Feds at Work: Protecting the nation’s waters

Served as chief legal advisor on a regulation to keep heavy metals dumped by industry out of rivers, lakes and streams

For decades, steam electric power plants have discharged enormous amounts of arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium and cadmium into the nation’s waterways, creating serious risks to human health and the environment.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency revised and strengthened a power plant rule to greatly reduce the discharge of these dangerous pollutants.It relied heavily on the legal skills and guidance of Jessica Hall Zomer, a young EPA attorney.

Jessica Hall Zomer (Photo by Aaron Clamage)

“We don’t do rules of this magnitude very often,” said Kevin Minoli, EPA’s principal deputy general counsel. “Jessica was the central piece to making this happen.”

Zomer, now 36, was able to translate extremely complex legal and technical issues into a rule “that will profoundly change the way we protect the nation’s water,” Minoli said, adding it’s rare to give someone so young such responsibility.

Along with making sure the rule met all legal requirements under the Clean Water Act and related statutes and executive orders, Zomer also helped lead the team that issued the complex regulation slated to be phased in beginning in 2018.

The new standards will lead to the removal of 1.4 billion pounds of pollutants a year, roughly one-third of the industrial pollutants discharged by regulated industries into the nation’s rivers, lakes and streams.

Heavy metals and other pollutants from these power plants can lead to a lower IQ among children exposed to them and contribute to the development of cancers and other illnesses. They also lead to deformities in fish and wildlife and create dead zones in critical water resources such as the Chesapeake Bay.

The new standards will help end power plants’s practice of storing vast amounts of coal ash wastewater in holding ponds that are at risk of catastrophic failure.

“She helped lead and crystalize the thinking of the agency. She’s a standout for her ability to obtain outcomes that wouldn’t otherwise happen.” ~ Steven Neugeboren, Environmental Protection Agency

“Everything had to go through Jessica,” said Elisabeth Southerland, director of the Office of Science and Technology in EPA’s Office of Water, who she describes as having “incredible positive energy.”

When EPA proposed the regulation, the agency was inundated with more than 179,000 public comments. Zomer was responsible for ensuring that the response to each comment was legally defensible and done by the court-mandated deadline.

Toward the end, she worked 60 days straight to finish the job on time and also helped ensure the rule had the full support of the administration.

Zomer’s help marshaling the agency’s rebuttal to criticisms was critical for finalizing the regulation, said Steven Neugeboren, an EPA associate general counsel.

“She went beyond simply providing legal advice,” he said. “She helped lead and crystalize the thinking of the agency. She’s a standout for her ability to obtain outcomes that wouldn’t otherwise happen.”

Zomer was equally indispensable in helping senior career staff and political leaders, including at the White House, understand the legal issues and make informed decisions, Neugeboren said. Her ability to think about the big picture contributed to decisions that not only protect health and the environment, but also recognize the costs, and how to make the rule practical for industry to implement, he added.

“It is my sincere belief that there is no inherent contradiction between a strong economy and a healthy environment.” ~Jessica Hall Zomer, Environmental Protection Agency

It was important that Zomer could comprehend the rule’s technical nature and explain decisions in an understandable way, Minoli said. And that will continue to be vital since the power industry has challenged the new rule in court.

“Jessica will be the lead attorney defending the rule,” said Mary Ellen Levine, EPA assistant general counsel.

Zomer’s interest in water and marine life began early, with family scuba diving trips. Today, as a certified scuba diver, she said she is motivated to seek “practical solutions that keep the environment healthy and habitable for humans and the many other life forms with which we share this planet.”

The power plant rule struck “a sensible balance between legitimate commercial interests and protecting both human health and the environment,” she said.

“It is my sincere belief that there is no inherent contradiction between a strong economy and a healthy environment.”

Jessica Hall Zomer is a finalist for a 2016 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, or Sammies. Each year, the Partnership for Public Service honors federal employees whose remarkable accomplishments make our government and our nation stronger. For the second time, we will also present the annual “People’s Choice” award. Please vote for the person or team you find most inspiring. (Voting closes at 11:59 p.m. EST on September 9, 2016.)