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Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia FY 2008 Oversight Hearing

Monday, March 3, 2008
George S. Hawkins, Esq., Director, DDOE

Director George S. Hawkins - Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia FY 2008 Oversight Hearing
(March 3, 2008)

Good morning Council Member Graham and members of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment.  My name is George Hawkins and I am the Director of the District Department of the Environment.  I am honored to have been appointed by Mayor and confirmed by this Committee and the Council.  The Mayor, City Administrator Dan Tangherlini, my colleagues on the cabinet, and Chair of this Committee and members of the Council have made it clear that the District needs a first-in-class environmental agency to help accelerate its transformation into one of the world’s great green cities.  I am pleased to participate in this step in the oversight process because it offers the opportunity to be assessed for our performance over the last year and our work and plans for the current year.  I believe we all agree that there is and should be a high bar of performance established by the Mayor and this Council.

One of the values I hold most dear is the importance of teamwork.  I am accountable for the work of the Department, but rely on the leadership, support and efforts of my management team and the excellent staff of the Department.  I am joined today by a several members of my management team, including Robert Jose, our Agency Financial Officer; Dr. Hamid Karimi, the Deputy Director of the Natural Resources Administration; Rosalind Inge, the Deputy Director of our Administrative Services Division, Dr. Robert Hamilton, the Associate Director of our Toxic Substances Division; Cecily Beall, the Associated Director of our Air Quality Division; Kendolyn Hodges-Simons, the Interim Director of our Office of Enforcement and Environmental Justice, Sharon Cooke, our Acting Director of the Office of Communications; Corey Buffo, the Director of our Office of Policy and Sustainability; Neil Stanley, our Chief of Staff; and Chris Carew, who I enticed away from Governor Corzine’s staff in New Jersey to be the Special Assistant for the Economy and the Environment.  I am joined as well by Jill Wohrle and Shane Farthing, who have served the Department and the District well as Capital City Fellows.  I rely on the wisdom and skill of this group, and many others, on a daily basis in our effort to protect and enhance the environment for all who live, work and play in the District of Columbia.

My plan is to present testimony in three parts.  First, I will highlight some of our accomplishments in Fiscal Year 2007.  Second, I will review some of the challenges we faced in 2007.  Third, I will present our strategies for overcoming these challenges in Fiscal Year 2008, and how we have progressed thus far in accomplishing our goals.

I want to emphasize two points up front.  First, I am grateful for your leadership on environmental issues.  You helped author and shepherd the Green Building Act to become the law of the District, probably the foremost law of its kind in the country.  Last summer, you held a critical hearing on stormwater issues connected to the health of the District’s waterways, and launched with me a Stormwater Task Force that in three short months developed a consensus outline for legislation to strengthen one of the nation’s strongest urban stormwater programs.   I also know of your leadership on many other issues, ranging from a response to lead paint hazards, to clean cars and vector control – not to mention developing a budget that enables the Department to achieve our goals.  This leadership exemplifies both a strong command of the broad policy issues and a focus on delivering meaningful service to the residents of your Ward and the entire District.  This is a model I emulate in my efforts with the Department.

Second, I want to state directly that I believe the work of this Committee and Department embodies one of the critical public policy issues of the day.  Most have heard of the environmental challenges that face this country and planet. The extinction of species and loss of biodiversity today, caused mostly by the loss of natural habitat, is occurring at a rate faster than during the last great mass extinction.  The rapid increase in greenhouse gases is causing the planet’s climate to warm, driving harmful changes to habitat, increasing the chance of catastrophic weather events and threatening coastal areas as sea levels rise, including here in the District.  In my view, one of the principal answers to this extraordinarily perilous challenge is the urban environment.  For example, residents in cities use much less energy than their counterparts in the suburbs, walk more and drive less, and cover less habitat and farm fields with buildings and concrete than sprawling suburban subdivisions.  And yet this answer also generates its own set of challenges – those associated with the more compact living and urban designs, frequently in neighborhoods with aging infrastructure, residual contamination from past activities, hazards from lead paint and ground level ozone, as well as reduced access to remaining natural areas.

