When Robbie Roberts was South Dakota’s Environmental and Natural Resources secretary, he took every chance he could to travel to Washington, D.C. It wasn’t that the Alabama native disliked living on the windswept plains surrounding Pierre. But in those days, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found it politic from time to time to summon state environmental chiefs to serve on federal advisory panels. And the retired U.S. Air Force colonel figured he’d better sit in “so I could find out about something that could come back in six months and bite me in the butt.”
These days, Roberts works in Washington himself—and the initiative on environmental protection is shifting out to Pierre and the other state capitals around the country. As executive director of the Environmental Council of the States, the association of state environmental agency directors he helped found, Roberts is playing an instrumental part as state governments take on pivotal roles in running the nation’s pollution control programs. Roberts’ former counterparts in state capitals all over the country give him much of the credit for making the case that state pollution control regulators are up to that responsibility.
Roberts retired from the military in 1990 after commanding Ellsworth Air Force Base outside Rapid City. Then-Governor George Mickelson picked him to head South Dakota’s fledgling environmental agency, at a time when most states were just gearing up to administer federal pollution control laws.
Serving a lightly populated state was an advantage, Roberts says, “because government in South Dakota is of a size you can see and understand what you’re implementing.” On the other hand, he adds, “there can be a real feeling of being isolated in some state government positions, so it’s helpful to be reminded that other people are going through the same problems.” In 1993, Roberts and a few fellow commissioners formed ECOS to provide a forum for sharing experiences—and forging a common front to counter EPA’s condescending attitude toward state pollution agencies.
Two years later, Roberts took on the job of setting up ECOS’ Washington office. Under his leadership, ECOS persuaded U.S. EPA officials to negotiate new partnerships giving state agencies the flexibility to focus resources on priority environmental problems that they themselves identify. ECOS commissioners have worked with EPA to develop statistical indicators to accurately measure real pollution-control progress, and they’ve also stepped in to prod EPA and the Justice Department toward realistic policies on addressing the impact of pollution on minority communities.
Roberts also been adept at steering the organization clear of controversies that split state commissioners, notably regional disputes over air and water pollution that flows across state lines. As ECOS’ credibility has grown, he’s hired top environmental policy experts to lead lobbying and research operations.
Most of the commissioners who founded ECOS have left office, but 52 of 55 state and territorial agency directors are currently active in the organization. With state commissioners sticking together, U.S. EPA no longer brings them to Washington once a year for pep talks on federal policies. Now EPA’s own top leaders regularly sit in on ECOS’ twice-a-year meetings.
“In a sense, ECOS’ major accomplishment is the fact that we are still here,” Roberts says. “In another sense, the major accomplishment has been to focus attention on the role of states in environmental protection.” In both senses, Roberts’ deft and steady leadership has been essential in making the states an increasingly influential presence in determining—not just implementing—national environmental policy.
— Tom Arrandale
Photo by Steve Barrett