• Mark Ryan

Dave Ross Interview in E&E

All of us who work in the CWA know the name Dave Ross. He headed up the EPA Office of Water under the Trump administration. Regardless of what you think of the work he did, he was by any measure productive and influential. He influenced a lot of very important guidances, policies and rulemakings. Here's an interesting exit interview of him by Hannah Northey of E&E. E&E, by the way, does a great job of following developments at EPA, and Northey tracks CWA developments pretty well.


EPA water chief hoped for 'mild disappointment' on WOTUS

Hannah Northey, E&E News reporterPublished: Thursday, January 21, 2021

Former EPA Office of Water Assistant Administrator David Ross. Troutman Pepper

David Ross, President Trump's top EPA water official, knew he would face universal outrage when he revamped protections for the nation's wetlands and streams.

The gnarly issue has already fueled almost 50 years' worth of political brawling.

"I like to tell people I was aiming for mild disappointment all around," Ross said during a recent interview. "Trying to find a rule that works across the entire country was really difficult."

Sure enough, the Trump administration's Navigable Waters Protection Rule riled up environmentalists, triggered lawsuits and even fueled pushback from some conservatives who said the rule still reaches too far (Greenwire, June 24, 2020).

Ross, a native of Wisconsin, said he's always had a fascination with water. He grew up in Appleton, on the Fox River, where his father worked in life insurance and his mother was a social worker. After earning a law degree from the Vermont Law School in 2001, Ross landed his first job at a water reclamation facility in San Diego as an environmental consultant.

He went on to work as a lawyer representing industry clients against EPA before moving into state government. He represented the American Farm Bureau Federation in its 2012 lawsuit over EPA's Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan. Three years later, he served as director of the Wisconsin Department of Justice's Environmental Protection Unit and challenged EPA's Clean Water Rule as assistant attorney general of Wyoming.

Just two weeks ago, Ross left EPA to become a partner at the D.C.-based law firm Troutman Pepper. That was mere days before rioters sacked the Capitol in violent confrontations that left five people dead. Today, he's worried about not only the fate of his work at EPA, but also the future of other agency officials.

"It's upsetting. I'm particularly upset for some of the more junior or younger team members who put their heart and soul into serving the agency and then, as they look at their future careers, they're always going to have to answer for time served in the Trump administration," said Ross. "It's unfair because there's a lot of amazing work done at the agency."

Ross talked to E&E News about the riots and the outcome of his work as President Biden takes over.

What is your legacy at EPA?

We kept our eye focused on what the water sector looks like, what our water economy looks like 20 years from now. I will look back and measure my time at the agency by how well our infrastructure programs last, the workforce initiative and water reuse. If we didn't take action, 10-15 years from now, it may be too late. And then, of course, how we addressed emerging contaminants, like perfluorinated compounds.

What are you most proud of?

PFAS would be at the top of the list. The Office of Water behind the scenes helped strategize and write the PFAS Action Plan. It took a huge amount of work, particularly of the drinking water program, as they were working on a host of other issues like the Lead and Copper Rule. And the National Water Reuse Action Plan — I think that program is set up to be a new and important legacy piece of the Office of Water.

Is WOTUS your legacy?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. It was a busy three years. [Laughs.] I'm very pleased with the effort. Whoever talks about it, either you love it or you hate it. The team worked really hard. I'm sure the team didn't agree with some of the calls we made, but they were professional about it. The courts will decide that legacy piece.

Are you worried Biden will undo the WOTUS revisions?

Well, they certainly can try. I hope they take a deep look at it and see how it's working right now. But, yeah, I expect that they will have to make a run at it. They have to go through a robust rulemaking process, just like we did, when we had to take on the 2015 Clean Water Rule.

The litigation is already complicated. With additional rulemaking, it will get more complicated. It's been a 50-year problem. I spent a lot of time trying to fix it. I did what I thought was within our statutory authority and was implementable.

Who worked on the WOTUS revisions?

The same team that wrote the 2015 rule, before I arrived, was asked to both take the 2015 rule off the books and then redo it with our rule. And quite frankly, that was pretty unfair for them. They were very, very professional. But they put their heart and soul into a rulemaking, and then to be asked to do it again, that's challenging. The team, and the leaders of the team, we had spirited debates, differences of opinion on certain aspects. But at the end of the day, they delivered, they did their job, I did my job. I'm happy with the product.

What do you hope the Biden administration continues?

I really hope they keep focused on the infrastructure financing programs — those are up and running and doing great things — as well as the workforce initiative strategy, the Water Reuse Action Plan, continued focus on the PFAS Action Plan. I really hope they take a long, hard look at the major updates to the Lead and Copper Rule.

Are the rumors true you wrote WOTUS?

[Laughs] Well, as a senior leader, I'm responsible for the work product. On WOTUS in particular, yeah, I wrote a lot of it myself. I'm hesitant to say that because there's so many people who put a ton of work into it. It's not fair to say any one person wrote it. But my senior science adviser, he and I spent a lot of time working with actual pen in hand. But so yes, the rumors are directionally correct.

What was your reaction to the Capitol riots?

On my last day, we talked about the riots on a call with the office's political and career senior leadership. We were really upset watching what had happened. I had already announced that I was leaving. It was devastating to watch. The administrator in his message said it was "disgusting," and I think that's the right word. We are in a bad place, and I think we all need to figure out how we can communicate in this country.

Would you have resigned in protest if the riots had happened earlier?

Because I had announced I was leaving, I wasn't faced with that decision.

How do you respond to criticism that the Trump administration moved too slowly on PFAS?

In any emerging contaminant environment, particularly for communities that have PFAS in their drinking water, whatever government does, it's never fast enough. I get that. If the agency would have thrown all of its resources in only a couple of areas, we would have been asleep at the wheel across the entire spectrum of PFAS issues.

The PFAS Action Plan was designed to be a holistic plan to address the life cycle of PFAS, because quite frankly, we don't know enough about it. How do you take PFAS out of the environment once you identify it? If you're not careful, you might just transfer PFAS to another environment.

You played a key role in EPA approving Florida's request to oversee wetlands permitting under the Clean Water Act.

That was one of my personal major initiatives coming in, to try to get more states interested in taking the 404 program. It was a big lift and important lift. I'll watch with interest on how both Florida implements the program — there are another five to 10 states that are extremely interested in taking on the program now that path has been laid down for them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Hannah M. Northey Water Reporter 734-709-1369 (c) 202-446-0468 (p)

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