Meet the Govie Regulating Away Toxic Waste

Sometimes I wonder what environmental disaster will serve as a catalyst to the zombie apocalypse. Exposure to contaminants from power plants is pretty high on my list of probable ways the human race transforms into zombies. Think of it—unsuspecting citizen takes a swim in an arsenic and lead filled lake near a power plant and the next thing you know humankind has turned into the walking dead. Okay, maybe these pollutants are not going to cause the zombie apocalypse, but they are contributing to serious illnesses, like cancer, among individuals and wildlife who are exposed to such pollutants. Consequently, their disposal must be stringently regulated.

Jessica Hall Zomer is the Attorney Advisor in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of General Counsel. She recently sat down with Christopher Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER to talk about how she helped overhaul regulations to make our nation’s waterways and environment safer.

Zomer is a finalist in the Call to Service category for the Partnership for Public Service’s Service to America Medals, or the SAMMIES—a public sector award that recognizes the best of the best in the federal workforce. She is nominated for the award because of her unparalleled input on how to legally navigate power plant regulation updates.

Zomer helped update the Clean Water Act to target toxic heavy metals that can have significant damaging effects on public health and the environment. Specifically, Zomer worked on updating regulations on power plant emissions into lakes, rivers and streams. While many major industrial plants are utilizing the most updated technologies, others have fallen behind, limiting their ability to reduce pollutant waste.

“The main goal of the update was to bring the industry up to speed and be able to meet the best available technology standards and ensure that power plants are reducing their discharges of mercury, lead and selenium consistent with these best available technologies,” Zomer explained.

Less pollution, however, is not the only thing that was gained through the regulatory updates. “There are a lot of energy efficiency gains that come with utilizing newer technologies,” Zomer said. For example, some technologies focus on reduced water withdrawal, which coincides with a new rule that mandates plants  to transport ash in a dry manner so wastewater isn’t created. This also eliminates the need to discharge anything into a nearby river. Creating a new process for dry transportation of materials appears to be a hassle but, ultimately, it saves energy and money by decreasing water withdrawals.

While Zomer made litigating the new regulations look easy, she did face overwhelming anti-regulation sentiment from the industry and public. She explained, “we were very sensitive to attitudes towards regulation when we went about structuring our regulation. We carefully took into account the other regulations the industry is facing and tried to consider the whole package and make sure the industry has sufficient time and resources to take these regulations into account.”

For example, some of the new regulations don’t demand a new technology, but rather sets the standard based on a technology and lets the industry figure out the lowest-cost way of achieving those standards. Ultimately, the regulations aim to help the industry and overall implementing them can be much cheaper than previous practices.

So how does one end up helping guide industry best practices through regulation? Zomer explained that for her, it was scuba diving. “I grew up in a family of avid scuba divers and that’s where my passion for the environment began to develop,” she recollected. Being able to channel her passion for the environment into tangible policy change has been extremely rewarding for Zomer. “I feel like I can give back and that I am doing work that really matters,” she concluded.

The SAMMIES are tonight! Check out the other awesome finalists before the show and be sure to livestream the event so you can watch all your favorite public servants get the recognition they deserve.

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