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November 2007

November 29, 2007

Guest Blog: Who Do You Work For?

Stan Meiburg is the Deputy Regional Administrator in EPA's Atlanta office. He is on detail to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I asked him to share his thoughts for today's post.

Stan Meiburg “Who do you work for?”

I get this question all the time in my role as EPA liaison to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known by most people as CDC.

It's natural for people to assume your opinions will reflect where you work. Rufus Miles, Princeton professor and director of the Bureau of the Budget in the Johnson Administration, wrote a professional article about it. The summary of Miles' Law is, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

After 29 years I now have a chance to look at EPA from a different “seat”. I've learned several things. One is that non-regulatory agencies have a different perspective. Training, communication and applied research are especially valued here. Another is that CDC has much to teach. Some of the world's best health expertise resides in Atlanta. In a typical week, I get to work with experts on such things as anthrax, cholera, radiation, pandemic flu, and the health effects of pollution.

There are countless opportunities for collaboration with EPA. Many are already underway, connecting environmental and public health data, researching toxic chemicals, and preparing for and responding to emergencies. EPA benefits enormously from these collaborations.  Being in the middle of this is exciting and a great opportunity.

It works the other way too. I've seen CDC struggle just like EPA does to build a responsive organization, promote innovation, retain expertise when key personnel retire, measure progress, and step up when things go wrong. EPA and CDC don't always agree, and even world class expertise can't prevent every problem of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and occasional hard-headedness.

Core principles apply no matter where you work: tell the truth, treat people with respect, listen well to others; challenge your assumptions, define success, measure your progress, own up to mistakes, maintain high standards, cherish your values. None of these principles comes with an organizational label.

So who do you work for? Many people want to uphold and defend their agencies. This is a noble sentiment. But loyalty to an organization need not be blind. The best leaders know they don't know everything. By collaborating with others, they can tap into strengths that make their own organizations stronger and, in the case of EPA and CDC, better able to serve the public.

That's who I want to work for!

November 27, 2007

The Power of Zero

What's the Roman numeral for zero? There isn't one. Zero was not placed into the decimal system until the 13th century. But once in, the zero unleashed a revolution in mathematics. Foremost, it made the calculation of large numbers feasible and, in turn, had profound impacts on astronomy, physics, chemistry, and commerce. While calling someone a ‘zero' is a put-down, I'd say zero is a most powerful number.

So powerful, it can help EPA succeed, even when we fail.

In 2005 the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response realized they had a serious error problem in the data used to assess soil contamination on federal property. Accurate data helps EPA know what sites pose the most risk to the public. The better the data, the better we can protect human health and the environment. Over time the data improved, but we still seemed to have a chronic, although lower, error rate. So back in May the Office set a bold goal of achieving a zero error rate by the fall. They called it ‘Getting to Zero.'

I noted in August how this homegrown stretch goal was the sign of a healthy performance culture. When offices independently use metrics to figure out ways to get better results, especially when they are willing to set stretch goals, they demonstrate they are constantly looking for ways to get better results.

bar chart showing Data Quality Errors in Audit Report, an overall decline from 450 in Jul 05 to 6 in Nov 07, with a very low interval of 77 in Oct 06.
(Click image to enlarge)

How did they do? As of mid-November they failed to get to zero. But look where they did get. In July 2005 data errors were 450. They are now down to 6 (see graph). That's not zero, but I'd say it is a magnificent success.

Does it make sense to say failure is a success? That's as nuts as saying 1 = 2, isn't it? Well, anything is possible when you start messing with zero. Failure can still lead to success when an office has the guts to try for perfection. When they embrace the power of zero.

When an office accepts that zero is not an impossible goal.

Sometimes 1 does equal 2 if you are willing to stretch yourself. Don't believe me? Here's proof:

(x)(x) – (x)(x) = x2 - x2

factoring by x on the left side and using the identity (a2 - b2) = (a - b)(a + b) on the right side, this can be written as:

x(x-x) = (x-x)(x+x)

dividing both sides by (x-x) gives

x = 2x

divide both sides by x gives

1 = 2

Now, are you ready to embrace the power of zero?

