May 04, 2016

Healthy Communities, Economy & Environment

ECOS forum highlights EPA’s relationships & approaches

I had the opportunity in April to attend the Environmental Council of States’ (ECOS) spring meeting, which was held in the grand ole city of Nashville, Tenn. I have been attending ECOS meetings on and off for nearly a decade, since my time at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Water. For those who are interested in the health of cooperative federalism, particularly as it relates to environmental protection, ECOS is an important organization to track. Strong environmental protection begins with a robust, open and dynamic relationship between EPA and the states. This is the forum where you can get a real sense in real time about not only the health of that relationship, but also the health of our environment. It is a place where EPA and states convene to discuss tough issues and challenging topics like climate change, water pollution and emerging threats. Like making sausage, the process is not always tidy or pretty, but if you want sausage, it is indispensable. 

ECOS executive director and my good friend, Alex Dunn, has done a stellar job at the organization’s helm, helping to navigate treacherous environmental shoals and reinvigorate the role of the states in the nation’s environmental agenda. The relationship between EPA and states, like any relationship, has its ups and downs. A healthy relationship does not always mean agreement and surviving the strongest of disagreements can help the relationship grow to a new level.

An unscientific but often effective barometer of the status of this relationship is the number of EPA and other federal officials that make the effort to attend ECOS meetings. By this measure, the relationship is doing well. In addition to the dozen or so heads of EPA media and regional offices, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) environmental lawyer John Cruden made special appearances. As Cruden noted in his opening remarks, this was the first time since 1993—when ECOS was formed—that the assistant attorney general for DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resource Div. had participated. Both McCarthy and Cruden are great public servants, and their willingness to engage with the states in this one-on-one forum is a testament to their commitment to strengthening the federal-state partnership, which, at its healthiest, means environmental protection is likewise at its healthiest.  

Where Health & Environment Meet

The theme of this three-day forum involved the intersection of public health and the environment, and strengthening the partnership between environmental regulators and public health officials—something that has been missing in recent years. Guest speakers included Bryn Barnard, artist, educator and author of the book Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History. Barnard did a masterful job painting a picture of a world history replete with public health epidemics and death from cholera, smallpox and yellow fever—a sobering but necessary reminder that diseases like bubonic plague, smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera, yellow fever and influenza have affected the way societies and individuals act. He spoke of societies like Great Britain in the 1830s and how the wealthy provided services mostly to the wealthy for things like water provision, waste removal and fire protection. The problem, however, with that approach is that neither fire nor germs discriminate based on wealth. After tens of thousands of Britons died and the root cause was understood, the government intervened to provide better sanitation and hygienic services.

The bottom line is that healthy living and healthy environment are inextricably linked, and government plays a vital role in providing both. As reinforced in the U.S. by the recent Flint, Mich., water crisis, government failure can have devastating and life-altering impacts on the very families who depend on government to provide the most basic services. When government fails to do what it needs to do, we all suffer. 

Building upon the topic of health, the three-day gathering also delved into EPA’s newest theme, making a visible difference in communities. Admittedly, the theme might strike some as a bit hokey, but it potentially reflects a paradigm shift for the agency. Among other goals, the theme is about making neighborhoods more livable and economically vital, strengthening EPA’s relationship with the agricultural community and better understanding decision-making on economically disadvantaged communities. 

It is unclear how this new theme will translate into new regulations, if at all, but what is clear is EPA’s leadership finally gets it. EPA is not just about protecting the environment, it is equally about protecting humans. After public campaigns and waging battle with stakeholders and Congress over controversial proposals such as the Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States, this slight pivot reflects a tacit admission by EPA that it can be its own worst enemy—and perhaps a poignant dose of humility in the face of recent disasters like Flint and the Gold King Mine spill. It also reflects a need by environmental regulators to communicate more effectively with the public in the face of scientific uncertainty and imperfect information. More importantly, however, I think it reveals an attempt by EPA to rebuild trust with all Americans where we live, work, worship and play.  

Although the Obama EPA’s days are numbered, the agency’s critical mission is not. I remain hopeful that amid all the political rancor on climate change and the federal government’s role in environmental protection, government at all levels gives greater voice to communities and does a better job connecting the dots between environmental stewardship, good health and vibrant economies.

Brent A. Fewell is former deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water and an environmental partner in Troutman Sanders’ Washington, D.C., office, where he provides strategic counseling and enforcement defense on an array of environmental laws, including the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts. Fewell can be reached at [email protected].

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