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August 2007

August 30, 2007

The Spread of a Performance Culture

I've said EPA is trying to achieve and maintain a 'performance culture.' That phrase can mean different things to different people but to me it means people who work here are constantly asking the questions, "How is what I am doing helping protect human health and the environment and is there a way I can do it better?"

I know we're getting there when I start getting emails like the one I recently received from someone in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. I've changed the language a little to protect the innocent.

"You may be interested in an approach we're taking to improve Fed Facility CERCLIS data. [This is data necessary to characterize and cleanup contaminated waste sites.] We got to thinking about setting a goal for federal facility CERCLIS data quality. Last month we sent out a memo to Regions stating the goal (zero data quality problems by September) and attached the Region 4-inspired draft Best Practice as an example of how one Region turned things around."

Thank you for that. And I hope to find out soon how we did on improving our CERCLIS data.

August 28, 2007

What's in Your Piragua?

One of EPA's goals is to make sure at least 90 percent of the nation's population receives drinking water that meets all applicable health-based drinking water standards. 90 percent sounds pretty low but when you look across EPA's regions you start to understand why that is not a bad overall goal. Every region is already above 90 percent except Region 2 which is below 60 percent. So what is going on in Region 2?

The answer is Puerto Rico, which is part of EPA Region 2. Less than 40 percent of Puerto Ricans receive drinking water that meets all applicable health-based standards. If we are looking to better protect people from contaminated water, Puerto Rico is a good place to focus. So what is EPA doing about this?

The graph below shows the % of the Puerto Rican population getting clean water over the last several quarters. There has been a marked improvement since 2005. However, EPA can't get all the credit for this for at least two reasons. First, while there have been a number of water filtration plant upgrades, we believe the weather is a big factor in this increase. Since 2006, there has been a marked decrease in rainfall. Rainfall events in Puerto Rico can be intense, resulting in spikes that overload treatment plants. Less rain can mean better drinking water.

bar chart, Percent of the population in Puerto Rico served by community water systems that meet all applicable health-based drinking water standards.  FY05 Q4, 11%.  FY06 Q1, 22%.  FY06 Q2, 27%.  FY06 Q3, 34%.  FY06 Q4, 26%.  FY07 Q1, 38%.  FY07 Q2, 35%.  FY11 Target, 30%.
(click to enlarge)

Second, a lot of credit goes to the Puerto Rican government. EPA recently helped negotiate an agreement within the Puerto Rican government that calls for a multi-year capital improvement plan that will invest in excess of $1 billion in new water treatment. Final details of this agreement, incorporating EPA's recommendations, are being worked out with the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority. As this commitment is fulfilled, the water will just get cleaner and cleaner whether it is coming out of a tap or is served in a piragua (no, not a canoe, but a Puerto Rican snow cone) - regardless of the weather.

August 23, 2007

What Are They Drinking in Philadelphia?

Despite significant progress, a large fraction of the nation's waterways and lakes do not meet water quality standards. The law requires that states and EPA limit the amount of pollution going into our waterways until we meet these standards. States and EPA can't figure out what limits to put on facilities such as factories and wastewater treatment plants until States and EPA establish “total maximum daily loads” or TMDLs. So establishing TMDLs is important. We can't clean up a lot of our waters until we have TMDLs.

It's so important that we routinely track how many TMDLs EPA and states set every quarter to make sure we are getting the job done. Here's what senior managers saw over the first half of fiscal year 2007 (see graph below). What is going on in Philadelphia, home of EPA Region 3? Through April 1 Region 3 had approved over 1,000 TMDLs, an extraordinary number compared to the typical TMDL production elsewhere.

bar chart showing FY07 TMDL production as of April 1, by each EPA Region.  Region 1, 14.  Region 2, 1.  Region 3, 1038.  Region 4, 370.  Region 5, 547.  Region 6, 26.  Region 7, 44.  Region 8, 51.  Region 9, 64.  Region 10, 100
(click to enlarge)

Region 3 did three things that led to this success:

  • Used a template for mine sites. EPA and Pennsylvania concentrated on a large number of waters that were contaminated by abandoned mine sites. They had a standard template for setting TMDLs for theses sites that helped them set a lot of TMDLs in a short period of time.
  • State/EPA partnership. In general, the states and EPA shared information early and often. That reduced delays by letting people identify and resolve differences earlier rather than later in the process.
  • Streamlined Review Process. EPA implemented an intensive and streamlined TMDL review process.

Could one or more of these ideas accelerate TMDL production in other Regions? We're going to find out.

August 21, 2007

Two Jobs

I have two jobs. First, I am a substitute for the Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If Steve Johnson can't be somewhere he wants to be, I step in for him. Second, I am the Chief Operating Officer of EPA. I oversee EPA's day-to-day operations. That means I help manage the most dedicated mission-driven civil servants in government. People do not work at EPA for the money. They are here because they want to protect human health and the environment. That is EPA's 'profit motive.

