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September 2007

September 28, 2007

Kawinkydink

A few years ago we rented the animated movie Teacher's Pet. At one point in the movie, the protagonist, Spot, shows his skepticism to Mr. Jolly's assertion that something is a coincidence by shouting, "Kawinkydink, Mr. Jolly?" Ever since then, any assertion of a coincidence in my family is rejoined by a robust "Kawinkydink, Mr. Jolly?"

This past Tuesday I held a regular quarterly management meeting with some Regional Administrators and their staffs. We discussed the data we had on air quality this year and, in particular, the number of times the air in some cities has exceeded ozone standards. For instance, despite temperatures being similar to last year, the standard was exceeded more times this summer in Milwaukee, Detroit and Chicago than last year. (I should note that the air quality in all the cities we looked at is greatly improved over the last five years – we were just doing a comparison to last year.) We decided this was largely caused by weather factors other than temperature (e.g., changes in prevailing winds, or a lack of wind altogether) rather than something we had control over. So no change in our current actions or priorities was required.

After the meeting I went back to my desk and started going through my mail. As luck would have it, the first item I picked up was a report from the Clean Air Act Advisory Committee entitled Recommendations to the Clean Air Act Advisory Committee: Air Quality Management Subcommittee, Phase II Recommendations. I flipped to a random page (page 24) and the first thing I read was:

Recommendation 3: Improve accountability mechanismsImprove accountability by systematically monitoring progress and evaluating results, by ensuring that data collection is meaningful and feedback loops exist so actual environmental results inform the future allocation of resources and the establishment of priorities.

Kawinkydink, Mr. Jolly?

September 27, 2007

Why Is This Man So Happy?

Small businesses play a vital role in the economy. For instance, they are responsible for producing 60 to 80 percent of all new jobs. In addition, an increasing number of small businesses are owned by women or minorities and provide important opportunities to otherwise disadvantaged populations. Also, a disproportionate number of small businesses are owned by our nation's veterans. They are appropriately taking advantage of the free and open economic environment they helped protect.

man smiling We think it is important that EPA support small and disadvantaged businesses and we track in our Quarterly Management Report how much contract money is going to such companies. So, how is EPA doing in supporting small businesses?

The man pictured here is Arthur Mabbett, president of a small business, Mabbett & Associates. Arthur is also a disabled Army veteran. Based in Bedford, Massachusetts, in the past few months EPA's Region 1 awarded Arthur's firm a contract to help us investigate and clean up contaminated properties in New England. When completed, payments to Arthur's company could total over $2 million. So he is pretty happy. He is not alone.

In 2005 only 0.2% of EPA's contract money went to disabled veteran-owned small businesses. We increased that to over 1% last year and, so far this year, almost 4% (over $28 million) has been awarded to small businesses owned by disabled veterans. Now, that is pretty darn good.

And we're not just improving opportunities for disabled veterans. The percent of contract funding going to other categories such as women-owned small businesses and so-called "8(a)" businesses (firms owned by socially disadvantaged individuals) have also increased over the last two years.

There is still plenty of room for improvement and EPA's Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, which has spearheaded our recent success, is working closely with EPA Regions and Offices to keep the momentum going. That means we can expect even more smiling Arthurs helping us protect human health and the environment.

September 26, 2007

How To Get This Blog Emailed To You

I've had two people now tell me they want to have blog entries emailed to them but don't want to get all the other press releases, mass announcements, and alerts the Agency sends out. It is possible to sign up just for this blog. Click on the link below that says “Receive Posts By Email” and fill in the information requested.  Despite what the directions may imply, this does not automatically sign you up for all the other EPA email alerts. Once signed up for the blog you are explicitly asked if you want other alerts. If you decline this offer, then you'll just get new entries to this blog. Think of it as buying SPAM Lite™.

September 25, 2007

Papercuts

Although I can accept talking scarecrows, lions and great wizards of emerald cities, I find it hard to believe there is no paperwork involved when your house lands on a witch. --Dave James

People spend about 147 million hours every year filling out paperwork and electronic forms in order to meet US EPA requirements. That's equivalent to 70 thousand people banging away on keyboards full-time all-year. Unfortunately, that number continues to increase (see page 8 of the third quarter 07 Quarterly Management Report). EPA needs a lot of that information to do our job, but we probably don't need all of what we currently collect and there may be better ways of getting it.

bar chart, Number of recommendations, OW, 73; OECA, 51; OAR, 34; Grants Cross-cutting, 34; OSWER, 29; OPPTS, 5

To get us moving in the right direction, a little less than a year ago, the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) and EPA asked states to propose specific EPA reporting requirements that they thought could be eliminated or reduced Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer 38 states responded with 239 suggestions.

