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Regional leader

EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman manages Great Lakes restoration, protection

Spring/Summer 2012 | By Meghan Lepisto

For Susan Hedman, there is always an opportunity to learn something new.

Throughout her more than 30 years in the environmental protection field, the Nelson Institute alumna has served as a researcher, professor, public interest lawyer, United Nations legal officer and assistant attorney general. Today, she holds the position of Region 5 Administrator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Susan Hedman
EPA Region 5 Administrator
Susan Hedman.

Appointed by President Barack Obama on Earth Day 2010, Hedman directs agency operations in the six-state Great Lakes region (one of ten regional EPA offices). It includes Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as 35 federally recognized tribal governments.

She manages the Great Lakes National Program, overseeing restoration and protection of the largest freshwater system in the world; coordinates the multi-agency Great Lakes Restoration Initiative; and heads the U.S. delegation renegotiating the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada.

In all, she manages almost 1,300 employees who span 19 floors of a federal building in Chicago and several other locations across Region 5. Her impressive professional roster, combined with a lineup of degrees from UW-Madison, has expertly prepared her for this role. Hedman earned a Ph.D. from the Nelson Institute Land Resources program (now Environment and Resources) in 1989, a J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School ('87) and a master's degree in public policy and administration from the La Follette School of Public Affairs ('79).

"In some respects, it really does feel like I have been in training to be Region Five administrator, though it never occurred to me, ever, that I actually would be the regional administrator," Hedman says. "To be able to confront some of the problems we're confronting as effectively as we are is just a privilege, and it's a historic moment for the agency. I can't imagine doing anything else at this moment in time where I would have the ability to make a bigger difference and contribute more."

False dichotomy

In February, Hedman spoke on campus about EPA initiatives in the Great Lakes region and what she referred to as the false dichotomy of economy versus environment (see video of her presentation). She also held a roundtable discussion with UW-Madison students, responding to questions about renewable energy, green jobs, environmental education and more.

"There are those who claim that we have to choose between a strong economy and a healthy environment; that we have to choose between jobs and clean air... your money or your life," Hedman said during her lecture, hosted by the Nelson Institute and Law School. "In what sometimes passes for public discourse these days, we can't always count on people recognizing that this dichotomy is false."

"To be able to
confront some
of the problems
we're confronting
as effectively as
we are is a privilege."

The EPA sees "evidence every day that environmental standards do stimulate the economy," she continued, and the agency contends that a healthy environment is the foundation for a strong economy. As an example, she said, investments in emission controls require American jobs to manufacture, install, operate and maintain the pollution-control equipment.

In a specific case closer to home, Hedman points to the more than 1,000 jobs created through restoration of the lower Fox River, which flows from central to eastern Wisconsin. This Superfund site is home to the largest-ever environmental sediment cleanup in the country, she says, with a million cubic yards of contaminated sediment removed to date.

It's also one of several toxic hotspots -- targeted areas of concern identified under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement -- being fast-tracked as a priority watershed in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Wonder of the world

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, announced by President Obama in 2009, provides an unprecedented investment in the lakes' protection and recovery.

Aerial view of the Great Lakes
Hedman directs agency operations in the six-state
Great Lakes region. Photo credit NASA Goddard.

More than 140 programs are underway in five focus areas, which include combating invasive species like Asian carp, promoting near-shore health by protecting watersheds from polluted runoff, and restoring wetlands and other habitats. In Wisconsin alone, $49 million in grants have been awarded to 88 projects, viewable on an interactive map at

"The Great Lakes are a natural wonder of the world," says Hedman. The lakes cover about 94,000 square miles, provide drinking water and jobs for more than 35 million people, and are home to more than 3,500 plant and animal species. "They're such an important resource, and frankly, they've been a bit neglected... It's nice to have the resources to really make a difference."

Eleven government agencies and departments form the initiative task force. Hedman says the team is far greater than the sum of its parts. "These agencies, many of which rarely even talked to each other in the past, are working together to tackle threats to the Great Lakes in a comprehensive fashion."

Rapid response

Hedman witnessed the power of collaboration almost immediately after assuming the role of Region 5 administrator.

In July 2010, a 30-inch pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Michigan, in the southcentral part of the state, releasing more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. The river was over flood stage, heavy rains caused it to overtop dams, and there was concern the oil would flow west into Lake Michigan.

"I was fairly new on the job, so this was kind of an immersion program," Hedman says. Working quickly with EPA emergency responders and other federal, state and local agencies, the response team was able to contain the oil approximately 80 river miles from Lake Michigan.

"Again, once you identify that common goal, you have a lot of people who can really get the job done," she says.

Hedman has also been heartened by the neighborhood organizations she encounters in advancing the agency's environmental justice efforts, an initiative championed by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Hedman says most major Midwestern cities have areas disproportionately impacted by environmental harms -- all marked on a map that hangs outside of her office.

