Eyewitness: 45 years with the Environmental Protection Agency

Murray EPA
Tom Murray, who served in a key role as senior science adviser with the U.S. Environmental Agency, was at the forefront of many of the most significant environmental protections that the agency enacted.

It’s June 1971. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — newly authorized by President Richard Nixon — had just been launched some six months earlier. News of the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969, which ignited due to discharged industrial oils and debris, is still residual news

No comprehensive federal laws exist to prohibit, limit or regulate the discharge of toxic substances, oils and debris into the country’s water supply and oceans. No comprehensive federal laws exist to prohibit, limit or regulate the release of toxic and ecologically harmful gases into the air. No comprehensive federal laws exist to protect the land from the indiscriminate use of pesticides and other chemicals.

Enter Tom Murray, biologist.

U.S. EPA in its infancy: Eye witness

"Being in the EPA at that time was really something to behold. Being a brand new agency, a lot of activities needed to get started to deal with all the different environmental statutes Congress was passing at the time, which were many," Murray said.

"In the 1970s, a new environmental law was being passed almost yearly — from the Clean Water Act to the Clean Air Act to new pesticides legislation to the Ocean Dumping Act. And each time a new statute was passed, that meant an organization had to be formed within the EPA framework to deal with all the requirements of it.

"The early years were exciting, busy, even fun. I worked on those statutes early in my career. And it was real life. It was good stuff."

Murray said that the origins for the agency began a decade earlier. "The agency was officially formed in December of 1970, but things started to really move in the early 1960s, in particular with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book 'Silent Spring' in 1962."

Widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement, Carson’s book was one of the first to probe humankind's effect on nature.

toxic waste
<p><span>(Left) The Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969 that ignited as a result of discharged industrial oils and debris was a blazing red flag about human and industrial effects on the environment. (Right) Before the U.S. EPA was formed in 1970, toxic waste was allowed to be discharged into rivers, oceans and other waterways at will.</span></p>

"The Love Canal toxic waste dump disaster up in Niagara Falls in 1978 had a major impact on environmental consciousness. Times Beach in Missouri later on in the '80s focused on dioxins. So a lot of things were driving interest in the agency," he said.

Murray was one of the few biologists by training in EPA at the time. He applied his education to setting up water quality monitoring protocols and a biological organism database. "I was fortunate to be part of a lot of the fundamental water quality programs in the agency, especially state programs.

"We had a lot of fish kills occurring in the U.S., so we were working diligently with the states to develop ways to evaluate various toxic chemicals in the water. Back in those days, when you talked about water quality, you looked at things like the oxygen levels dissolved in the water, biochemical oxygen demand, which is the demand that pollutants put on the oxygen in water, turbidity and suspended solids. That was it."

Murray worked with biologists around the country to develop testing protocols to use, such as the use of Daphnia, or water fleas, and other biological organisms to test for toxicity of water. Water was drawn out of bodies of water and put into tanks with organisms to measure the dose at which a percentage would die.

"That helped us to understand the toxicity and how best to deal with that problem," Murray said.

Relationship of EPA with manufacturing

Initially the relationship between industry and the EPA was "not too friendly" because all of the statutes had regulatory frameworks within them, Murray said. "At the time, industry really didn’t appreciate some of the environmental impacts of various things going on in the U.S. They didn’t like the fact that they had to change what they were doing and feared that there would be negative economic effects."

In 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed, which allowed the EPA to develop a structure for evaluating the hazard and risk of different chemicals. "We were able to look at their hazards and exposure routes and come up with reasonable risk evaluations of them. Through that program, we were able to keep hundreds of toxic chemicals from even making it to market — and keeping them out of the environment."

It was in the 1990s that pollution prevention really emerged, he said. "Instead of looking at a problem as it was coming out of the pipe or stack, the idea was to look at it as it was being developed, before it was used, so we could prevent things from happening in the first place." A slew of concepts came out of that: basic recycling; green chemistry; green engineering; and design for the environment (now referred to as Safer Choice). "We worked with companies to design environmental considerations into their products rather than waiting for later consequences.

"By the ‘90s, the industries that had not been happy with us in the ‘70s were able to better understand that through pollution prevention efforts, they could produce products, make money and be environmentally conscious at the same time."

Public-private partnerships: Bridge over troubled waters

At that time, dialogue opened about public-private partnerships. Murray was at the forefront of developing several: the Green Suppliers Network (GSN); the Economy, Energy and the Environment Framework (E3); and the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership.

The Green Suppliers Network grew out of an act passed in 1990 called the Pollution Prevention Act. In that statute, Congress authorized the EPA to work with businesses and encourage them to employ pollution prevention practices.

<p><span> </span><span>Tom Murray worked with manufacturers, communities, healthcare organizations and many government agencies to form cross-organization networks to achieve results.</span></p><p></p>

"We really cut our teeth in this area working with the healthcare industry. At the time, we were dealing with mercury, a neurotoxin that affects the nervous system — still a major environmental concern," Murray said.

Healthcare organizations, and specifically the American Hospital Association, had read an EPA report identifying medical waste incinerators as the fourth-largest source of mercury emissions into the environment. "The medical practice’s mantra is 'first, do no harm,' and here they were releasing mercury into the atmosphere which then found its way into the food chain," Murray reported.

