An Interview with Former Deputy Regional Administrator and GWA Founder, Stan Laskowski
On December 2, 2020, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) turned 50. GWA founder and current board member, Stan Laskowski started with the EPA in June 1972, eighteen months after the Agency opened its doors for business. Let's take a little walk down memory lane with Stan to see how it is we got here.
What was it like in the early days and what jobs did you hold during your 31-year tenure?
Before EPA, I worked as a hydrologist at the US Geological Survey from 1968-1972 where I had the honor of completing some of the first flood insurance studies in NJ and also produced a novel report summarizing decades of streamflow records. At EPA Region 3, I was responsible for PA, DE, MD, VA, WV, and D.C., and I held a variety of staff and management positions. I was fortunate to have had many exciting opportunities including managing the beginning of the waste water permit/enforcement program, managing the start-up of the Superfund program, and being the Deputy Regional Administrator, the highest career position, for 15 years (1982-1997). For several years I was also the Division Director responsible for the field and lab work, wetlands, and innovative approaches. And for one year in the early 1990s, I was detailed to HQ to manage the Agency’s strategic planning and pollution prevention programs.
Very impressive resume, Stan. Just the other day, someone asked me what EPA stood for, and they didn’t mean that in the philosophical sense; they’d just never heard of EPA. Frankly, given how much coverage there is regarding climate change and the environment in general, I was kind of spooked. How long was it until you could stop explaining to people what EPA did?
During the 1970s and 1980s name recognition was not an issue. The environment was often voted as one of the top three issues by the American public. Although we had some very heated negotiations with polluters about disrupting some decades-old practices and relationships, the public was generally very supportive of our efforts.
How long did it take you to catch on to what all the acronyms meant?
I cannot say that I ever caught onto ALL of the acronyms but I got to know the most important ones ASAP; it really was not too difficult, IMHO.
The last four years have been tough for EPA, especially with the rolling back of over 100 environmental regulations. Obviously, this isn’t the first time the EPA has faced criticism. How were the political headwinds in the early days compared to those of today and how long does it take the Agency to recover from an environmentally-unfriendly administration?
For the first 20 years of EPA there was considerable support for environmental laws in Congress, reflecting the will of the people. The Democrats often took the lead for pushing the laws. The Republicans enacted most of the early laws and Republican President Richard Nixon was the one who formed EPA in 1970.
What was your favorite post at EPA and why?
I greatly enjoyed my entire career at EPA. It was challenging. We could see the differences that we made in public health and environmental protection. We had opportunities to be creative. We worked with people who believed in the same mission, i.e., serving the people through environmental protection. It was often stressful but most of all it was much fun. Although we were often under attack from both the regulated community and the environmental groups, it was extremely satisfying to find creative solutions based on good science.
My favorite position was as the Deputy Regional Administrator (DRA) for 15 years. The top position in each of the 10 EPA Regional Offices, the Regional Administrator (RA), is a political appointee and changes with each new President. As the DRA I served six RAs and was Acting RA five times while waiting for a new RA to be appointed. The RA and DRA typically work as a team and I was usually responsible for ensuring that the many EPA programs were working well. These programs included enforcement, hazardous waste, water, air, toxics, pesticides, estuaries (e.g., the Chesapeake Bay), and others.
Of course, all the work is done as a team: scientists, engineers, lawyers, budget, finance, public affairs experts, etc. At its peak there were about 1100 employees and perhaps another 1000 contractors working in the Regional Office. And for every EPA person, there were about five State environmental employees. The regulated community numbered in the many tens of thousands. So, the challenge was to design and implement systems in partnership with all these people and to find the approach that would result in the maximum environmental protection. This included approaches that were regulatory in nature; approaches that were non-regulatory; using data as a motivator, and more. I was very blessed to have been given these opportunities and Region 3, as a team, has had many accomplishments via measurable improvements in air and water even while population and economic activities were growing at a rapid pace. Yes, we can have both — a clean environment and a good economy!
What do you see as the most pressing environmental problems of our time, and if you were king, how would you solve them?
I don’t want to be king, just a public servant and teacher who helps make a difference. In 2018, the EPA Alumni Association asked me to chair a group that provided our opinion on what the biggest problems would be over the coming 25 years. We identified climate change as the greatest concern, followed by water pollution, air pollution, energy production, etc. We also identified certain systems issues as concerns. These included the protection of top-notch science, inclusive processes in rule-making. More on this can be found on the EPA Alumni Association website.
Assuming you only have one pot of money and more work than that one pot covers, what do you tackle first?
The people, including the best training in their area of expertise, building teams both internally and externally, and fostering a culture of kindness and respect for others.
What is the best thing to come out of EPA whether it’s a mission, a regulation, or a philosophy, and why?
Ambient environmental improvement. This is what people expect from EPA and they want it done fairly.
What path do you think the Agency needs to embark upon for the next 50 years and how do you propose they do that?
Focus on environmental improvement and do that by treating its employees fairly and with respect, promoting partnerships with states, environmental groups, civic and educational organizations, using a mix of regulatory, non-regulatory, and economic approaches to maximize environmental results.
Amen to it all. Thank you so much for your insight, Stan. Here’s to another progressive and productive 50 years and more for EPA.
Stan Laskowski has been a senior executive, leader, teacher, scientist, advisor, and mentor during his career in environmental protection and is continually furthering the U.N.'s SDG#6 for access to clean water for all.