Attached to Karl Brooks’ hip is a ringing, buzzing reminder of how much his life has changed in the past year and a half.
When you’re a professor of environmental history and policy at Kansas University, hardly anyone but your wife wants to know where you are, Brooks said. But that changes significantly when you become the Region 7 Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The administrator (Lisa Jackson) made it really clear, when I got sworn in, that she expected to be in pretty much instant communication with me if she needed to. And so I have this on whenever I’m awake,” Brooks said of his Blackberry. “That’s been a big change. ”
A year and half ago, Brooks commuted five minutes to KU, where he lectured in a classroom and then returned to his office to do research and write. He traveled on business maybe twice a year and did his own typing, copying and mailing.
He now has a secretary who handles those duties, plus answers his phone calls and schedules his day in tight 15-minute increments. He is on the road two to three times a week, visiting the four-state and nine-tribal nation region or making trips to Washington, D.C.
He oversees the region’s 700 employees and contractors. And, when he isn’t traveling, he’s most likely sitting in a meeting.
“As a professor, especially historian, mostly we sit in our office. … We read, we think and we type,” Brooks said. “Now I chair meetings, I listen to arguments and try to come up with common policy. I put together teams of people to analyze problems and propose solutions. So that is a big difference from my other life.”
Brooks hasn’t entirely left KU. He is still supervising a couple of graduate students’ dissertations and is technically on a leave of absence from the university until he ends his EPA role, which tends to happen with a change in presidents.
Background for job
Of course, Brooks wasn’t always a professor. Before moving to Lawrence in 1996, the Boise, Idaho, native served three terms in the Idaho Senate and was executive director of the state’s largest citizens environmental organization.
When he was asked in 2010 to be this region’s EPA administrator, Brooks said he was fully aware that the agency was returning to work that had not been addressed by the previous president.
“I knew that there would be a lot of activity,” Brooks said. “And that was one of the reasons I was interested in the position because I saw it as an opportunity to be involved with the agency at a very important time.”
In the past two weeks, Brooks, who still lives in Lawrence, has spoken about his new job to two local community groups, the Jayhawk Audubon Society and Lawrence Rotary Club. Both times, he acknowledged the criticism of the EPA and noted his boss, Jackson, has testified in front of Congress more times than any other department head in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet.
“Our agency right now is as controversial as any government agency in the last quarter century. And I can say that. I’m a historian,” Brooks quipped to the Audubon society.
Brooks doesn’t like using the word “defend” in describing how he talks about the EPA’s work.
“Explaining is how I see it,” he said and went on to describe a meeting not so long ago with some of Iowa’s biggest industry and business leaders.
“What I felt walking into that meeting is what I would feel walking into a law class. It was a chance to educate about the work we are doing. Explain things about our work that people might not have understood about the EPA. And then to answer questions,” Brooks said. “That is very much like a classroom setting.”
Particularly in Kansas, environmental regulations have been under scrutiny. Early in his administration, Gov. Sam Brownback established a task force to determine how the regulations affected economic growth in the state.
More recently, Kansas farmers have expressed their concerns over EPA rules that they fear could regulate farm dust, fertilizer use and even milk spills.
And last month, Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed a federal lawsuit to block the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution rule because he said it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars in new emission control equipment. In the end, energy costs would rise. In general, Brooks said, the EPA’s need to control pollution is less obvious today than at a time when rivers caught on fire and smoke clouds filled the noontime air.
The key in regulating something as toxic and invisible as mercury, Brooks said, is showing people the science behind the rules and illustrating how regulating it will make people healthier and safer.
Eliminating mercury from the air will save billions of dollars on medical bills and on lost time at work, he said.
“At a time when Americans are rightly concerned about paying their bills, educating their kids, enjoying opportunity, the challenge the EPA needs to meet is to show how protecting health and safety is a good investment in America,” Brooks said.
EPA regulations have been making national headlines lately. Here are some being questioned in Kansas.
Kansas agriculture producers and politicians are concerned with the EPA’s review of a regulation that stipulates how much coarse particulate matter (what some of us call dust) is in the air. Every five years, the EPA reviews the air-quality standards and this year they are reviewing a committee’s recommendation to lower those standards.
