We Were “Bad People”

In response to criticism from a college professor in 2010, Eric initially began his memoir to examine the EPA and the means and methods it used to roll out federal environmental laws — all in the context of his regulatory and management reforms he devised while serving at the top of EPA’s water programs between 1981–1983. He wanted to help both educators and their students interested in the environment to understand from an insider’s perspective how policy is really set. He describes the rough and tumble intersection between policy and politics.

After copious research for the book, it grew into a robust, authoritative historical account, tracing the earliest roots of The Gorilla in the Closet — a metaphor for the EPA itself.

Eric served in EPA in Atlanta, Georgia, at its founding in 1970 after his return from Vietnam combat and later as the top federal water quality official with budget, management, and policy authority over EPA’s largest and oldest program in EPA’s Washington, D.C. Headquarters. He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and Senate confirmed, and signed on to an agency that was highly decentralized in 10 regional offices following a personality-driven management structure which struggled to oversee 57 states and territories. He administered the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act with a staff of 2,000, an annual operating budget of $200 million, and a federal grant program to municipalities of $2.4 billion.

 

What Could Go Wrong?

Eric traces EPA’s formation on December 2, 1970 from its initial organization to its first ambush enforcement actions, to the decentralization policy of its first administrator to the rollout of the first command-and-control system under the Clean Water Act of 1972 that failed to keep fealty with the very premise upon which the system of permits and enforcement was justified — to avoid pollution shopping by requiring industry meet uniform minimum technology performance standards for their wastewater discharges into the waters of the United States. Eric and the Office of Water completely revamped the manner in which the second round of industrial permits was rolled out and kept fealty with the CWA.

The ad hoc manner in which the first round of discharge permits was issued discredited EPA in the eyes of industry, many municipalities, and its engineering consultants. Lawsuits that followed sapped EPA resources needed to write regulations for Best Practicable Treatment (BPT) effluent guideline regulations upon which permits were supposed to be based. Simultaneously, a policy document issued by its administrator relegated to a backwater office, the most significant statutory provisions to protect water quality on the local level called Water Quality Standards (WQS) — the main provision that assigned control over pollution to states to determine what treatment levels were justified to protect beneficial uses of our water bodies beyond the minimum technology-based standards set in Washington.

The effect of this policy neglect a decade later was a congressional stay of funding municipal advanced treatment under EPA’s grant program without proof that the additional costs were justified. Eric’s second EPA tour faced this conflict between EPA’s 10-year lack of stewardship over WQS, the need to reform WQS so pollution decisions were justified, and a Senate oversight committee that attempted to prohibit Eric from doing so. This is but one example given of the rough and tumble conflict between policy-making and politics, and how good science was suborned by politics and ideology.

This example is not presented in a vacuum, but against a backdrop of the beginning of the new environmental protection era dominated by the federal government, the influence the Vietnam War had over passage of a raft of federal legislation starting in 1969 and establishing for the first time federal enforcement, and the baked-in nature of EPA which is captured in a chapter called “EPA’s Anatomy.” Eric chronicles his tour during “Sewergate” as if it were a whodunit complete with accusations of wrongdoing, sweetheart deals, favoritism, shredders, Hit Lists, and White House intrigue that resulted in the EPA Administrator being found in Contempt of Congress and then gaslighted to cover the President’s men, both interfering in EPA’s mission and neglect. He places these failures of governance squarely on the President.

Eric was a central figure in the “Sewergate” controversy of the 1980s and provides a dramatic glimpse at what environmental policies worked or failed — and why — during EPA’s first decade under Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Eric reflectively acknowledges his own miscalculations and mistakes during his tenure.

It wasn’t easy. Compliance and enforcement were under constant scrutiny, and the Agency itself, due to explosive scandals over whether or not the new Reagan EPA leadership was following the law that was rooted in policies and mismanagement of previous administrations. This rocked the Reagan EPA.

Eric correlates his EPA tenure with the turbulent Vietnam War in which he served — both in hostile environments and polarized political climates. He trained as a sanitary engineer, today’s equivalent of an environmental engineer. Engineers were “good guys” and “good managers” with the potential to benefit the EPA, the public, and the environment, but were often overshadowed by power players, lawyers, and appointees with no real environmental background, and the environmental lobby that launched a coordinated attack on Eric and the new EPA Administration under Reagan. He has devoted his life to environmental safety and better government as a public servant and candidate for Congress and in the private sector advising clients how to obtain better and more cost-effective decisions from regulators. He hopes his memoir serves as a blueprint for a more functional, effective agency.

 

About Author Eric Eidsness

Eric is a student of history thanks to the influences of his uncle, Dr. Bradford Washburn, the founding manager of the Boston Museum of Science, and his father, Dr. Fred A. Eidsness Sr., scientist and co-founder of a sanitary engineering company in Florida in 1951 — the forerunner to the modern-day environmental engineering field. Educated at Vanderbilt Engineering School, Eric lived one foot in the Deep South during the early Civil Rights days, and the other in the Boston/New England elite. This book spans his life’s experiences in the field of the natural and human environment, and he writes from the perspective of an engineer concerned with problem solving, not partisan politics — except to the extent that it thwarts cost-effective solutions.

Today, Eric is a father and grandfather, and remains a passionate advocate for the environment. He wishes to contribute to the institutional memory of EPA and pave the way forward with a renewed effort to address emerging environmental challenges like global warming, using more economic approaches while ensuring that the federal/state command-and-control regulatory system installed in the U.S. starting with the 1970 Clean Air Act and the 1972 Clean Water Act are strengthened and more collaborative so the “gorilla in the closet” can be more effective when stepping in when problems arise at the state and local level, like the Flint, Michigan, lead contamination controversy.

After the pandemic, Eric will resume his world travels where in the past he has visited six continents, including boating on the Amazon River and the Galapagos Islands, motorcycling through Australia for two years, climbing the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal and Bhutan where he met and exchanged pleasantries about his overlapping New England prep school experience with the new, yet uncrowned, King Wangchuck, buying a home and living in northern Thailand, touring the Eastern Bloc countries of the modern-day European Union, connecting with his Norwegian cousins near Bergen, sailing the Nile River, and photo-hunting the beasts of Kuala Zulu Natal, Lesotho, and the Drakensberg Mountains and the great game parks of South Africa. He visited the stone cliffside house of his former deputy, Rebecca Hanmer, at the birthplace of homo sapiens more than 185 million years ago on the European continent in Dordogne River Valley in Southern France. These are some of the destinations Eric visited while writing The Gorilla in the Closet.