"So EPA elected to do two things. One, it initiated the process to write a rule to regulate medical waste incinerators. At the same time, we in the pollution prevention area met with the American Hospital Association, American Nurses Association, and others and said, ‘Let’s see if we can work a pollution prevention solution to this.’ We literally sat down with doctors, nurses and medical practitioners and found that by changing their purchasing behavior, moving away from mercury-containing devices and changing waste management practices, we were able to get a 99 percent reduction in mercury emissions from the medical community. That was huge."

That success encouraged more public-private partnering, Murray said.

Shortly afterward, General Motors contacted Murray and his team to understand more about the EPA’s pollution prevention approach. "GM, like other corporations at the time, was looking into how to green their corporation and supply chains.

"We set up a protocol with our best pollution-prevention practices. We contacted the Manufacturing Extension Partnership [MEP]." MEPs, part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a U.S. Department of Commerce agency, operate state by state, working with small- and medium-sized companies to help them be more competitive.

"In the early years, MEPs focused on lean manufacturing, but they were starting to hear from their clientele about jumping on green. That’s why we formed the Green Suppliers Network. It seemed like a natural progression to combine lean and green." The two organizations started working with GM and its suppliers as a team on the factory floor. The results were effective and immediate, Murray relayed.

"We would pick a process that was particularly troublesome. Through basic mapping and other evaluative tools, we came up with recommendations for improvements. Some were lean, some were environmental. It was a great hit."

GM formalized the program by forming another public-private organization, the Suppliers Partnership for the Environment, to solve environmental problems in the automotive supply chain. It is anchored by the major automotive corporations and their suppliers. EPA is represented on it, although it can’t be a voting member.

Witnessing the successes in the automotive industry, companies in other segments wanted in. "They said, ‘Let’s see if we can do it in our industry.’ We started working with the office furniture industry, pharmaceuticals and other industries."

Industry and EPA: BFFs?

Utilities then became interested in the Green Suppliers Network program. Murray and his staff conversed with a major Midwest utility company and devised an idea to modify the Green Suppliers Network approach into a community-based approach. "We did piloting in Texas and Ohio. That’s where E3 was born."

The difference between the two is that GSN is primarily a lean and green supply chain approach; E3 is a community-based effort, Murray explained.

"Today, communities themselves want to become more sustainable. They want to be green communities because they want to attract new businesses, and sustainability is becoming a criterion for many businesses.

"We pulled people together. We involved mayor’s offices, economic development organizations and the community. We included the Department of Energy, which has a national network of universities that do energy audits for companies. We reached out to the Small Business Administration for help with grants and other financial management services that they offer to small and medium-sized entities. We reached out to the Department of Labor to apply their workforce training programs for companies around the country. We involved the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture for rural areas, others in the EPA and the MEP program."

As a result, a manufacturing company can get help with a complete energy audit, financial management services and have access to layers of expertise. "The whole idea of the EPA working together and helping companies took a major step forward with E3."

Part of the E3 effort is working with the manufacturing base, Murray said. "Not long ago, I had a chat with a small manufacturer in the Pacific Northwest who had gotten involved in E3 a couple years ago. I asked him if it helped his company. He said, 'It worked great. We’re saving a million dollars a year.’ The almighty dollar will always be the driving force, but they were able to achieve a variety of different environmental benefits with the cost savings."

Reflections and aspirations

Ironically, Murray’s original aspirations were not related to environmentalism — he studied pre-medicine in college. Which may explain why, when asked what accomplishment he is most proud of, Murray cited the health crossover with environmental protection. "The mercury program that we did with the medical industry had such a dramatic effect. It is still operational."

"I like looking at my career with the EPA from a medical perspective, because it’s very similar in terms of the effects on human health. So that’s why the passion is there."

Although Murray and his colleagues accomplished a great deal during his tenure and he is officially retired from the EPA, that doesn’t mean he’s disconnected or no longer interested in the environment. There still are plenty of environmental problems to solve. He has launched a consultancy to continue the work he has invested so much time and effort in on a private basis.

"I can’t retire from environmental issues. There is too much stuff out there that I care too much about and too many people I care too much about to let this drift behind me and become a guy on the beach selling umbrellas. I’m going to stay in the game and work on whatever I need to."

One area Murray believes needs improvement is actually revising some rules and regulations crafted in EPA’s earliest years: "Some of the more progressive organizations out there pushing sustainability suggest that many policies and definitions that were originally written in the 1970s and not really revisited might actually be standing in the way of innovation and sustainability efforts."

On climate change, Murray keeps the argument simple: "When you read the science, it tells you we are seeing the effects of climate change. Politically, people argue whether this is a natural phenomenon or whether we humans are causing it. To me, it doesn’t matter if we are causing it or if it is happening naturally...If there is anything we can do now to try to suppress the effects of climate change for future generations, I think we’re obliged to do that, whether it be cutting carbon emissions or just raising the understanding for younger people so they can weigh in.

"I’m not going to get into an argument with people about how real it is. We are seeing the effects — we might not see the worst of these effects for another 20, 25 years, but, we are likely to see them. What concerns me as the father of seven kids and 11 grandkids is this: We cannot pass this problem on to our grandchildren and say, 'Well, by the time this becomes a real problem, we baby-boomers will be dead and gone. It’s yours to deal with.' That’s neither a right nor a fair message."

Murray will deliver a keynote presentation at the Sustainable Manufacturer Network conference in September in Oak Brook, Illinois.