Dana Aunkst, who has served as director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Office since December 2018, announced that he is stepping down from that role to take another position within the agency.
The director position will be filled on an interim basis by Michelle Price-Fay, who heads the clean water branch of the EPA Mid-Atlantic Region, which oversees the Bay Program.
Aunkst, a longtime official within the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, was named to the Bay Program director post in December 2018. He will step down effective March 28.
“It has been an honor for me to serve as director of the Chesapeake Bay Program Office with a staff and a team of partners truly committed to restoration of the Bay and its watershed,” Aunkst said in a statement. “Together, we were able to make major advances in progress and policy and provide record support for our state partners in their pollution reduction goals.”
His tenure came at a time when the state-federal Bay Program partnership was continually threatened with major budget cuts — or outright elimination — by the Trump administration.
But it also marked advances on many fronts as the Bay Program began integrating the impacts of climate change into its cleanup goals and began accounting for the water quality impacts related to the filling of the Conowingo Dam reservoir on the Susquehanna River. The Bay Program also adopted its first Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Strategy, which is aimed at improving participation of underrepresented communities and stakeholders in the Bay effort.
It also coincided with a period in which states in the Bay watershed were updating the cleanup plans intended to guide their nutrient pollution reduction efforts through 2025. Those plans showed states face an uphill climb to meet their goals. Two states — Pennsylvania and New York — produced plans that failed to meet their goals, though New York has since submitted a revised plan.
Aunkst was at the center of a controversy in January 2020 when, responding to a question at a Chesapeake Bay Commission meeting, he described the region’s 2025 cleanup deadline as “aspirational” and said that the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load — which established numeric nutrient reduction goals for each state — is “not an enforceable document.”
While a TMDL is not strictly enforceable itself, regulatory actions — such as all discharge permits — are required to be consistent with a TMDL. Environmental groups saw the statement as a signal that the EPA was stepping way from its Bay commitments, and it drew sharp criticism from lawmakers.
Aunkst, a chemical engineer, will become the director of the Land, Chemical and Redevelopment Division in EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region, which administers environmental statutes that protect air, water and land environments, as well as the public’s right-to-know about hazardous chemicals in their community.
Price-Fay has played a role in regulatory activities that support the Bay Program in the past and has overseen the region’s water discharge permit program. She has also overseen grant programs that assist states with water quality improvement projects, promote green infrastructure and control runoff pollution. She’s also been involved in the National Estuary Program and implementation of the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act.
Bill Jenkins, who has been acting deputy director of the Bay Program office since the beginning of 2021, will continue in that role.
A new Bay Program director will not be named until after the Biden Administration selects a new administrator for the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region.