The imperative then is an urban agenda that captures the great opportunity and benefits that are derived from urban living, while responding to the challenges that stem from this arrangement.  The Department is charged with a critical component of the urban agenda – which is to protect and enhance the natural habitat of the District, and to protect and enhance lives of people who live and work in the District.  The achievement of these twin goals is a fundamental underpinning of the economic, social and natural vitality that defines any great city of the world.

 

2007 Accomplishments

 

If I were to choose one word to describe the Department in 2007 it would be “transformation.”  For in 2007, the Department took major strides to transform the promise of its recent formation into the reality of a high performance environmental agency.  I would like to highlight a few of our accomplishments in 2007.

I. Management.

I start with our strides in developing the management team and structure.  I have learned that most of the hopes and dreams of an enterprise succeed or fail on the capacity to put the structures in place to enable success.  In 2007 we put most of these pieces in place, starting (I hope) with my appointment in May to be the Department’s first Director.  I want to thank again the excellent work of my predecessor, Corey Buffo, who ably led the organization as Interim Director through the first half of the year.  During 2007 we also identified, recruited and hired many critical positions, including our Chief of Staff, our Deputy Director for Administrative Services, our Associate Director for Human Resources and our Associate Director of Air Quality.  We also worked with the Administration to select a new Agency Fiscal Officer and our new General Counsel.  Although we have hiring needs throughout the organization, I made the explicit decision to strengthen many of our management and administrative efforts first, so that we could have in place the systems upon which to build the rest of the enterprise.

I also invested a significant effort into learning about the perspective and needs of the staff in a process called “Inward in August.”   During August, 2007, I met with every branch in the Department in small group meetings, without managers, to make sure I heard about any issues that are important to their ability to do their work.  After 18 meetings, many pages of notes and follow-up questions on many of the issues raised, I have a reasonably good sense of the health of the organization and its major needs – both in terms of challenges to overcome, and goals to which we aspire.  The management approach I have implemented is in response to these meetings, as well as frequent meetings with my senior staff and management.

II. Program Highlights.

All management and structural improvements are developed with a singular intent – to improve the programmatic work of the Department.  The Department made significant strides in its core functions, and I highlight a representative sampling of our work below.

a. Stormwater.  The Department’s response to water quality issues stemming from stormwater was in two areas.  The first is related to the District’s MS4 (municipal separate storm sewer system) permit issued by the US Environmental Protection Agency.  The District’s permit had been challenged by the District and environmental advocates, and negotiations to resolve differences were nearly broken down early in the year.  Starting in the late Spring and through the summer, the District actively negotiated with the USEPA and environmental advocates to develop the terms of a far-reaching stormwater program.  Although we were not able ultimately to craft a permit that met the requirements of the advocates, this process was extremely helpful and the dialogue helped craft an enhanced stormwater permit that USEPA announced in September.  According to USEPA, this permit represents perhaps the most stringent urban stormwater program in the country, and contains meaningful and measurable deliverables that the District must meet to reduce pollutants that are captured in rain events and frequently discharged directly to our waterbodies.

The second area has been to build the new Stormwater Administration in the Department.  In February, DC Water and Sewer Authority transferred its stormwater program to the Department, and with it the responsibility for developing and implementing programs associated with the stormwater fees collected by DC WASA.  The Department has this program up and running, and has initiated in concert with this Committee a Task Force to strengthen the laws and funding to support this program.

b. Lead.  The Mayor appointed the Director of the Department to lead the District’s interagency response to the threat from lead poisoning.  From the concern over lead in water, to the continuing risk to children from lead-based paint, the Department’s work on lead issues is a critical service to the residents of the city because lead poisoning is a direct threat to the health of the children.  We have employed a multi-pronged approach to lead issues.  First and foremost, we have worked with our fellow agencies to respond in a timely fashion to children who have been tested with elevated blood levels of lead (EBLs).  By working closely with the Department of Health (DOH), the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), we put in place an EBL response system that now focuses an immediate inspection, and if needed, risk assessment for homes where a child tested for an EBL.  Landlord and homeowners are required to undertake appropriate remedial steps, and for the first time, face enforcement actions by the Attorney General if they fail to do so.  Second, we have invigorated both the interagency committee that coordinates our response to lead, and have invited federal agencies to join us, and have strengthened our partnership and communication with the public – primarily through a new bi-weekly reporting mechanism.  Third, we have worked with the Mayor’s office and your staff to outline the elements of legislation that will strengthen our laws governing lead paint.  Finally, we worked with the Mayor and Allen Lew, the Director of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, to initiate a comprehensive assessment of the presence of lead paint in schools.