November 22, 2007


Michael, Metro Train Operator
Michael, thanks for driving me to work.

Officer Gaines, EPA Security

Thank you, Officer Gaines, for watching out for us.


Doug, thanks for delivering the mail and commiserating about the Vikings.

Jeff Morin, Super Tech

Hey Jeff, thanks for getting this blog running and making it better and better.

Thanks to all the people who quietly keep EPA ticking.

November 20, 2007

A View from the Sissy Bar

A friend of mine recently viewed Transportation Secretary Mary Peters' public service announcement advocating motorcycle safety. Their reaction: “She rocks!”

DOT Secretary Peters
click image to watch video
get media viewer

It's easy to forget there are parts of other federal agencies who are as dedicated as EPA in their mission of protecting human health and the environment. Some of these organizations are easy to spot: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helps protect our oceans; the Fish and Wildlife Service helps protect wildlife; and Directorates in the National Science Foundation fund research on environmental hazards.

EPA has a unique focus, but one that is strengthened when we collaborate with organizations in other agencies who share similar goals. I'd even argue protecting people from getting smashed up on their motorcycle is related to protecting them from what comes out of its tailpipe.  A parent doesn't care what agency is doing what to keep their kid safe from what risk, they just want to know the federal government is doing its job. We are obligated to work as one team and speak with one voice.  Sometimes that means letting another agency hop on our motorcycle.  Sometimes that means letting another agency drive for a while.

Healthy competition is good too. I must admit I'm a bit jealous of Secretary Peters' video.  But let me just point out that while she rides a Hog, I write a blog.  While she complains about getting hit once, I get about 600 hits a day – and I like it.

Now who rocks?

November 15, 2007

America Recycles Day

EPA encourages companies to be better environmental stewards.  Earlier today an office manager in Pennsylvania shared with us his plans for celebrating America Recycles Day.  We appreciate his enthusiasm, but we noticed a few mistakes.  Lest anyone else share the same misconceptions, let me share a corrected copy with you.

See larger image. Read text version.

image of Big Mike memo

See larger image. Read text version.

November 13, 2007

Guest Blog: Alan Steinberg

I am opening the floodgates to Alan Steinberg today. Alan, one of the most enthusiastic people I know, heads up EPA's Region 2 office in New York City.

Region 2 Administrator Alan Steinberg When Henry Hudson said, “you cannot fly like an eagle with the wings of a wren,” he might very well have been speaking about some of the challenges of the Superfund program.  Yet, despite the difficulties implicit in “making the polluter pay” – locating a solvent responsible party is among the greatest priorities – cleanups continue and progress is being made.

Why quote old Henry, you ask? Well, there's a very real connection for many of us in EPA Region 2. You see, Henry's namesake, the Hudson River, with all of its beauty and historic significance, with its majestic 300 or so miles, is one of the most contaminated waterways in the nation – and its cleanup has presented us with some very complicated challenges.

The river that travels almost the entire north to south length of New York State and forms a natural boundary between New York and New Jersey became one of America's most important industrial waterways in the 19th Century.

Years of industrial activity took their toll, and today, the Hudson has the distinction of being one of the largest Superfund sites in the country. For about 30 years, up until 1977, the General Electric Company discharged as much as 1.3 million pounds of probable human carcinogens – polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – from its plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York into the river.

All of the elements of a typical Superfund challenge are here – substantial and sizable contamination over a long period of time; a large, diverse, and often vocal, community; a “high profile” potentially responsible party.

After years of negotiations, however, GE has begun an agreed upon cleanup process that takes into account the needs of the nearby communities as well.

Not long ago, I was in Fort Edward announcing a grant to help the town identify and fix environmental problems. I visited the dewatering facility for the dredging projectLink to EPA's External Link Disclaimer, and as I watched a virtual town being built – the facility and associated buildings, new roads and railways – I couldn't help thinking that this is the true purpose of the Superfund program – revitalizing the environment, revitalizing communities. 

Dredging will start in 2009, and the river will begin its recovery.  As fall merges into winter this year, and the colored leaves of the Adirondacks are reflected in the magnificent Hudson River, it isn't that much of a stretch to imagine a cleaner and healthier river.