I recently returned from the annual ECOS meeting in Idaho and I am happy to report that, thus far, EPA has adopted nearly 60 percent (141) of the states recommendations. Many reporting requirements have already been eliminated. Just one small example, EPA used to require every state to annually report the percentage of wastewater plants in the state that reused sewage sludge. Not any more we don't.

As the graph below shows, the states' recommendations cut across all major EPA programs and we continue to review the remaining 40 percent of suggestions we haven't acted on yet.

I appreciate the states taking this effort seriously. Meanwhile, the EPA offices are doing a great job of dispassionately evaluating these suggestions.

Reducing paperwork burden increases EPA's credibility when we ask for data we do need and improves our relationships with the states. That means in the future EPA and the states will do a better job, as a team, of protecting the public from environmental harm.

We'll eventually tally up the hours that will be saved, but the most important thing to do at this point is to continue to work swiftly through the remaining suggestions. Never count your money while you're sitting at the table.

September 21, 2007

Seattle

I visited our Regional Office in Seattle on Wednesday, September 19. I want to thank everyone on the Executive Team for briefing me and also all the staff who attended or listened in on my all-hands meeting. From retiring old diesel engines to recycling garbage . . . from restoring Puget Sound to helping Alaska native villages prepare for the impacts of climate change . . . the Region has a full plate.

What I particularly like is all this work is organized under a new Strategic Plan. Unlike many such plans, this one is not ‘full of hopes, full of fears, full of laughter, full of tears' but in 15 pages it succinctly sets out six clear priorities and associated goals, most of which are measurable. Which makes it as novel as an Archie McPhee catalogue and a good model for others to follow.

Oh yeah, I also enjoyed the earthquake drill.

September 20, 2007

Blue Grouse and Mule Deer

I just returned from the annual Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer meeting in Sun Valley, Idaho. ECOS is the association of state and territorial environmental agency heads.

photo of a grouse on the forest floor On the last day of the meeting, I managed to find time for a hike in the mountains nearby. Large swaths of mountainside were bare and black due to the recent Castle Rock fire. Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer Nonetheless, I ran into some friends. First, I came across a covey of blue grouse. One posed long enough for a photograph. I also managed to alarm a few mule deer. Mule deer have huge ears. I caught one on camera, peeking out from behind a tree with her listening gear on high alert.

I've been attending ECOS meetings for two years now and it seems to me I'm seeing fewer grouse and more mule deer at each meeting. That is, there is less grousing and more listening by everyone involved.

photo of a deer looking through the trees I like quantitative measures as much as the next person. (Okay, maybe more than the next person.) But so much of what we get done at EPA depends on relationships and relationships depend on people listening closely to each other, not just complaining about what's wrong. Measures help focus attention and analyze operations, but, in the end, people, working together, make things happen.

The states and EPA will always have disagreements we need to identify and address. We'll always need some grousing. But we really tap the best in our partnership when we open our ears, listen to each other, and then act in concert. I've pointed out some examples of this partnership in the past (see, for instance, my postings of August 7 and September 4). Today, the state/EPA relationship seems stronger than ever and there is great potential for us to do an even better job of protecting the people and environment we serve. We just need to keep our ears on.

September 18, 2007

Guest Blog: Walking in Their Shoes

Today I've asked Jon Scholl, EPA's Counselor to the Administrator for Agricultural Policy, to talk about agriculture.

Thank you, Marcus, for sharing your blog with me! I consider it a real honor to be your first guest blogger.

As a kid growing up on the farm, I can remember an uncle whom we believed could fix anything with some bubble gum and baling wire. In retrospect, he probably could, as the farm my uncle operated then was relatively simple, the machines fairly basic, and the world was pretty far removed. Our concerns about the environment in those days were pretty much confined to keeping soil in place and knowing how to add enough manure at the right time and in the right place to make the farm more productive.

John Scholl, EPA's Counselor to the Administrator for Agricultural Policy and a man outstanding in his field.The agricultural environmental world is a lot more complicated today. Farms are bigger so the impact of one unfortunate mistake can be amplified. The tools we use – global positioning systems, synthetic fertilizers, crop scouting – are high tech, very sophisticated and can be very expensive. These tools allow us to be much more precise and productive in the work that we do at a time when we have become a lot more aware of the global impact of the work we do down on the farm.