You may not understand how exceptional that is unless you share a passion for the environment. I have had three 'environmental epiphanies' in my life. Let me describe, as best I can, one of these revelations. I was 14. I was standing alone in the center of Skunk Lake deep in a Minnesota December holding a 6 foot orange staff. The sun was brilliant, the air crisp and still. About 200 yards away a fellow Boy Scout, looking small below the dormant oak and maple trees, slowly snowshoed along the perimeter of the lake periodically taking bearings on the marker I held.

As I waited, I contemplated the lake, the trees, the immensity of time, and my smallness in the context of that time. The lake, the trees - all of it had been there long before I had been there, long before mankind had been there. And it had looked exactly like this and was indifferent to whether I was there or not. It just was. And there were countless other lakes and trees elsewhere in Minnesota, in the U.S., in Canada . . . everywhere. I was a tiny part of a huge system - an overwhelming system - that had been ticking along for an overwhelming period of time. It was my first discovery of the miraculous: a sudden realization that humans have a relationship with Nature and that relationship is not equal. We are part of, and separate from, a world that is almost too hard for us to grasp in its complexity and scale across space and time. And a slower realization that this miracle, a miracle that surrounds us every day, places aesthetic and moral obligations on us to conserve and protect not only other people from environmental contamination but the environment itself.

This is why I love to work at EPA. It is the primary mission of EPA to see that these obligations, as assigned to us by law, are met. But are we doing our job? We need to, we are obligated to, make sure we are doing our job the best way we know how. My second job, the job of Chief Operating Officer, is to find and implement ways to do our work even better. What a wonderful thing to do for a living.

August 16, 2007

We Get Letters

photo of a sack of mail spilling In an average week EPA receives about 65 letters from Senators, Governors, and Congressmen. Many ask us to provide information or answer questions. EPA's Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations (OCIR) makes sure we respond to these requests. A timely response affects how and whether the elected officials are serving their constituents and is a reflection of whether EPA has its act together. Our current goal is to respond to every letter within two weeks or have a very good reason why we need more time to respond.

Aformer head of OCIR once said it would be ‘impossible' to meet such a goal. All these letters must be routed to the correct individual at EPA who can draft a response. That person must draft the response and then it must be reviewed by their supervisor(s) as well as other offices, and sometimes other Departments, for accuracy, grammar, consistency, etc. Just having the wrong person out sick for a couple days can make this a tough goal to meet.

And, indeed, it is a very tough goal. In early 2006, EPA typically had 55 to 65 responses that were overdue. Then we decided to do the impossible. OCIR revamped the system to cut down on the number of reviews. Each EPA office was held more accountable for getting responses done swiftly. For instance, performance was tracked at senior staff meetings every Monday. Offices started getting on letters right away rather than wait until they were ‘late.'

So, what happened? On November 27, 2006 a pink gorilla joined the senior staff meeting to help celebrate the impossible: three consecutive weeks of no -- zero, zippo, nicht -- overdue responses. And we continue to keep the number very, very low (see table).

line graph, Timeliness of Correspondence, average number of correspnodence letters overdue. Jan-Mar 06, 58. Apr-Jun 06, 12. Jul-Sep 06, 0. Oct-Dec 06, 0. Jan0Mar 07, 1.

The man who said it was impossible to do this is now the Chief of Staff to the EPA Administrator. And while he is proud of EPA's achievements, for some reason he doesn't like to talk about this one very much.

August 14, 2007

You Asked: Enforcement Cases

Over the past few weeks I have received a number of responses to my July 31, 2007 post "Why Does EPA Refer So Many Enforcement Cases in September?". In that post I concluded that the reason we send so many referrals to the Department of Justice in September is largely out of habit. That is, we do 90 percent of the paperwork then wait to do the last 10 percent at the end of the fiscal year.

Based on the comments I've received and further investigation, I'm compelled to add two other reasons. First, the annual budget cycle controls when money becomes available for people to start a new round of inspections (usually in the spring) and the natural course of the process (notification, internal reviews, paperwork) leads to a lot of the eventual referrals necessarily being completed in the fall. This cycle is apparently reinforced by a second reason: the weather. In many parts of the country, inspections have to wait until spring or summer so one gets a 'lump' of work all started at the same time which stays a lump all the way through the pipeline.

If these reasons for the September surge are true, and I think they are, in part, then it may be harder than we think to flatten out the hump of paperwork we send to Justice every September and it may make more sense to look at ways to improve the ability of Justice to deal with the workload we send them.

