ECOLOGIA Newsletter November/December 1994 Issue #31

The Limits of Government and the Need for Grassroots Support: One American Environmentalist's Experiences as the Director of a Government Agency

When environmentalists from the former Soviet Union, the Baltics or Central Europe visit Northeastern Pennsylvania, ECOLOGIA always takes them to the Wilkes-Barre Regional Office of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources. What could be useful and inspirational to citizen environmental advocates in a regulatory governmental agency? The answer was Ed Shoener, the Director, a man whose open, straightforward honesty and responsiveness to local environmental concerns belied the stereotype of a bureaucrat as a hard, gray, uncaring functionary.

After seven years as the head of one of the six regional offices of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, Ed Shoener resigned in October 1994. Changes in the state political climate, personal frustration, and eagerness to become more active in international environmental decisions, all played a role in his decision. Ed Shoener had earned a reputation as an environmental advocate and a fair and honest administrator. Members of NGOs throughout Ed's district were distressed at the news of his resignation, and wondered why such a young and popular public official would give up a secure job for an uncertain future. ECOLOGIA Newsletter interviewed Ed Shoener in an attempt to understand how he has related his personal commitments and his professional work, and also to put his career in the broader context of the relationship between environmental advocacy, enforcement agencies, political pressure and the power of industry.

Public Service With Roots in Volunteerism

As a seventeen year old student growing up in Scranton Pennsylvania in the late 1970s, Ed Shoener participated in 'Operation Fishwatch', an environmental project organized by a local NGO. High school and university biology students measured river pollution by putting trout into the Susquehanna River in cages, and counting the minutes or hours before they died. Ed also went door-to-door in his Scranton, Pennsylvania neighborhood collecting petitions against a carpet factory in his neighborhood which was polluting the air with its smokestack. He then delivered the petitions to the local state environmental protection office, which he would some reallylongword day direct. As a teenager, Ed Shoener was participating in the 'rebirth' of worldwide environmental concerns which coincided with the original Earth Day 1970.

A Career in Public Service

With a university degree in environmental resource management and a Master's degree in Environmental Pollution Control, Ed joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as an inspector for clean-ups of superfund sites. 'Superfund' is a federal government program for highly contaminated areas. Sites which receive 'Superfund' status also receive federal money and inspectors to aid them in their mandated clean-up. As an inspector, Ed worked with citizens of the areas as well as with the clean-up crews and industry executives.

The turning point in Ed's career came in 1987, with the election of a new Governor of Pennsylvania (Bob Casey). Casey, a fellow Scranton native, had campaigned heavily on an environmental platform. Governor Casey had appointed a well-respected environmental advocate, Art Davis, as the new head of the State Department of Environmental Resources. Encouraged, Ed simply telephoned Davis' office and asked to be appointed to the newly vacated position of Director of the regional environmental protection office of his home area. Ed had the scientific and technical qualifications for the job, and he had environmental regulatory experience. He had no political connections or obligations and, in his own words, was 'someone who could support aggressive environmental policies for all the right reasons.'

As an agency of the executive branch of the state government, the Department of Environmental Resources has the job of enforcing laws. Their actions have to be within the framework of laws voted upon and passed by the legislature. The D.E.R. draws up regulations, and has branches which monitor, inspect and enforce compliance with the laws. The state agency employs a total of 4,000 people, divided into a variety of branches: Management and Technical Services (laboratories), Air and Water Management (set broad policies for air pollution, radiation and waste management), Waste Management (water pollution and dams, drinking water, erosion control), Mineral Resources Management (handling oil and gas well-drilling permits), Parks and Forestry (managing the state forests, state parks, and timber industry) and Field Operations. Field Operations involves 75% of DER employees, the great majority of whom work in six regional field offices. They do inspections, evaluate permit applications for building projects which would have an environmental impact, and frequently take violators to court to enforce their judgments and their penalties.

In 1987, Ed Shoener was not aware that he was walking into a highly controversial position as the Director of the large (230 staff members) Wilkes-Barre Regional D.E.R. Office. This particular office had over the preceding years developed a reputation for inefficiency, corruption, and indifference or hostility to the public. It was also widely viewed as an advocate for large waste industries. Local Northeastern Pennsylvania environ-mentalists were bitter and distrustful toward the state environmental agency which did not enforce its own regulations and did not give fair hearings or responses to citizen complaints.

Increasing Public Access, Gaining Public Support

During his seven years, Ed Shoener developed a reputation for being open, accessible to the public, and straightforward in his dealings with all of the business, political and NGO environmental groups in the region. In actions unprecedented for a D.E.R. Director in the area, he would telephone NGO leaders and travel to meet them on their own ground to discuss their concerns. 'If nothing else, one thing I have tried to do was to give the public access to the department and the department's decision-making process. I hope that's one standard that will remain in effect. Policies will change as different administrations come and go, but our access to the public should never change.' (quoted in 'The Tribune,' Scranton Pennsylvania 9/16/94).

Ed Shoener's main message as he departed from his job is that effective government depends on the citizens. A regulatory agency trying to do a good job needs the support of citizens who value its efforts. This citizen support is necessary to counter the pressures which regulators receive from industries who hire full time lobbyists and contribute heavily to politicians' campaign funds. Politicians usually would not back D.E.R. enforcement efforts without citizen support. From his experience as an 'insider', Ed comments that 'a well organized and well-educated citizens' group can have a significant impact. They can create a public uproar. They have more influence than they think they do; they can get an environmental issue into the newspaper. To create a perceived public uproar, they really only need a handful of people.'

