I was in Durango when the EPA accidentally unleashed three million gallons of mining waste water into the Las Animas watershed. I witnessed first hand as local officials attending the Parks & Wildlife Commission scrambled for information from a disorganized EPA. All the while the orange sludge flowed inexorably downstream towards us.
If you have spent most of your career managing crisis or training for it, you recognize the onset of a crisis in all its stages:
- Missed opportunity – we now know the EPA was warned last year that the mine was full of water and in danger of a catastrophic release;
- Acute Crisis – the actual event, such as the release of poison gas in Bhopal or the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island;
- Chronic phase – the period after the event where leaders struggle to get in front of the impacts of #2;
- Recovery phase – addressing losses and impacts of the community (geographic and stakeholders); and
- Lessons Learned vs. Repeat.
The goal of any great leader in a crisis who has missed the chance to avoid it is to minimize the time between #2 and #3, then move quickly to #4. You do that with communication, credibility, and empathy. You cannot afford to flail around until you lose credibility and risk organizational survival.
I am not a reflexive critique of EPA. Over my corporate career my teams interacted with EPA often. It is a professional scientific organization that can at times seem disconnected from business and local communities, but I never found it incompetent or mean spirited.
Without EPA we would still have rivers on fire. Pick your favorite old movie or television show from the 1960s that shows profiles of downtown Los Angeles or New York (my favorite is the dystopian vision of Manhattan choking in smog circa 1968 in Kenneth Clark’s final episode of Civilization). We do not have that air today in large measure because of the EPA’s flexible implementation of the Clean Air Act.
This is not about big government or small government. It is not about whether the EPA’s budget is too big or too small. It is about screwing up, being slow to empower communities with information, failing to make whole small businesses, workers, farmers, and Native Americans, and losing your credibility.
Given the torture that government and NGOs pile upon private companies for mishandling environmental events, the disorder at EPA is disappointing. This was a blown opportunity for EPA to show the world how to handle an environmental crisis. A well designed and trained to plan might have contained the following:
- Within minutes and certainly two hours of the release an immediate notification to the Governor of Colorado, the head of EPA, and the President followed by a public statement;
- The appearance within three hours of the most senior available EPA crisis manager on-site outlining live the plan and its implementation to the press, including the announcement of a plan to hold twice daily press conferences to answer any and all questions;
- The appointment as spokesperson for EPA on the disaster of a well known Colorado or Western conservationist;
- The establishment of a website within twenty-four hours for real time 24 x 7 dissemination of data;
- The announcement within 72 hours of a fund to disburse emergency funding to impacted businesses, workers, and downstream communities;
- Within a week the announcement of a plan to address long term cleanup, monitoring, and final disbursement of damages.
It is never too late to move toward such a response. But what a lost opportunity! The world’s leading environmental regulatory body acted like a third rate chemical manufacturer caught dumping coal waste into an Appalachian stream.
As of this morning per its website EPA is not offering immediate financial support for losses, but directs “claimants” to a form process under the Federal Tort Claims Act. That is the equivalent of a private company saying “sue me”.
And the worst of it is the EPA still does not understand how losing its credibility empowers its enemies and discourages its supporters. Come on EPA, do your job, make whole the people and the river of the Las Animas watershed.