Kathy Prosser made Indiana's environmental protection agency a credible instrument for controlling pollution essentially by threatening to give up a good part of its power.
The threat came four years into Prosser's tenure as commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. She had gotten off to a rocky start in 1989 in a conservative state traditionally hostile to environmental regulation. Then, in 1993, Indiana businesses balked at paying new permit fees to help cover the cost of running the state's waste and water-pollution regulatory programs. They won a lawsuit blocking IDEM from collecting the money because the legislature had exempted municipal governments, which the businesses argued was unfair.
Facing crippling cutbacks, Prosser called the regulated community's bluff. She began proceedings to turn Indiana's authority to regulate water pollution and hazardous waste back to the dreaded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Bypassing business and municipal lobbying groups, Prosser then spent months traveling the state visiting small-town mayors and business owners to convince them that a better-funded state agency in Indianapolis would be easier to deal with than EPA's regional office in Chicago.
The road trips paid off. Local governments and businesses agreed to pay permit fees that now generate $11 million a year, better than 10 percent of IDEM's budget. In return, Prosser promised the agency would process permits quickly and work closely with businesses and communities that were honestly trying to comply with pollution standards. "The most powerful tool a government can have is to sit down to meet face to face, trying to understand what their problems are and explain what you're trying to do," Prosser contends.
Prosser is convinced that state governments have proved that they are now capable of meeting pollution control goals without second-guessing by federal officials. Three years ago, Prosser and like-minded state commissioners founded the Environmental Council of the States to make the case for entrusting state governments with the authority to implement more flexible national environmental rules. Elected the first ECOS president, Prosser assigned a key staff member to nurture the organization through its first year and pushed the EPA to forge more equal partnerships with state pollution agencies.
Prosser left Indiana earlier this year to direct the U.S. office of the International Joint Commission that deals with environmental issues along the Canadian border. But she remains convinced that state commissioners have a critical role to play in solving nationwide pollution problems. "The people in ECOS have the best understanding of the issues as well as political sense and political skills," she says.
Prosser took an unusual route to arrive at her position of national environmental leadership.
She graduated from a Canton, Ohio, vocational high school and started out as a secretary at the Ohio Natural Resources Department. But then she got a job with former astronaut John Glenn and joined his staff after he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Prosser worked her way up to serve as Glenn's administrative assistant, and that got her admitted to Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government even though she'd never finished college.
After earning a master's degree, she stayed in Boston as Massachusetts' assistant environmental commissioner until new Indiana Governor Evan Bayh picked her to be commissioner of IDEM. "I felt that state government was where power and opportunity were going to rest," Prosser says, "and I wanted to be part of that."
— Tom Arrandale
Photo by Steve Barrett