August 10, 2007

Atlanta

I visited the Region 4 office in Atlanta yesterday. Copying a pledge Hank Habicht made when he was Deputy Administrator, I visit each of our ten regional offices at least once a year. I want to thank everyone in the Atlanta office for their time and hospitality. Just like the Alaska office I visited a week ago, I am constantly impressed by the level of knowledge our employees have and the patience they demonstrate to show me what is happening.

Region 4 is doing at least two things that need to be mentioned. First, they are adopting and improving best practices grown elsewhere. For instance, they are now performing NEPA reviews using “NEPAssist”, a system developed in Region 2. NEPAssist allows EPA to perform reviews much more quickly and accurately. Not only has the Region adopted it, but they are improving on it. Second, they are developing exciting innovations of their own. For instance, they have developed a template for planning and monitoring multi-year projects to reduce non-point source pollution in key watersheds. You may hear more on that later.

Both traits are signs of a healthy desire to improve performance. They are improving even though that means changing the way things have always been done and even if that means the idea wasn't ‘grown here.'

August 09, 2007

You Asked: Why Can't I Post Comments?

I've received a lot more comments than I expected for a new blog. One person pointed out this is the first ever ongoing blog by a Presidential appointee. If true, they think that may be one reason for the attention. Regardless, I appreciate your feedback and questions.

Some of the questions I have received are similar and are best answered en masse. Today I'd like to answer, “Why doesn't your blog give readers an option to post comments and questions on the site for everyone to see?

As noted above, this foray into blogging is a bit on the leading edge. Folks have been blogging for years, but there are not that many federal blogs and, as a government entity with a fairly high profile, EPA faces different constraints regarding everything from security to determining a protocol for a moderator to use to sort out inappropriate comments. It would be ironic indeed if an effort to increase transparency was perceived by some people as resulting in unfair censorship. That is not to say we won't eventually allow the posting of comments. But we are on fairly new ground. As far as I know Dr. Jay Bernhardt at the CDC is the only other active blogger from a Cabinet agency who provides for the posting of comments (see http://www.cdc.gov/healthmarketing/blog.htm). We are going to be somewhat careful in how we go.

Another concern is resources. Posting comments would require more of my time as well as someone else here to actively manage the site on a much more frequent basis. Once again, that doesn't preclude offering this option but we would need to figure whether the additional time is worth the feature.

Overall, regardless of the comment system, I hope this blog will show other senior federal officials that if it can be done here, it can be done elsewhere.

[Note: Flow Of The River has been migrated to a blog system handling comments.]

August 07, 2007

Why Is EPA Helping Texas Schools Buy New Buses?

In the last several years the US Environmental Protection Agency has helped Texas school districts in the Dallas, Austin, and Houston areas buy or update over 2,500 school buses. Is this a case of federal spending run amok?

The answer is clean air. One of the most cost-effective ways to reduce air pollution is to retrofit or replace older diesel engines. One diesel engine can emit as much as 8 tons of pollution in a year. Retrofitting or replacing such engines costs a few thousand dollars but can cut harmful emissions by as much as 95%. Consequently, several years ago EPA started running programs across the nation to reduce diesel emissions including one which updates school buses.

 

photo of a yellow school bus

A more interesting question is: How did we manage to get so much work done in Texas? A few months ago EPA's senior managers were reviewing data regarding reducing pollution from diesel engines and we noticed something. In a string of states from Iowa down through Texas we were making tremendous progress. For instance, compared to 2005, diesel related projects and retrofits increased fourfold. And a big part of this improvement happened in Texas.

  2005 2006
# of diesel engines retrofitted nationally 2,966 10,640

There is one major reason we're doing so well in Texas: partnership. EPA partnered with state and local governments to fund eight Clean School Bus USA pilot projects (these projects retrofitted 500 buses, completely replaced another thirty and switched 2,000 to cleaner fuels). But perhaps the best part of the story is that our efforts have helped to raise additional funds. This success led to Texas securing tens of millions of dollars for the Texas Emissions Reduction Program and more recently Texas funded its own “Texas State Clean School Bus Program.”

Funding for diesel-related projects in Texas now comes from a lot of sources. The Texas Emissions Reduction Program provides far more funding for diesel retrofits (and other clean air projects) than EPA provides. The combined resources along with strong interest at the local level are able to get a lot more work done faster than if EPA were operating alone.

EPA started a program to clean up old diesel buses. Texas enthusiastically embraced that program and started its own. Now, millions of dollars are being spent by a number of partners to reduce diesel exhaust. It's not only a good example of how states and EPA work together to deliver cleaner air, but it shows how Federal resources can help grow a movement. And as others follow this example, that will mean cleaner air for anyone who shares the road with a school bus.

August 06, 2007

Alaska

I just returned from a week in Alaska. I am overwhelmed by the large response to this blog during the week I was gone. For those of you who sent in comments or questions, I will try and respond as soon as possible.

