After three decades as a field agent for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), I’ve become more philosophical than angry about environmental oversight and public health protection — but not much. Many have asked me why EPA may be having problems performing their mission. How could something like the lead problem in Flint, Michigan, happen? There are three reasons: funding, bureaucracy and politics. No funding, no oversight. Every agency becomes bureaucratic and decadent over time. EPA is no exception.
Even the most dedicated agency becomes a bureaucracy when most of their time revolves around maintaining the agency rather than performing their mission. I began to notice the change when managers and execs became more focused on impressing their superiors than supporting their staff.
1) It Started With Budget Cuts
In my thirty-plus years as a civil servant, most managers accepted that we were a science and research organization. EPA technical staff were professionals in their own area of expertise. Most didn’t want to become managers. They enjoyed working in the area they trained for. Today, I find little or no fault at the staff level of EPA. They are some of the best in the business from hydrology to soil erosion, toxics to climate change.
EPA does not make laws, that’s up to the Congress, but EPA is the hammer when a violation takes place. In the 70s and 80s, the legal branch, lab and field staff, worked very closely together. EPA attorneys worked closely with inspectors. We knew each other by our first names. We worked as tight knit teams. Then the budget cuts began.
First they began trimming the travel budget. That meant fieldwork took the major part of the hit. No travel money, no inspections.
Then further cutbacks hit the labs, and that meant analysis of samples took a hit. No samples, no enforcement.
Of course, senior staff managers still had their sometimes lavish “retreats” to decide where else to trim funds.
2) Less Fieldwork, Less State Oversight
EPA began to gave primacy to the states as they came on board with their own regulations. If state regulations were equal to or more stringent than federal laws, they could be given primacy. EPA would give them some money to help run their programs. Some more conservative states took the money but didn’t do much enforcement. EPA would still have oversight, but enforcing against a state was very unpopular with a conservative Congress.
In the 90s there were more cut backs. Buyouts and early retirements began. The “early out” pressure was greatest among the worker bees (i.e. lab, technical and field staff). The most zealous staffer might be offered the opportunity to move to Alaska or Hanford on short notice. If you refused, there were grounds for dismissal. At one time, EPA Region 10 was down to four or five full-time inspectors for all of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. That’s nearly a quarter of the entire geographic U.S.
Funding cuts meant less fieldwork and state oversight. Instead of each inspector performing 30 to 50 inspections a year, it dropped to five or six. Some inspectors would perform only two or three inspections a year. Proficiency dropped dramatically.
The government closed down a couple times and only “essential personnel” stayed on duty. Lab, technical, and field staff were not considered “essential personnel.” Masters degrees, Engineers, Chemists and PhD worker bees went on leave until the budget passed. Senior Managers and executives remained on duty with no one to manage.
3) Inspectors Became Subservient to the Inspected
Something else began to happen. Many facilities complain about being inspected; no one likes their operation interrupted by a snoopy inspector asking questions. And objections were nearly always the strongest among facilities with the most serious violations. The more belligerent operators would call the inspector’s boss and complain. Their explanation of events might not match the facts.
I once had a laborer standing over me, slapping a pipe wrench to his hand while the plant manager called my boss. I was reported to be hostile, pushy, arrogant and way out of bounds. I was asking questions that were “none of my business or the EPA’s.” Without asking to speak to me, my boss began apologizing and told the plant manager to inform me that I should leave immediately. I took my samples and left. It turned out that they had recently had a significant PCB transformer explosion that contaminated the entire building. Enforcement and clean up costs, based upon my samples, cost the company millions of dollars.
The budget cuts also meant that more inspectors were alone instead of teams of two or three. Until the late 80s, compliance inspections were very successful because field, laboratory and legal staff worked confidently and well together. The high quality and enforceable inspections meant that field experience and protocols were Standard Operating Procedure.