The lower standard would put an average windy day in Dodge City out of compliance, agriculture lobbyists have said. They worry that farmers would have to combat dust by building speed bumps in feedlots, watering country roads, putting a diaper-like contraption on combines, lowering the gears on farm equipment so they go slower and limiting how many times fields can be tilled.
But EPA Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks said the agency doesn’t intend to regulate the dust kicked up by farming and ranching operations in small Kansas towns.
“The agency has never done that except in very limited places, none of which describe the Midwest,” Brooks said. “As I say to farm audiences, don’t worry about what the agency has not done in the past and has no plans to do in the future. Focus on real issues.”
The agency’s main concern when it comes to coarse particulate matter is urban industrial pollution.
Among Republican lawmakers, nothing showcased the EPA’s perceived heavy handed set of regulations more than a rule they said equated spilled milk to massive oil spills.
Because milk contains some form of oil, lawmakers claim diary farmers would have to follow the same protocol as oil companies in cleaning up a spill by build contamination facilities, training first responders and enacting emergency plans. But Brooks said the EPA eliminated a regulation that had been on the books for 35 years.
“But our positive reform was distorted by some lobbyists as a new regulation, or a new plan for regulation,” Brooks said. “What I tried to do, what the administrator tried to do is set the record straight. This should be a benefit that the diary industry has wanted for a longtime.”
Cross-state air pollutionIn
September, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed a federal lawsuit over the EPA’s air-pollution rule requiring utilities in 27 states to clean up emissions from power plants.
The regulation was enacted over concerns that air pollution drifting across state lines — mainly nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide — was causing health problems.Schmidt said that utilities would have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in new emission control technology to meet the Jan. 1 deadline.
Utility companies wouldn’t be able to comply with that deadline, Schmidt said and ultimately Kansans would pay more for out-of-state electricity.
While Brooks said he couldn’t comment specifically on the lawsuit, he defended the regulation noting that studies have shown that energy rates will be less than what has been projected. And cleaner air leads to substantially more economic benefits through a healthier work force, more days at work and more economic innovation.
This summer’s blue green algae outbreak at Milford Lake, which resulted in the deaths of several dogs and suspected human illnesses and raised concerns about the safety of the drinking water downstream, should be a concern to Kansans, Brooks said.
“These are wake-up calls to Kansans to manage nutrient pollutants better,” Brooks said. “If we don’t pay attention to these warning signals, we are going to miss an opportunity to make a difference.”
Increased nutrients in the water — either from sewer discharge or from fertilizers applied upstream — can boost algal growth.Some are worried that the federal government will set a maximum amount on how much nutrients should be allowed in water.
In a speech this summer, John Mitchell, director of the environment division at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the state needed to start reducing nutrient loads “or someone from the federal level is going to do it for us.”
Brooks said he wants to take a similar approach to nutrient loads as the EPA did with controlling smoke pollution from springtime burning in the Flint Hills. In that case, the EPA and other local and state agencies met with stakeholders and established a system that allowed agriculture producers to continue burning without permits, but provided better data on where the smoke went and when it would be most harmful to burn.
“Stakeholders would negotiate agreements to reduce nutrient loading using all the different techniques that we now have available to us,” Brooks said.
With the Environmental Protection Agency under attack like never before, Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks urged a friendly crowd at Monday’s Jayhawk Audubon Society meeting to advocate for cleaner water.
Recently, Republicans — both in Kansas and in Washington, D.C. — have criticized the EPA for what they say are too-stringent regulations that hamper small businesses, farmers and job growth.
“Our agency right now is as controversial as any government agency in the last quarter century,” Brooks said. “And, I can say that. I’m an historian.”
Brooks, who has lived in Lawrence for 15 years and teaches environmental law, history and policy at Kansas University, took on the role of EPA Region 7 administrator in 2010. He noted Monday night that public opinion polls show 75 percent of Americans support that the EPA should be as strong as it is now.
“Criticism comes with the turf. There’s never been a time where the EPA hasn’t been debated. But this is probably as tough as a season as we have ever faced,” Brooks said. “I’m confident that this agency will renew that connection with the people.”
Brooks main focus Monday was on better management of the state’s watersheds. Although Kansas law says water is a public resource, nearly all the land in Kansas is private. And much of that land is heavily cultivated.
