Public Service Week: Perspectives from EPA’s Inaugural Employees

My father was a teacher.  My sister is a teacher.  I grew up with the notion that public service was the noblest thing you could do. That’s why it’s such a privilege to come to work every day with my fellow EPA colleagues, dedicated to serving the American people, and determined to fulfill our mission to protect public health and the environment.

EPA has been around for 45 years.  During that time, we have been fortunate to have thousands of committed public servants call EPA home.  This Public Service Week, I wanted to take a step back, and let some of EPA’s “Charter Members” – the few and proud EPA employees who’ve been here since day one – speak to how EPA’s success in fighting pollution has led to significant progress in our country.

Ken Shuster, a charter member who has spent his career committed to resolving solid and hazardous waste issues, explains the essential and difficult task of figuring out what the problem is and why it is critical to determining how we deal with it.

“In 1974 and 1975, I was responsible for documenting damages associated with solid waste disposal. I documented 34 cases of drinking water wells being contaminated by waste disposal sites; and in all 11 cases of vapor intrusion (gases generated by waste disposal sites, mostly methane and carbon monoxide) …  in all cases resulting in fatalities by explosion or asphyxiation. These cases became part of the legislative history leading up to the passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1976. During this study effort I visited seven sites that were ultimately listed among the top 15 Superfund National Priorities List.”

When there’s something worth fighting for–like a healthy environment for our families–you’d better be willing to fight. And that’s exactly what we’ve done from day one, especially when things get tough.  Bob Freeman, a charter member and Senior Environmental Engineer focused on wastewater treatment had the challenging and critical task of explaining a certain set of Clean Water grants to the public and the private sector:

“I learned in those [early] days that achieving the goals of our Agency was much more likely to happen if we developed positive working relationships based on competence and trust with our stakeholders.  That approach has served well throughout my career.” 

Through it all, EPA’s charter members’ sense of why we do what we do, only strengthens over time.  I speak for many when I say that I’m humbled by their lasting commitment to shield people from environmental harm, and their selfless dedication to something bigger than themselves.  To me, that’s what makes public service still among the highest of callings. Here is Carl Edlund, director of Region 6 Superfund Division:

“When I started with EPA in 1970…we knew that EPA was going to tackle immense changes in the way that people interacted with the environment … For all of human existence, the environment was an unending immensity impervious to lasting damage and something to be conquered, tamed, exploited and/or dumped on.  In 1970, huge, very visible, problems were evident ranging from polluted air, water, and land to indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals.  The enthusiasm of many EPA staff was reflected by one of our early posters that showed a babbling brook with the words ‘I believe that I can change the earth’.  Armed with a slew of new statutes, we set out to make that change … When he participated in the 40th anniversary of EPA, Bill Ruckelshaus [first EPA Administrator] commented that working at EPA was remarkable because it combined excitement, challenges, work of extreme interest and fulfillment. From my experience, I second the motion.”

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