EPA Region 3
Topic: What's it like to be an EPA attorney?
Date: October 21, 2010
Host Lena Kim: Have you ever thought about working for the Environmental Protection Agency? Ever wonder what it’s like to enforce our nation’s environmental laws?
With us today is Russell Swan of our legal office. Russ, may I add, is the only EPA lawyer to have competed on Survivor, in Samoa last year.
And I’m Lena Kim of EPA’s mid-Atlantic region, and welcome to Environment Matters, our series of podcasts.
Russ, thinking back a few years, did you know you wanted to grow up and be an EPA lawyer?
Russell Swan: You know, I wouldn’t say that it was when I was a little boy that I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, it was probably around the time when I was thirteen or so, I used to do some fishing in the rivers in Pittsburgh and I experienced what we now call a combined sewer overflow while I was fishing and I was incensed because not only did I have to stop fishing that day, I was worried about what my family was eating because we actually ate the fish that we caught. So, it was at that point that I knew that environmentalism is something that I was going to pursue and once I got to EPA and after about three years of doing some regular program work, I knew that I wanted to go after the bad guys in the real way through enforcement and the best way I figured to do that was being a lawyer.
Lena: How would you describe your work at EPA?
Russ: I am currently in the Office of Regional Counsel here in Region 3 in Philadelphia. The Office of Regional Counsel basically services all the program offices that being the Clean Air Act Division, the Water Division, etc. My work specifically is with the Clean Air Act. So, if it’s coming out of a stack and you’re breathing it in, it’s the type of work that I am looking at in terms of, you know, looking at enforcement and I absolutely love what I do.
Lena: Is there a particular case that stands out for you?
Russ: One of the cases I worked on was with a company that makes styrofoam and believe it or not, styrofoam is one of those things where there are air emissions and unfortunately they had a control device that wasn’t working appropriately and so some of those emissions from the process was going up the stack and people who have different breathing conditions be it asthma or emphysema or things like that would notice those types of emissions and so we took an enforcement action against them to fix their control device.
Lena: Russ, what do you enjoy most about being a lawyer for EPA?
Russ: The thing I like about being a lawyer the most for EPA to be honest with you is the collegiality with the other lawyers. I learned a lot and there’s a lot, a ton of smart people who work for EPA and if there’s ever a subject matter that I am as not well versed in, they’re more than willing to help me out. But the other thing I really enjoy is the fact that what I do matters. It has a direct impact on people’s lives and that’s the reason why I chose this profession in the first place.
Lena: And Russ, what do you think some of the greatest challenges working at EPA are?
Russ: You know, one of the greatest challenges that the natural environment is complex. It’s not always predictable and as we see sometimes it’s a natural disaster, sometimes the planet just behaves badly and sometimes has an impact on the environment as well. And there are times when you have that issue it’s really difficult to figure out what’s the best way to go given the constraints and some of the authority we have to enforce against the regulated community.
Lena: Your fellow contestants on Survivor recognized your leadership skills--they did elect you as chief of a tribe. Talk a little about your experiences in Samoa and how it has impacted your life back here in Philadelphia?
Russ: One of the interesting things is that Samoa is a beautiful, natural environment. I mean some of the most pristine water I’ve ever seen. One of things that I found was interesting is that while we were out there was in Samoa trying to find food and deal with the flora and fauna, there would be couple times that I would see plastic bottles washing up on the beach. So you would have this beautiful area, all this other stuff going on, I’m trying to keep people from stabbing me in the back, and there’s a plastic bottle up on the beach so the environmental piece never left as I was trying to survive all these nasty people, I had to also see this beautiful environment was being impacted by things like plastic water bottles.
Lena: Russ, what advice would you give to someone who is interested in an environmental career?
Russ: Yes, if you’re interested in an environmental career, one of the things I would suggest you do is definitely get into the natural sciences. Take a biology class. Something that has to do with, even geology, things in that nature because what that would do is expose you to a different way of thinking in terms of your natural environment. It will give you a leg up because one of the things about agencies like the EPA--they are scientifically based organizations, so the more you have under your belt in terms of scientific knowledge as a base the more you’ll understand as you come in and you start doing this type of work.
Lena: To learn more about EPA’s mission and opportunities for you to get involved, visit us at www.epa.gov. And thanks for joining us on Environment Matters.