EPA policies, regulations have regional flavor

Tuesday - 8/9/2011, 5:29am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

For Rusty Harris-Bishop, the Environmental Protection Agency's communications coordinator for Region 9 and a remedial project manager in the superfund division, working 3,000 miles from headquarters isn't without challenges — starting with the three-hour time difference.

"We will get into the office at 8 a.m. and we will have a call waiting for us and they want something by noon their time, so that gives us an hour to get something to them. So I don't know if they always appreciate the time difference," said Harris-Bishop, who works in San Francisco. "But we always joke that after 2 p.m. you don't have to worry about anything for the rest of the day, because a call from headquarters will not be coming in after 5 p.m. their time."

Harris-Bishop is partly joking about the time difference, but it is an example of the disconnect that sometimes occurs between headquarters and field offices.

The Environmental Protection Agency is one of several departments trying to establish a one-agency approach, and that includes reaching out to the field offices more regularly.

"The agency has made great strides to be an agency, not agencies where Region 3 is a personal fiefdom and etc. etc," said Russ Swan, EPA's chief of the underground storage tank, asbestos, lead and pesticides branch in the Office of Regional Counsel for Region 3 in Philadelphia. "Headquarters — yes, that is where the buck stops. But there really is a lot of give-and-take between regional offices and headquarters. Sometimes the communication can be a little interesting, but reasonable minds can disagree. But there is mutual respect for everyone's viewpoints."

Swann, Harris-Bishop and others said EPA's desire to reach out to the field offices helps make policy decisions and their eventual implementation easier.

"I see our role as being the advocate for helping to make a policy implementable rather than one that seems to look right or fit right within a law or regulation," said Rick Rogers, the associate director in EPA Region 3's Office of State Programs in the Land and Chemicals Division. "We have a little bit more experience in working with individual states or state staff and knowing what they can do, how they can do it and the pressures the states feel in terms of budgetary problems, loss of positions and an inability to fill positions. That all equates to if we come out with a policy that is not implementable, what benefit is it to protecting public health and the environment."

Rogers said he feels like headquarters is listening and values the input the field office gets from Washington.

"A lot of times we come out with good regulations or policies to be followed but there isn't enough money to implement them," he said. "Whether it's money EPA provides to state agencies or the state agencies which have to get the funding from somewhere (or) whether it's their own internal budgets or fees collected from regulated entities. The bottom line usually is we have a good set of regs or policies to work with but they are designed to be fully funded, and we typically are not fully funded so a lot of times we are struggling to make ends meet."

And it's that kind of challenge — understanding state agency or possible implementation roadblocks &mdash where the regional offices excel.

Rogers said communication that flows to and from the field makes all the difference in whether a program is successful.

"Trying just to understand each other's point of view and trying to communicate that well has always been a bit difficult," Rogers said. "I've always thought ever since I was first in the program and working on my first regulatory development workgroup, it would be really helpful if we could switch shoes so that we could get the experience and see what it's like to work inside the Beltway, and experience those differences, those pressures and expectations. And vice-versa: Have folks, who work in our programs in Washington, come out and be in our shoes for awhile. I think that would really help in a better understanding on both sides and a better acceptance or understanding of why we both are asking for what we are asking for."

Harris-Bishop and Swan agreed with Rogers that both sets of employees would benefit from spending time in each other's offices.

But with travel money tight and budgets shrinking, Harris-Bishop said Region 9 is relying on webinars as well as video and teleconferences to communicate with their counterparts.