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I chose the oft-maligned Superfund program of the EPA...

By Donna Riley 2000-01 AAAS Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Community Involvement and Outreach Center, Office of Emergency & Remedial Response

I chose the oft-maligned Superfund program of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for my placement as an AAAS Environmental Fellow. It was a pleasant surprise to find it was a truly functional work environment; everyone I worked with was dedicated to the job and maintained a healthy balance between the lofty idealism that drew them to public service and the skeptical realism required to survive in Washington. There were a lot of good ideas in the office, and I quickly learned that the devil is in the details of implementation. With that in mind, I wanted to become a valuable source of input.  

For one of my Superfund assignments, I worked with an anthropologist-turned citizen activist named Arnold Wendroff, who has dedicated the last 10 years to hounding government agencies into addressing his concern that many Latino and Caribbean children are exposed to high levels of mercury vapor in their home environments, as the result of traditional cultural practices. An excellent case of “one person making a difference,” Wendroff’s lone voice has brought significant attention to a rather obscure issue.  I documented what was known about these types of exposures, and consulted with EPA about risk management approaches. I also met with key Latino leaders in Washington and organized a two-day workshop with panels of community health and cultural experts. I learned how certain wariness exists within immigrant communities regarding the federal government and that keeping a low profile is the best way to address this issue. The experts believed federal action should focus on the sharing of information among communities, and providing resources to local groups.  

As an expert on mercury in indoor air, I also consulted with others at EPA on their protocol for measuring mercury vapor indoors and responding to contamination. The agency would not agree to a single justifiable level for remedial action, arguing that it would depend on who lived in the dwelling. I disagreed with this position because mercury’s residence times are so long that one cannot guarantee that the same dwelling will not be occupied by a pregnant woman or infant in coming years, which would warrant a stricter clean-up standard. Keeping everything on a “case by case” basis allows EPA to operate at stricter cleaning standards without drawing too much attention from industry groups with greater muscle in Congress. I came to the conclusion that flexibility, while it may draw criticism for not ensuring equitable treatment, is its own form of power and provides more wiggle room for EPA. In the current administration, this would mean more room to be protective of the environment.  

I also learned that information can sometimes be decentralized and available only through knowing the right person to ask.  This information network I developed during my year as an AAAS Environmental Fellow has been extremely useful to me during my recent return to academe. Not only have  I gained “street credibility” for teaching my course in engineering and public policy at Smith College, but also I can assist  my students in learning how to navigate bureaucracies for themselves — an essential skill for them to have as researchers and, perhaps more importantly, as citizens.

Donna Riley served as an Environmental Fellow from 2000 to 2001. She received a PhD in Engineering and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University and currently is an assistant professor at Smith College.

The AAAS Fellows currently serving at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) include engineers, ecologists, botanists, toxicologists, a biochemist and a political scientist. This diversity has a broad impact on EPA. The Fellows are involved in such projects as coral bleaching, regulating chemicals that disrupt endocrine systems and technologies that may assess future environmental problems.  If you would be interested in having former Fellows speak with a group on your campus about this or other AAAS policy fellowship programs, please contact us at 202/326-6700.

Claudia J. Sturges - Director, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program

Disclaimer: The perspectives and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the U.S. Government, or the federal agencies/offices mentioned.