By giving support to citizens by being accessible to them, Ed Shoener gained support for some of his actions which opposed powerful corporations and their political backers.

The Powers of Government: Enforcing Environmental Regulations, Achieving Consensus

Ed considers that one of his major achieve-ments was to resist the influx of large out-of-state waste disposal schemes. As he puts it, 'Northeastern Pennsylvania had been targeted by the landfill industry. But large numbers of permit applications were denied, and those denials were upheld by the appeals court.' His office also started to act promptly on issues brought to them by local citizens, such as odor complaints and drinking water problems.

As Director of the regional D.E.R., Ed most enjoyed public meetings in which he worked with all sides involved in an environmental problem to reach consensus on a solution. His favorite case was in Hometown, Pennsylvania where a gasoline leak from a corner gas station was polluting local wells. He personally handled the case from start to finish, and despite a number of conflicts, 'all were friends at the end'.

By temperament Ed most enjoys working to reach consensus. When he was able to achieve this, with strong public and NGO support for enforcement of environmentally sound regulations, he found his job very rewarding. However, as an enforcement official he was involved in many confrontations. Ed did not fully realize how much pressure he was under, as a consensus-seeking environmental advocate in a government administrative job, until he had left. The pressures extended into his personal life: because someone in his position needed to be viewed as impartial, he wouldn't socialize with people he worked with, people he regulated, or people in environmental citizens' groups.

The Limits of Government

Ed was most surprised to see how intermeshed in practice the three branches of the state government often are. In theory, the legislative, executive and judicial branches have a separation of powers, to ensure some independence. This 'separation of powers' is widely viewed as a cornerstone of democracy, because it prevents any one person or group from getting too much power. The legislature is elected by people from different regions of the state, to express local and regional interests. The executive (the Governor) is elected by popular vote of the entire state, to lead and attempt to unify it. Both these branches respond to the public because they are voted into, or out of, office. The judges are meant to be insulated from public opinion and political pressure, however. They have long terms (ten years, or lifetime tenure) to give them protection from changes in political fashion. Judges are supposed to rule on the merits of a case and the letter and spirit of the law, uninfluenced by outside pressures.

Ed Shoener found that in practice, however, the judges could be influenced by pressure from politicians, by public opinion or by media coverage of public protests. Even telephone calls from powerful politicians could sometimes sway a judge's ruling. This undercuts the whole democratic concept of separation of powers in which the judiciary is supposed to be above political pressures, ruling only on the legal merits of a case.

Ed's greatest personal disappointment in his position as D.E.R. Regional Director, and his most angering case, was also his greatest environmental defeat. It involved a request by a local landfill to accept incinerator ash. The state's original policy had been that every truckload of incinerator ash to be dumped in a municipal landfill was required to meet state standards for toxic heavy metals. But the policy was reversed at the state level because so many truckloads were failing the test. Inspectors were ordered to take small samples from each truck (about 100 trucks a week) and average them out over a three month period. Under the new system, the D.E.R. inspectors were powerless to bar a highly contaminated truckload of incinerator ash.

Ed Shoener's regional D.E.R. office was trying to protect the ground water of the Scranton area from toxic incinerator ash. However, they were undercut by political pressure applied by waste industries to the regulators in the state capital. Ed's attempts to stop the policy reversal failed; his inspectors were ordered to allow the contaminated ash into the Scranton landfill. This incident demonstrated to Ed that he had accomplished as much as he could in the current political climate. Several months later, he submitted his resignation from the Director's position.

He was leaving with his personal standards intact, aware that he would lose his energy and his effectiveness in the changing political atmosphere which was becoming increasingly hostile to environmental concerns. On the state level, the 1994 governor's campaign was revealing that neither of the candidates would be a strong environmental advocate. Thus political support for strong environmental enforcement was diminishing. On the general public level as well, environmental issues seemed of less concern than crime and the economy.

From Acting Locally to Acting Globally

Beginning in 1990, Ed had the opportunity to meet environmentalists from the Soviet Union at international conferences. Personally enthusiastic about bridging the gaps of the 'Cold War' between the US and the USSR, Ed also became increasingly interested in environmental protection and citizen involvement in those countries. Over the years, Ed's international environmental involvement grew; he spent time with every NGO individual or group environmental exchange that ECOLOGIA brought to Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Ed found that his international contacts helped him in his work here in the United States. He particularly remembers a discussion in 1990 about ways that governmental officials with environmental concerns could enlist support for strong policies. A Lithuanian who was the regional director of a state environmental agency said that in specific situations when his agency's attempts to enforce environmental safety were opposed by special interests, he would ask for support by picking up the phone and call citizens' groups. Ed said that before this conversation, it had never occurred to him to do this. He started making this type of phone call himself to enlist citizen support at times when his enforcement efforts were challenged by political pressures.

Ed's plans for the future involve environmental consulting. As he puts it, 'Good consultants can work wonders; bad consultants can do a lot of damage. I want to combine expertise and ethics. . .. A regulator is like a traffic cop, but a consultant is part of actually doing the work.' In addition to working for a local consulting company, Ed is starting an international consulting joint venture with several Lithuanians who also have backgrounds which combine environmental advocacy and government regulatory experience.

Ed Shoener is a member of the ECOLOGIA Board of Directors. He is a partner in ECO U.S. Inc., Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania / Rian Inc. based in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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