The future looks bright for Henry's river – for the fish and water life that thrive in it and for the people who live along its banks and enjoy its bounty. I expect eagles and wrens alike will approve.

November 09, 2007

From Dining Room to Parlor

Poor Wilmer McLean.  In the first major battle of the U.S. Civil War, a Confederate General commandeered McLean's house.  Not long thereafter, a Union shell smashed through McLean's chimney, destroyed his fireplace, and the General's dinner.  McLean promptly moved his family further south and did his best to avoid the fighting after that. 

I know what it's like to be in at the beginning of something big, then move away.  In the late 1990s while I was working for Congress, Representative Tillie Fowler asked me to investigate EPA's management of billions of dollars of grants.  The EPA Inspector General (IG) had recently identified grants management as a major weakness.  Not long after that the General Accounting Office (GAO) listed grants management as a “major performance and accountability challenge.”  By that time, however, events had taken me off to another job.

The IG and GAO found that things were a bit of a mess.  Many EPA grantees were going unsupervised.  Some funds were not being spent, some were being misspent, and some funds were being embezzled.  Thereafter, every year for the last decade, the IG and/or GAO pegged grants management as a major problem for EPA. 

That is, until now.  Last week, in my capacity as EPA's Chief Operating Officer, I recommended to the Administrator that grants management be removed as an agency weakness.  He agreed.  The IG and GAO agreed.  After eleven years, the monkey is off our back. 

I get no credit for this.  Like Wilmer McLean, I left this fight long ago.  This victory is due to literally hundreds of people over many years identifying and implementing the changes needed to reduce the vulnerability of grants being mismanaged. 

painting of Grant and Lee signing the surrender, by Guillaume
Courtesy of Appomattox Court House, National Historical Park

It's a bit strange to have witnessed the beginning and end of this saga.  Although I doubt I feel as strange as Wilmer McLean.  Almost four years after he fled the war, the war came to him.  In April 1865, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant sat down at a small wooden table in McLean's home in Appomattox County and signed the surrender agreement that ended the Civil War.  As McLean later observed, “The war began in my dining room and ended in my parlor.” 

You could say . . .  wait for it . . . bad grants started our problem while a good Grant ended his.

November 08, 2007

Why “The Flow of the River”?

Many people ask me why this blog is called “The Flow of the River.” There are three reasons:

  • A river is a good metaphor for the operations of an organization the size of EPA. Like a river, the work we do is deep and wide and inexorable. This blog is about how EPA deals with our river of obligations. (Note to systems geeks: think flowchart.)
  • It's a multi-media environmental metaphor for a multi-media environmental agency. Rivers need to be protected from water pollution, contaminated runoff, air pollution (so-called 'air deposition'), and groundwater contamination, among other things.
  • I was reading an essay about the Platte River in Loren Eiseley's The Immense Journey when I had my second ‘environmental epiphany.' The essay's title: "The Flow of the River."

Related questions I've received regarding my picture underneath the blog's banner:

What's the river in the picture?
It's the Yampa on its way through Dinosaur National Monument.

Why are you so far away in the picture?
The content of the picture reflects the content of the blog. More river, less me.

November 07, 2007


dollar sign with red slashI have something to say today for the sake of those many states, cities, counties and other local entities that have been commenting on EPA's proposal to tighten the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone:


I don't tend to get involved in NAAQS policy but I do read the Administrator's mail.  A lot of state and local governments have recently sent in letters requesting that the standard not be tightened on the basis that it will cost too much.  For example, these excerpts are from four different letters received last week:

“I am concerned the new regulations would be devastating for the economic health of growing cities like us.”

“Decreasing the allowable level . . . . will put at least one county . . . . in non-attainment.  I am very concerned that this non-attainment status will impose significant administrative and regulatory burdens on more citizens.”

State and local governments have already spent millions of taxpayer dollars preparing to implement the existing standard, and now you are asking them to spend millions more . . . .”

“We believe that an effective approach to clean air is a well-rounded one that takes into consideration the economic effects on all concerned . . . .”