Some things haven't changed though, especially as they relate to how farmers view government regulation. I can understand the fear of being told how to farm by someone that doesn't understand the day-to-day challenges you face. As if it isn't enough to worry about whether it's going to rain, or if a disease outbreak is going to ruin the market for your animals, or if your banker is going to see you through another year, it's tough to think about the cost of government regulation being added to your operation for public gains that may contribute very little environmental improvement.

Recent publicity over the quality of food imported from other countries raises lots of concern among the public. It is fueling growing sensitivity over where food is grown. Actions aimed at protecting the environment must consider the effect upon the ability of farms and ranches to adapt and thrive lest we push food production out of the United States into other parts of the world.

We don't live in a farm world anymore where bubble gum and baling wire can fix problems. Neither do we live in a regulatory world where more and more regulation can fix our problems. Doing so will either send food production overseas or fuel the growth of farms to a size where they can more effectively absorb costs. Neither of these are outcomes Americans who want their food to be grown close to home will like.

September 17, 2007

Doh!

The Simpsons Movie has grossed almost $500m since opening in July. EPA plays an important role in the plot. Spencer Friedman and Jeffrey Roberson in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer have sent along the following draft letter for my signature. I've informed them I might sign it -- for a dozen donuts. Mmmm donuts . . . .

Ahoy hoy citizens of Springfield:

I am writing to apologize for the way the city of Springfield was treated during the recent environmental disaster. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA -- pronounced ee-pee-ay, not ee-pah) admits that our reaction might have been, well . . . a little extreme. We always try to err on the side of protection. Nonetheless, in this case we may have gone a bit too far. Maybe.

An internal review has helped identify a few areas where EPA's efforts could have been improved. First, we have determined that enclosing Springfield in a giant glass dome was counterproductive because it exacerbated local greenhouse effects (although it was very good for Groundskeeper Willie's thistle). Second, “roving death squads” were not a productive use of the EPA's helicopter fleet. (Okay, it's one helicopter.) Also, the purchase of 5,000 Humvees to patrol the city might have been an unwarranted use of taxpayer money. (But they were hybrids getting at least forty rods to the hogshead!) Finally, EPA's response time was unreasonably delayed. We found this was primarily caused by our inability to determine in which state Springfield is located.

Were an environmental disaster of this magnitude to happen again in Springfield (and under Mayor Quimby's leadership, it will -- the Mayor couldn't lead a monkey to a banana raffle), here are two alternative approaches the EPA would consider:

Instead of a glass dome, we might encase the city in some organic or biodegradable material such as Jell-O™. This would be a ‘win-win' as it would also reduce Springfield's chronic Jell-O™ surplus.

The EPA could immediately siphon off the polluted water from Lake Springfield and sell it to Duff Brewery. After extensive examination of Duff Beer, often going late into the night, scientists at our Szyslak Laboratory say they are 'pretty sure' that chemicals contained in the lake can neutralize contaminants normally found in a can of Duff Beer.

EPA's ultimate goal has always been to protect the health and well-being of the citizens and environment of Springfield. We will not fail you again.

Hoy,

Marcus Peacock
Deputy Administrator
US Environmental Protection Agency

Spencer and Jeffrey, thanks for a good laugh . . . now, get back to work.

September 13, 2007

Where We Can Improve

EPA regularly tracks whether we are on schedule to get out about 30 important EPA regulations and guidance documents. Getting these out on schedule is important for at least three reasons:

  • The sooner we get them out the sooner their implementation starts better protecting human health and the environment.
  • It affects the overall reputation of the agency. Being on time shows you have your act together.
  • Staying on time also means we don't 'jam' the end of the process if we need to meet a court-ordered deadline. Rushing final reviews and analyses results in a lower quality product.

How are we doing? On average we are almost 70 days behind schedule (see graph below). That's not very good.

graph titled: Average Number of Days Ahead (behind) for DA Priority Items (beginning 1/1/2007). Line graph declines in a zig-zag from minus-37 on Jan 1 to minus-69 on Sep 7. We're asking questions about why this is happening. It turns out a minority of the actions account for a large amount of the delay. Ever hear of Pareto's Principle or the "80/20 Rule"? That is, about 80 percent of an effect will come from about 20 percent of the causes. In this case, 76 percent of the delay is being caused by about 19 percent of the actions we are tracking.

Consequently, we are focusing more attention on the few rules/guidances that are causing the most delay. So far we've found no easy ways to get any of them back on schedule. For instance, with one rule, the Department of Justice suggested a raft of changes that made it more legally defensible, so we needed to take the time to make the changes and get the rule re-reviewed.