Then more budget cuts and fewer staff. Veterans were encouraged to go to pasture. Their salaries might pay for several new, lower grade, less-qualified, less educated (no graduate degree) staff. New field staff had to train in the basics. With fewer inspections, experience was slow in coming. I was assigned to train all new inspectors and provide materials for national inspector training in Denver.
Companies learned that they could call the Regional Administrators and complain about these kids invading their operations. The neophyte, lone inspector was then in a “he said, they said,” position without a backup witness.
4) Civil Servants Became Corporatized
Regional Administrators are presidential appointees. Some look at EPA as a stepping stone to a civilian career. They don’t want to alienate the companies they might work for after their stint with EPA.
Administrators would call the division chiefs, who would call the program team managers. Program managers began to feel the heat. Support for the field staff became iffy and unreliable.
Inspections and investigations are invasive. Agents are trained at great length to ensure they remain within established legal protocols. But inspectors began to feel the heat from the companies and their managers for simply doing their jobs. Some field personnel began to look the other way and not find violations to avoid “complications” back in the office. “Fragging” from management became an objective concern.
5) Civil Servants Are Threatened
Here is an example I often used in my inspector training classes at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Denver, CO:
Six of us were conducting a multi-media in Soda Springs, Idaho. We encountered green slimy waste leaking from a dump truck on a state highway while returning to our Motel. We split up and part of the team followed the truck and half followed the trail of leaked liquid back to a Kerr McGee facility. We were met with a refusal to allow us on site. We had to get a warrant from the Soda Springs Sheriff. The Sheriff executed the warrant by entering through the “locked” main office door. We called the EPA office and were directed to remain in the area and conduct a multi-media inspection at the Kerr McGee facility.
The next day, a Sr. Kerr McGee executive flew in from their HQ. He took me aside and began to ask me if I was familiar with a case involving a woman named “Silkwood.” I said I was. “Didn’t she die under suspicious circumstances?” I asked. He said, Kerr McGee paid a huge amount in the “no contest, wrongful death” civil case simply because she had been a “pain in the ass.”
He then looked me directly in the face and said, “You are a pain in the ass. Do you get my meaning?” I said, I did. I then told him that because I realized how concerned they were about EPA interfering with their operations, I would make absolutely sure my team was meticulously careful to cover every part of their operation in detail. We were there another full day. When I returned to the office, I discovered that an EPA criminal investigation was going on at the site receiving the leaking Kerr McGee waste.
(Note: That case turned out to be the most severe criminal case in EPA history up to that time. The owner/Operator of the fertilizer company receiving the Kerr McGee waste got 17 years)
Back at EPA, I reported the threat against my life to the Deputy Regional Administrator. I discovered that the Kerr McGee executive had contacted the Agency Administrator in Washington, DC, who had called the Regional Administrator and down the line. I was told by the Deputy Administrator that it might be a good idea if I took some inspector training, as it seemed that I put unnecessary alarm in company officials while conducting the inspection. I repeated that the Kerr McGee threatened me referencing Ms. Silkwood’s death. The Deputy Administrator said that I obviously needed more experience.
Once I got my jaw off the floor, I made sure the Deputy Administrator (DA) got a copy of the warrant and report by the Soda Springs Sheriff. Executing a warrant is seldom met with warm feelings by the company.
I’ve been threatened by guns half a dozen times, shot at, physically assaulted and threatened many times. I was the guy who put on those training classes the DA was asking me to take. At the time, I was the most experienced inspector in the entire agency. I wrote the damn inspection manual.
Every inspector has run into similar threatening conditions if they did the job for more than a few months. When inspectors didn’t feel the agency had their back, many felt it was time to move on. I remained another 11 years. That inspection was part of every training class I taught until I retired in 2005.
(Sidebar: This year Kerr McGee settled with EPA on another case for $4.5 billion. Some companies just don’t ever get the message.)
Aren’t war stories great? Inspectors love sharing them. Once we had to call Dick Cheney to get entry to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. He was playing golf at the time. But that’s another story.