I saw many similar comments when EPA tightened the particulate matter NAAQS last year (PDF, 8 pages, 40 Kb) About PDF.  EPA is currently reviewing the NAAQS for lead

I want to be clear.  We want your comments.  We understand that tighter NAAQS can be very expensive.  However, when commenting on a NAAQS proposal if you feel the urge to raise the cost of compliance, save your breath.

November 06, 2007

Law in Order

When astronaut Gene Cernan came back from the moon on Apollo 10 he took his six-year-old daughter outside to show her how far away the moon was. He figured that would really 'wow' her. Looking at the moon, she said, "Daddy. . ." "What Punkin?" asked Cernan. "Now that you've been to the moon, when are you going to take me camping like you promised?"

Sometimes, unless we ask, it's easy for us to think we are doing better than we're actually doing.

I meet every three months with EPA's main legal office, the Office of General Counsel (OGC). We discuss how they are performing and how they might perform better. When I first sat down with them they didn't have any quantitative method for tracking performance so I challenged them to come up with some performance measures.

OGC could have easily taken the attitude, “Measures? We don't need no stinking measures.” But they didn't. Through their own efforts they began a customer survey, asking their ‘clients' at EPA to score four core aspects of performance: responsiveness, thoroughness, timeliness, and professionalism. Possible scores range from 0 (terrible) to 5 (outstanding).

graph of OGC customer survey results average scorer, on a scale of 0 to 5: Professionalism, about 4.75, slight decline; Responsiveness: about 4.4, no change; Thoroughness: increase from low 4 to mid-4; Timeliness: increase from high 3 to low four. The first survey, which set the baseline, indicated that OGC rated relatively high (above 4.0) on three of the four core factors, but not so good on “timeliness.” They were surprised to find that people thought they were slow.

So the Office set out to improve timeliness. Once again, on their own, they found a computer application the Department of Justice was using to track work. Among other things, Justice's tracking tool electronically reminds people about upcoming deadlines and pings people when deadlines are missed. OGC copied the software from Justice (at no charge), added some improvements of their own, and implemented it. The system not only tracked items but brought more order to the flow of legal work through the office.

With the new system in place, the average timeliness score on the next survey increased from 3.81 to 4.25 (see graph). At no additional cost the office now provides better service and everyone takes more pride in their work. OGC is expanding the survey to include more people and get more suggestions on how to improve their performance. Where might it lead them next? The sky's the limit.

November 01, 2007

Roy Popkin

I've been watching Ken Burns' World War II documentary on PBS. Like college kids rediscovering the wisdom of their parents, this country is still trying to comprehend the generation that saved the world but is reluctant to talk about it.

I know this generation first hand. My mother lived through the London Blitz. You can't get her to describe it. “Why would I want to remember that?” she asks. But, over time, the stories have fallen out like bits of broken glass. Funny stuff, like the skirts she and her sister made out of burlap. And less funny stuff, like how quickly the authorities were able to remove the bodies after a V2 rocket attack.

Roy Popkin is of this generation. Roy started working for the Red Cross in 1942. Over four decades he worked his way up in the organization finally retiring in 1984 as the Deputy National Director for Disaster Services.

That's when he came to EPA . . . and served an additional 23 years.

Roy Popkin This week we say good-bye to Roy Popkin. He's been a mentor and friend to every EPA employee who came to know him. For 65 years he served two organizations and touched thousands of people. He helped people in need and protected people from harm. But don't tell him he's a great man. “I'm not an inspiration,” he explained during a recent tribute, “I'm just me.”

Roy comes from the heart of a generation where self-sacrifice for the public good is expected. And so is humility. You do something because it needs to be done to improve everyone's lot, not your lot. Roy taught that value by example. EPA was the right place to do it.

I think this value is not only at the core of a generation that defeated tyranny, but also an important part of EPA's culture. EPA is not a place to work if you want to get rich or have it ‘easy.' No matter what we do, we seem to get criticized from all sides. We do our work best when we overcome difficulties not for publicity but because we are satisfied knowing we are doing something for the greater good. I hope we never lose that. I hope we've been learning from Roy and others like him.

Roy has received lots of kudos and awards. I asked him which prize he is most proud of. He held up his EPA ID and said, “Here is my badge of honor.”