Seeking Solutions from a New Perspective

photo of site with collection lagoon and large white tanks

About the author: Rob Lawrence joined EPA in 1990 and is Senior Policy Advisor on Energy Issues in the Dallas, TX regional office. As an economist, he works to insure that both supply and demand components are addressed as the Region develops its Clean Energy and Climate Change Strategy.

About 5 years ago, I had the opportunity to change jobs within our Dallas regional office. The Region recognized that we were facing new environmental challenges that did not fit entirely within one media division. Sure, aspects of an issue would be adequately addressed by a traditional media program, but no one had the larger view that included cross-program policies and requirements. In my case, the job was monitoring and coordinating energy issues in Region 6. Almost everyday, I get tasked to look at a situation that is not just about air emissions or water discharges or waste handling concerns. It is usually some of each and other factors like community views and economics thrown in as well.

Rob LawrenceAnd just what happens when no one takes a broader view? A fine example comes from my prior state service in Louisiana. A waste oil recycler had gone bankrupt and abandoned the operations, including a waste lagoon. After a heavy rain, the neighbors became concerned about the lagoon overflowing and the waste oil reaching their properties. The state water division sent inspectors to the site, determined that additional capacity in the lagoon was needed and issued a compliance order to draw down the water. Soon after some of the water was removed, the neighbors complained about odors coming from the lagoon. The state air division sent inspectors, determined that the exposed oily waste in the lagoon was the cause, and issued a compliance order to put water into the lagoon to serve as a cap on the odors. The next day the site manager called to say that he was in a Catch-22 situation: he could not meet the requirements of one compliance order without violating the terms of the other one. Clearly, addressing the particular needs of one program would not really address the broader environmental concerns presented by the site. Both media programs did the right thing from their perspective, but the situation was more complex than that.

More and more of today’s environmental challenges are calling for solutions with a multimedia or cross program perspective. How can we expect to address climate change and similar complex concerns without taking a broad view? We need to make sure that fixing one problem doesn’t lead to unintended consequences. One approach EPA is taking is with its environmental innovations program. Check out our website to learn more about how EPA is facing these issues from a different perspective.