Alaska faces many unique and not-so-unique environmental challenges and I did want to write about two of the visits we made. First, we met with Larry Hinzman, Director of the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks. The Center receives funding from EPA. We discussed evidence of warming in the polar regions of the Northern Hemisphere and the potential causes for this warming.

Second, the EPA delegation enjoyed the hospitality of the native village of Nuiqsut. Nuiqsut clings to the Colville River near the Beaufort Sea in the far north. We got out on the river and saw, among other things, erosion along the river banks that the native Alaskans believe is caused by warming. They think warmer air is melting the exposed permafrost below the soil and causing the soil to slump into the river. Below is a picture of erosion on the Nigliq Channel near one of the Nuiqsut fish camps. Erosion can reduce water quality in the river that can, in turn, affect fish populations and other uses of the waterway.

 

photo showing large sections of shoreline undercut and collapsed

According to Dr. Hinzman, some of the warming in the polar regions is natural and some is the indirect result of greenhouse gas emissions from across the globe. To the extent global greenhouse gas emissions contribute to these changes, how can we get together, as a planet, and mitigate their effects in the future without harming our energy security or economy?

Last Thursday the President invited over a dozen major economies, including India and China, to meet in Washington DC on September 28 and 29, 2007. This will kick-off a collaborative process that, by the end of 2008, should result in the major economies, including large developing economies, having in place a framework that could include a long-term global goal for improving energy security and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This process will be historic and will necessarily complement the significant unilateral work the United States, including EPA, is already doing in both areas.

August 03, 2007

Cool It

Last week EPA released an analysis of a climate change proposal offered by Senators Lieberman and McCain. Also last week, EPA Administrator Steve Johnson noted we have received over 60,000 comments regarding the State of California's request for a federal waiver from the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gasses from vehicles.

There is so much work going on regarding climate change it is hard to keep track of it all. At EPA and the Department of Transportation, for instance, significant work continues on the first federal rule to propose to regulate greenhouse gases. This rule would limit greenhouse gas emissions from new cars and trucks. All of this work should help the country meet the goal set out by the President in 2002 of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 500 million metric tons by 2012 compared to business as usual and his more recent goal of reducing gasoline usage by 20% over the next 10 years.

Regardless of all the government's efforts and proposals, I believe it is the actions of individuals that will make the difference. Today, I challenge you to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by at least 2% over the next year. First you need to set a baseline of where you are now using a carbon calculator.

Once you have a baseline, you need to set a target for yourself. For instance, I set out a goal this past year of a 5% reduction. I achieved my goal by: signing up for a green power program; taking the subway a little more often; and, finally, I purchased some additional Energy Star light bulbs for my home (I missed the closet lights on a previous sweep through the house). But there are many ways to reduce your footprint and EPA has some good suggestions if you need them.

August 02, 2007

Buckingham Fountain

EPA issues a lot of performance reports and information. These include:

  • a Strategic Plan outlining our mission, goals and objectives;
  • an annual Performance and Accountability Report;
  • Program Assessment Rating Tool measures and goals;
  • annual performance measures as part of EPA's annual commitment system; and
  • a Quarterly Management Report.

Sheesh. How do these all fit together?

Snuggled up to the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago sits Buckingham Fountain. Katie Buckingham gave the fountain to the city of Chicago in 1927 to memorialize her brother Clarence. She would not be happy that it is now commonly known by tourists as the “Bundy Fountain” after being featured in the opening credits of the television show “Married With Children.” I also doubt she would have anticipated it would be a good metaphor for EPA's performance management system.

 

photo of Buckingham fountain with diagram of performance management system

How is it a metaphor? Start at the top. The water jets that surmount the fountain represent EPA's mission: To protect human health and the environment. The next level down represents the 5 broad goals that support the mission; clean air, clean water, protecting land, providing healthy communities/ecosystems, and promoting environmental compliance and stewardship. The five goals, in turn, cascade down into 20 more specific objectives. The mission statement, the five goals and 20 objectives are all laid out in EPA's long-term Strategic Plan.

How do we know if EPA is on the right track to meeting its long-term goals and objectives? The objectives further flow down into a pool of many sub-objectives that have annual goals and measures. These are tracked once a year using the Performance and Accountability Report, Program Assessment Rating Tool measures and the annual commitment system. All these pieces add up to a lot of annual measures - well over 300 of them.

Finally, dipping into the large pool of annual measures on a more frequent basis, is the Quarterly Management Report. This examines about 60 metrics every 3 months. The purpose is to not just track what is going on, but help us learn what is going on so we can change how we do what we do. If we can find ways to exceed our annual goals, we will exceed our long-term objectives and goals. That means we will better meet our mission to protect human health and the environment and make the United States an even safer, better place to live.