When Mary Gade, a high-ranking official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, took the job of running the Illinois EPA, she admits she wanted to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Gade never imagined that she'd wind up leading a marathon multistate endeavor to negotiate a common air pollution control strategy that would cover two-thirds of the country.
Yet Gade spent two years doing exactly that as chair of the Ozone Transport Assessment Group, a collective federal/state/private-sector effort to deal with smog-forming pollutants wafting across a 37-state region from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast. By all accounts, Gade's patience, political shrewdness and good-humored optimism kept a pathbreaking process from falling apart. "Mary staked much of her reputation on the effort, and she succeeded," says S. William Becker, director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators.
Gade spent 13 years rising through the federal EPA ranks. She ended up running EPA's regional and then national solid- and hazardous-waste programs. But she accepted the Illinois EPA position in 1991 "because I wanted to run an entire agency with authority over all the media," regulating air and water quality as well as how wastes are handled. For the first couple of years, she concentrated on learning Illinois politics. But Gade's focus inevitably expanded beyond the state boundaries.
After Gade and other state environmental directors formed the Environmental Council of the States in 1993, commissioners from states east of the Mississippi River recognized that they had a common problem meeting the federal Clean Air Act standard for ground-level ozone pollution. Studies showed that smog-forming emissions from power plants and other sources were drifting farther than previously imagined and crossing state borders.
In 1995, when U.S. EPA officials asked ECOS to help figure out how to deal with ozone transport, Gade agreed to lead the effort despite the political risk of possible emissions regulations that could cost Illinois industry but benefit downwind neighbors. OTAG assembled technical experts from EPA, state agencies and industry to assess the scientific evidence on where ozone-forming pollutants are released and where prevailing winds carry them. They put together a comprehensive data inventory and air transport models that now give government regulators the kind of information they'll need to bring ozone under control.
Over two years, Gade personally presided over 23 OTAG policy sessions. Her persistence, coupled with some deft political deals, kept Great Plains and Midwest commissioners on board in deliberations they feared could harm their states' economies. More than a thousand people took part, including utility, coal mining, petroleum and other corporate heavy hitters. "There weren't any closed meetings or secret negotiations," Gade says. "People who otherwise would have been on the outside fighting you were on the inside helping you."
Once the data was in, Gade forged agreement on recommendations that all but six of the 37 OTAG states were willing to vote for. It remains to be seen whether OTAG's work will pay off in better air quality regulation. Even so, there's no other precedent for state agencies taking the lead instead of waiting for Congress or federal regulators to address a complicated problem with implications for the public health and economic vitality of the nation's most populous regions. "I don't think a lot of people have ever dealt with issues on this scale," Gade says. "OTAG has broken the mold that's existed for a long time in how you do public administration."
— Tom Arrandale
Photo by Larry Evans/Black Star