While I think we can speed up some rules, part of what we are learning is that we may need to be more realistic about how quickly things can be done on certain rules. The trick may be to figure out which particular rules may need more time and build that into the schedules from the start.

September 11, 2007

September 11

I am proud to be an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency.

On September 11, 2001 EPA personnel valiantly and without hesitation responded to attacks at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. The day started with diabolical acts of terror. And was followed by extraordinarily selfless acts of heroism.

There is something in many of us, as human beings, which instantly responds to naked great wrongs with contrary great acts of kindness and sympathy.

Today we not only remember what happened on September 11, 2001, we are reminded again of the remarkable love that strangers can feel and give to others. We are reminded we are part of a larger community. We are all connected to one another.

This day bells throughout the District of Columbia will ring in remembrance. This reminds me of John Donne's famous meditation:

"All mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

We triumph over terrorism and conquer the senseless tragedy of that horrible day when we celebrate the nobility of the human spirit and when we choose to intentionally act in service to one another.

September 10, 2007

Two Jobs Revisited

I wanted to thank those many folks who responded to my posting on August 21 entitled "Two Jobs". Since no one edits these entries before they get posted, I was concerned some readers would consider that entry too personal or too corny. But, typical of the comments I received, one EPA employee wrote, "Yes, we work here because we believe in the Agency's mission and we will stay here as long as we feel that our work is making a difference and that EPA is continually on a path of improvement. I think many of us get caught up in our day to day jobs and do not often stop to remember what the ultimate goal is."

Too right! We should never stop asking, “How is what I am doing today helping protect human health and the environment?”

September 06, 2007

Chuffed About Tipping

I am just back from vacation in England. While there I was struck by this "No Tipping" sign posted along a backstreet in Southend-on-Sea (see below). For an American it is ambiguous.

photo of large white sign of: Environment Agency, NO TIPPING, Maximum penalty £20,000, Hotline 0800 80 70 60 First, one might expect a “No Tipping” sign in a restaurant or hotel where you are not expected to add a little something to the bill for service. But that makes no sense when posted on a gate under an Environmental Agency logo. So, instead, it could be directing the public not to ‘tip off' authorities to illegal activities. But why would the Environmental Agency not want to be tipped off to such activities especially when they provide a hotline number on the very same sign?

The answer is, of course, in Britain ‘tipping' refers to discarding waste or garbage. Thus, the sign is synonymous with ‘No Dumping' signs one sees in the United States.

Report Environmental ViolationsSo that we are not ambiguous at the US EPA, we do want people to tip. Not garbage, but information. To boost the ability of the public to report environmental insults, EPA placed the environmental violation icon on our website in January 2006. Since then, tips have more than doubled to about 650 a month. As the British might say, we're chuffed (very pleased) about that. More tips means we're better able to protect human health and the environment.

Want to help us catch the bad guys? Learn what to look for and if something doesn't seem right to you, let us know.

September 04, 2007

Kaizenin Kansas

'Kaizen' roughly means 'continuous improvement' in English. It is a bit of Japanese they are learning in EPA's Region 7 in Kansas City.

Like most federal agencies, EPA has a large number of important but complicated paperwork processes we use to get our work done. One of these processes is approving State water quality standards. Approving state water quality standards often takes many months to complete. Yet the sooner governments agree on such standards, the sooner everyone can be more confident their water is safe and clean. (We measure the approval of such standards in box 37 of EPA's Quarterly Management Report.)

Recently, EPA Region 7 and four states (Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas) used a 'Kaizen' process, first developed in Japan, to systematically look at ways to improve how the government approves water quality standards.

How'd it turn out? Our Regional Administrator in Kansas City, John Askew, writes, "I am happy to report that using the Kaizen process worked very well for this effort and we were able to streamline Region 7's internal process for approval." In particular, the number of steps in Region 7's approval process was almost cut in half, from 50 to 26.

More importantly EPA's Region 7 and these states now have a mutual understanding of the motivations and restrictions in each other's processes. According to John, they now know that much earlier involvement with the states by the Region and Headquarters will be a key to streamlining this process.

Can what we learned here be used in other Regions? John thinks so, but it can't be done 'on the cheap.' John explains, "They need to go through the formal process to . . . develop the relationship and trust needed to achieve success. Particularly useful was the exercise diagramming EPA's process with all participating. Our inefficiencies were clearly revealed to all participants. We likened it to 'making sausage in the butcher shop window.'" And, John says, "The people responsible for making final decisions must be involved." The technique doesn't work if the exercise is delegated to staff.