c. Anacostia.   One of Mayor Fenty’s highest priorities is the restoration of the Anacostia River and its tributaries, which is both one of the environmental jewels of the District, and one of the most contaminated Rivers in the country.  To fully realize the potential of this waterbody, the Mayor directed the Department to develop a comprehensive restoration plan that was written in 2007 and will be announced this Spring.  Elements of this Plan are already being implemented, and include the following:

  • Clean-up of Pope Branch
  • Clean-up of Watts Branch
  • River Clean-ups and Water Quality Monitoring.

d. Energy.  Although reviewed by a separate District Committee, the Department continued to provide critical energy services, particularly for energy assistance for low income residents. 
e. Emergency Response.  The Department has become important part of the emergency response efforts of the District.  Department staff responded to emergencies that ranged from high-profile accidents like the spill of 800 tons of coal into the Anacostia, to more limited but nonetheless important challenges like the potential release of asbestos in a local hospital by a contractor.  The Department deploys appropriate staff to respond to these emergencies, implements needed air and water monitoring, helps inform residents and others about the response and safety measures, and oversees the remediation of any harm. 
f. Enforcement and Inspections.  The Department has also maintained an aggressive program to inspect and enforce compliance with the wide range of environmental standards.

III. Sixty Day Study. 

A review of 2007 would not be complete without highlighting the importance the 60 Day Study undertaken by the USEPA as part of its State Review Framework process.  Many of the laws implemented in the District are delegated to the Department from the USEPA, which also provides substantial funding.  As part of USEPA’s review of the performance of every state, USEPA reviewed the District’s work to implement and enforce federal environmental programs in 2007.  The USEPA determined that the District was deficient in several key aspects, and raised the potential that key programs and funding would be withdrawn.

Under my leadership and with Kendolyn Hodges-Simons overseeing our obligations, the District worked diligently with the USEPA to conduct a thorough 60 Day Study of our operations, and then to draft and execute a Memorandum of Understanding governing a wide range of corrective steps to improve our performance.  I am pleased to report that USEPA is encouraged with our progress and is working in concert with us, particularly on issues pertaining to training, equipment and enforcement, to achieve the goals established in the MOU.  Our vision is to engage in this process to continue to transform the Department into nothing less than one of the best in the country.

2007 Challenges

During the course of 2007, we faced several challenges.  The first is a continuing theme – which is the continuing need to hire management, technical and support positions.  Our vacancy rate continued to hover beyond 30 percent.  This vacancy rate is the primary reason the Department ended up with a surplus for 2007 due to lapsed salary funds.  We could have sought to reprogram much of these funds, although I ultimately elected not to do so.  During my first months as Director, I wanted to be conservative and be sure we ended the year with at least a positive balance, and we also faced (and still face) a potential request by the US Department of Interior – Fish and Wildlife Service – to return funds associated with expenditures that may not be explained by proper recordkeeping from 2003 and 2004.  Although we believe we have answered questions concerning these expenditures to the satisfaction of the federal auditors, I held funds in reserve just in case.

The second challenge is connected to our work with the business and development community.  We regularly hear that our requirements are not clear, seem to change during the course of a project, and are often subject to long and uncertain review periods.  These challenges relate to the substance of our requirements, to their transparency to the regulated community, and to our ability to work with developers and regulated parties to help achieve final outcomes that are timely and protective.

The third challenge is connected to the 60 Day Study by USEPA – or the capacity of the Department to monitor and enforce environmental laws in the District.  Despite the heroic efforts of our staff, we were frequently held back by a lack of up-to-date training, the need for equipment and standardized protocols, and the lack of adequate staff.

