is Paul Revere.”

Emily Donovan doesn’t buy that explanation, and she finds it confounding that officials who facilitated Trump’s orders would now hold sway over her community’s fate.

In early February, Donovan, and I walked out on a beach near the mouth of the Cape Fear River to see foam that she said looked unusually frothy. She’d gotten it tested last fall and found it contained several types of PFAS. She doesn’t let her kids swim there anymore, but people were fishing while standing on the sand, seemingly unaware of the dangerous chemicals in the water.

When I told Donovan about Freedhoff’s rationale for leaving someone who had been accused of manipulating science in charge of the chemicals office’s response to her petition, she thought about it for a second.

“We lose in that. We lose,” she said, coldly, the wind whipping her hair. “I actually think it does a disservice to the American people, because we didn’t elect Biden to maintain the status quo.”

In late January, the Cape Fear coalition restarted the lawsuit it had originally filed after the Trump administration rejected its petition. Donovan finds it ironic that the agency seems more willing to be sued by citizens than by the corporation that had contaminated her drinking water.

Freedhoff hears Donovan’s frustration everywhere. There was a time when she might have felt the same. While on the Hill, she pushed for regulators to move faster and accomplish more. Now that she’s on the inside, she’s come to fully understand the handicaps the agency has faced for decades.

“When you’re sitting in Congress saying, ‘Hey, do a rule in a year,’ you keep getting told by the agency, ‘That is not possible,’” she told me, over lunch in January at a taco place near her house. “And you get to the agency and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right, it kind of is impossible.’”

She’s been thinking a lot lately about the parents she met years ago as they grieved children who died from exposure to toxic chemicals. Those kids would have been Freedhoff’s age now, and the EPA still hasn’t banned the chemicals that killed them. But she can’t make amends for the past.

“There’s all these examples where for generations, communities were exposed to chemicals, never told about it, and suddenly realized what happened to them, and want answers and want justice,” Freedhoff said. “And it is extremely hard to feel like I can’t do all the things they want.”