Perhaps there are eight million stories to be told about the ways of the federal government.
This story happens to be true.
The day was back in 1991, and the challenge concerned the national Superfund site cleanup program being administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The key players at a meeting held in Washington, D.C. that day were Rich Guimond, newly appointed as a Superfund overlord within EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) with instructions from EPA Administrator Bill Reilly to rapidly improve the trajectory of a beleaguered program — and Doug Mundrick, a veteran Superfund program branch chief in EPA’s Atlanta regional office.
In 1991 the Superfund program was suffering intense criticism from all quarters because, based on EPA’s own reports, cleanup work had been finished at only six Superfund sites (i.e. National Priorities List or NPL sites) in over 10 years of operating the program — six out of nearly 1000 NPL sites at the time.
For the meeting that day, Mr. Guimond chose to meet with regional office branch chiefs (i.e. the equivalent of local operations managers) rather than with senior executive-types in Washington, D.C. or from the regions. He more or less locked ten of us in a room (I was representing EPA’s Chicago office) and wanted to know two things: First, why EPA had not deleted more than six sites from the NPL in 10 years, and, second, what could we do to remove whatever barriers existed to making better progress.
Deletion was the only existing EPA measure to signify that a site was cleaned up. It did not take long for Mr. Guimond to realize that EPA lawyers and regulation-writers had constructed an eleven-step procedure for deleting a site from the NPL.
The steps included procedures like reviewing contractors financial reports, reviewing comments from state agencies, conducting a pre-final and final inspection, publishing a Federal Register notice, and responding to public comments on whether the site warranted formal deletion from the NPL. Completing all these steps could take years.
While I am sure Mr. Guimond recognized the importance of such procedures, he asked questions along the lines of “Yeah, but if you live in that community and you really just want to know whether the cleanup work is physically complete (contaminated soils have been treated and/or safely capped, contaminated groundwater is being pumped and purified, etc.)? Must you wait for long bureaucratic procedural steps to occur before you can learn that simple fact? How many of these eleven steps must we really do to just simply answer that threshold question that most people can understand and feel good about?”
Could we create a new legitimate measure?
After round-robin dialogue among we ten regional representatives about the relative importance of various steps, Doug Mundrick finally exclaimed something like “Hey look, we can cut the steps from eleven to two our EPA cleanup project manager will conduct an on-site inspection to confirm that all physical cleanup work is done, will write up a Preliminary Closeout Report (PCOR) and then EPA can accurately declare that the site is construction complete”
One by one, all of us quickly agreed that the solution was a streamlined means of accurately reporting an important milestone to the public.
In my estimation, that one decision, on that one day we removed the Superfund program from life-support systems, by inducing EPA cleanup managers across the country to believe that finishing cleanups was actually possible, and led to EPA averaging over 80 construction completions per year for the next decade.
What made this possible was the visionary leadership of one person at the top, the pragmatic insight of one local operations manager, and a workforce in the EPA field offices that just needed a simple yet important goal to believe in and the license to just go achieve it.
I think that the innovative leadership displayed back in 1991 in the Superfund program may provide some lessons for today’s government leaders. In any case, that one day back in 1991 was just about the most memorable and career-changing one for me in my 30 plus years at EPA.
Jim Mayka is a licensed professional engineer and currently serves as
Chief of the Community & Land Revitalization Banch, Superfund
Division in EPA’s Chicago office, and has been an EPA manager or over 25