2008 Plans and Progress

Our strategic plan for 2008 is to complete building a Department of strong organizational fundamentals, while also gaining the resources and skills – staff, equipment, training and standardized protocols – to improve our programmatic work across the Board.  With respect to organizational fundamentals, we have adopted an aggressive hiring campaign that accelerates the writing and posting of positions, and expands the venues from which we seek candidates.  We expect the pace of hiring to increase with each passing day, and plan to have lowered our vacancy rate to near 10% by the end of the fiscal year.  In parallel, we have also adopted a strategy to hire from within, and to create career ladders for long-term employees.  Finally, I expect the final members of the management team to be selected in the next weeks, including the exciting prospect of a senior USEPA official joining us under an Intergovernmental Position Agreement.

A second part of our strategy is to build the elements of a Department that sets a high bar for performance in conjunction with being clear and transparent about what we require and when.  The Department is setting high standards to manage stormwater runoff to our waterbodies, to regulate milestones associated with the Green Building Act, and to set energy and conservation standards for schools, buildings, businesses and residences.  The Department supports a tightening of many air quality standards and is vigilant in setting and enforcing standards governing the building on District land.  The Department unabashedly seeks to protect precious remaining wetlands, and seeks to expand the viability of habitat for the enjoyment of the District’s human and non-human residents.  Backstopping this effort is a robust enforcement program, which provides a fair but firm playing field for all regulated parties.  I can tell you from my years representing private business, nothing is more frustrating to the parties that meet or exceed regulatory requirements than to see some of their colleagues or competitors get away with lower performance.  We will hold those in the District subject to our laws to account.

The Department is also working to re-engineer our review procedures to engage regulated parties early in the development process to incorporate our standards in the initial designs, followed by faster and more predictable decisions for projects that meet and even exceed our high standards. For any government that sets a high bar of regulatory requirements is obliged in my view to invest as enthusiastically in making these obligations clear and easy to understand, to be applied within predictable timeframes.  Much of the private sector is prepared to perform at a higher standard, requesting only that the standards be clear, up-front, and subject to certainty in time and place.  We are working hard already to define each step in our regulatory process, to explain the requirements of each step, and to apply clear review time frames for each step.  We are working with our sister agencies, particularly the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, to simplify the permitting process, to reduce roadblocks and uncertainties, and to clarify review timeframes and criteria.  We plan to have all these obligations clearly presented on our website, linked to a real time management process where any applicant can check the status and timeline of a relevant permit.

Collaboration.  High performance is also dependent on working with stakeholders to the agency on a pro-active and regular basis.  We seek a multi-faceted approach to open active lines of communication, including a regularly scheduled and chartered environmental advisory board that can provide feedback on policy initiatives and directions for the Department as well as suggest ideas of their own, a pro-active set of regular meetings with key business improvement districts, the DC Business and Industry Association, and the many other business interests in the District.  This pro-active collaborative approach also extend to our sister agencies with the recent launch of the Mayor’s Green Team, which coordinates and strengthens the District Government’s  extensive responsibilities – for the building of roads, to the management of parks and recreation facilities, to the clean-up of our streets and sidewalks.  We now participate in the weekly meetings held by the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to be sure that we hear about important development projects early in their conception so that our goals can be incorporated.  Much of this effort will be incorporated into a new environmental management system that we are devising to manage implementation new stormwater management requirements – and will be expanded to cover other programs and goals over time.

The final element of our effort to collaborate is with the citizens of the District and their elected representatives.  We will assign members of our communications staff to each Ward, so that we have a point person to communicate regularly with Council members and staff, ANC Commissioners and other citizens about issues of concern in their neighborhoods.  We seek to expand our presence at neighborhood events and other community activities, so we can elevate our presence and teach the residents of the District about our programs, about the beautiful resources so close to their homes, and about their roles in helping to protect the air, water and land that surround them.

To conclude, I state again my conviction that the development of an urban environmental agenda is simply one of the most important issues facing our species today, indeed all species, and that I am honored to have a hand at these issues in one of the great cities of the world, and the capital of this great nation as well.  I commit all my energy and skill to the task, knowing that I will not succeed without building friendships and alliances with everyone in this room and beyond, with the Mayor and his team, and with you on this Committee and Council.  I look forward to building this partnership, today, tomorrow, the next day and many days to come after that.  I pledge to start early, go late, and not to tire – and then to wake up the next day and get back at it again.

That concludes my testimony. Thank you for inviting me and I certainly welcome your questions and comments.