The 41-year-old Clean Water Act regulates the pollution the sewer plants and industries emit into waterways. But it fails to regulate what chemicals are entering the waterways through nonpoint source pollution, such as the fertilizers put on lawns, fields and parks.
The most prevalent form of nonpoint source pollution in Kansas is the nitrogen and phosphorous coming from farm fields. Across the country, the EPA has set up conversations with other federal agencies, state and local government groups and businesses to talk about ways to better control the pollutants without requiring agriculture producers to obtain permits.
“What we have tried to do in Kansas and other states is to focus in on finding the problem and measuring where we are at and using the data to come up with solutions that do not involve the use of a permit,” Brooks said.
But Brooks said the input from groups such as the Audubon Society will be important in that process.
“That’s right, look in the mirror; you are going to have to become involved,” Brooks said. “If you don’t, other entities who are only interested in what they do will be the only ones at the table. You are going to have to step up and get involved.”
A national trash and recycling company that touts its commitment to stainability has been fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for multiple violations involving a recycling facility in Kaiser, Mo.
On Tuesday, the EPA announced that Waste Management Lamp Tracker, Inc. has agreed to pay a $118,800 civil penalty that would settle a series of violations of the Missouri Hazardous Waste Permit and the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
The Lamp Tracker division of Waste Management recycles fluorescent lamps, batteries, electronics, medical equipment and other mercury containing items. Customers can purchase containers that are shipped to homes or businesses. The hazardous material is packaged in the container and shipped back to Lamp Tracker to be recycled.
An August 2010 inspection of the Kaiser facility found that broken lamps, which contain mercury, weren’t being properly stored or labelled. The inspection also found the company wasn’t properly testing for mercury levels in the crushed glass from the recycled lamps. That glass was being recycled for industrial use.
The company was also cited for not having enough aisle space in its storage areas, not having the proper employee training documentation, job description documentation and emergency contingency plan.
According to the EPA press release, as part of the settlement agreement, Waste Management has certified that its facility at Kaiser is now compliant with hazardous waste regulations.
A steady stream of proposed regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency could be a burden for Kansas.
“We are in a period of time where the EPA is coming out with new regulation proposals almost weekly, sometimes it seems like it’s daily,” said John Mitchell, director of the environment division at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Mitchell discussed those regulations and how they could impact the state as part of his opening remarks Wednesday at the Kansas Environmental Conference in Topeka.
“States are in a position of reduced resources in way of staff and funding, but these new proposals that have come out generally are required to be implemented in a short period of time. That is a challenge for the staff,” Mitchell said after his remarks.
In particular, Mitchell is concerned about proposed regulations surrounding air and water quality.
Among the biggest question marks is the possibility of the EPA raising the standards for ozone pollutants, which cause smog. If new standards are adopted, some Kansas cities such as Wichita could be at risk for not meeting the federal agency’s standards and would be required to implement a plan to reduce ozone levels.
Kansas also is among the six Midwest states targeted in the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which the EPA finalized in July. The new rule requires these states to reduce their nitrogen oxide emissions during the summertime when ozone levels are at their highest. Kansas is also among the 27 states that have to work with power plants to reduce harmful emissions such as mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide.
Phase one of those regulations goes into effect next January and phase two in 2014. While states in the eastern part of the country have had programs in place to prevent cross-state air pollution, those west of the Mississippi have not, Mitchell said.
“The rule is requiring us to really think hard and work with (electric utility) companies in Kansas and figure out how we stay in compliance with new regulations. It’s a real challenge,” Mitchell said.
The EPA is also focusing on nutrient reduction, mainly for nitrogen and phosphorus levels. The nutrients come from wastewater treatment plants as well as water runoff and groundwater that contains fertilizer.
While the EPA is pushing to set a specific limit for nutrients, Mitchell said the reduction needs to be a shared effort among stakeholders.
High nutrients have become a concern because of the prevalence of large blue green algae blooms in reservoirs and ponds throughout the state. These algae blooms have made people sick and caused animals to die. Mitchell urged the state to take a leadership role in the problem.
“We do need to address nutrient reduction in surface water. We need to do that working together or someone from the federal level is going to do it for us,” Mitchell said.