"These neighborhood groups are very focused on improving the quality of life for people," she says. "Their ability to organize and bring about change has been very impressive."

Setting precedents

Crews respond to Enbridge oil spill
Crews remove oil and contaminated materials from
the Talmadge Creek bank near Marshall, Michigan,
after the Enbridge oil spill. Photo credit U.S. EPA.

Along the way to the EPA, Hedman has moved from Lake Superior to Switzerland and achieved a series of environmental litigation milestones.

After serving on the faculty of Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and the University of Maryland in College Park, Hedman moved to Chicago in 1993 to join the Environmental Law and Policy Center. While serving as lead counsel for a range of environmental, public health and citizen groups throughout the Midwest, Hedman filed suit against the Detroit Edison Company, an electric utility serving southeast Michigan, which at the time hoped to reopen a previously shuttered coal plant.

The lawsuit alleged that Detroit Edison would need to obtain an environmental permit and meet new source review standards, "meaning that if they were going to restart the plant, it had to have the kind of pollution controls that a new source would have," Hedman explains.

"It turns out that was the first suit of that kind filed in the country," she says. "Every body had been talking about it, but this particular case laid out the facts so squarely it was a perfect one." (In the end, Detroit Edison converted the plant to natural gas.)

Hedman would later return to Chicago to serve as environmental counsel and senior assistant attorney general in the Illinois Attorney General's office, but first made her way to Geneva, Switzerland. There she led the legal team for the UN tribunal that handled claims for environmental damage caused by oil fires in Kuwait and the release of oil into the Persian Gulf during the first Gulf War.

"There were humanitarian claims, commercial claims and, for the first time ever, environmental claims," Hedman says. "The whole idea of environmental claims from war was a new idea and this was the first precedent."

"It was an incredible opportunity to be involved and I have to say, one that, if I had just had a law degree, I wouldn't have been prepared for," she continues, alluding to her Nelson Institute coursework.

Classes with consequences

"The experience I had with professors [at UW-Madison] through the environmental studies program was astonishing," she says, naming Charlie Cicchetti as well as Carl Runge and John Steinhart (both now deceased) as influential mentors.

"The experience
I had with
professors through
the environmental
studies program
was astonishing."

Hedman says her interest in the environment was first inspired by a childhood spent camping and hunting in central Wisconsin and vacationing to national parks with her family, and also partially due to the times.

"The environmental movement, so to speak -- Earth Day, Senator [Gaylord] Nelson from Wisconsin -- was happening right at the time I was becoming a teenager," she says. "And then in college we had the two energy crises, so in terms of thinking about political issues, these were very important."

While attending graduate school at UW-Madison, a nudge from Runge pointed Hedman to the Nelson Institute Land Resources program.

"It would never have occurred to me to get a Ph.D., but [Carl] showed confidence in me, he made it sound interesting and he made it sound irresistible," she said. "I'm deeply grateful."

She also cites classes taught by Cicchetti, then a professor of economics and chair of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, an independent agency responsible for the regulation of public utilities, as especially significant in reinforcing her interest in environmental policy.

"At the time I was in graduate school, the work going on at the Public Service Commission and in the state legislature was literally the cutting edge, the most progressive energy and environmental policy in the country," she says. "When I went out to the Commission the first time and saw all these lawyers, economists, engineers, scientists and expert witnesses, I thought, 'Wow, this is like an interdisciplinary seminar, only it has real-world consequences.'"

"We -- and what I mean by that is the university -- were very involved in bringing the latest information to bear on making good policy," she continues. "[Charlie] gave us opportunities to participate. That just opened up a whole new world to me."

Accidental scholar

In preparing her dissertation, Hedman says she learned another valuable lesson that has served her well in her career as an attorney: Always read directions carefully.

"Graduate work
showed me a lot
of problems that
I wanted to solve
and law school
gave me the hammer
to go after them."

Hedman completed her dissertation while living in Maryland, had it printed, and headed back to UW-Madison, arriving two days before the end of the semester and expecting to submit her documents with plenty of time to spare.

Instead, she arrived only to learn that there was a simple formatting error throughout the text, which would need correction before the dissertation could be accepted.

Desperate, she and a friend bought two typewriters and got to work. "We each took a pile of chapters, typed my dissertation and turned it in the following morning."

Hedman describes herself as an "accidental scholar," and she says her journey through the School of Public Affairs, Law School and Nelson Institute -- and through her career so far -- "all just sort of organically evolved."

"For me, the graduate work showed me a lot of problems that I wanted to solve and law school gave me the hammer to go after them," she says. "I basically followed my interests and, I have to say, just had incredible opportunities."

Similarly, Hedman encourages today's students to follow their passions.

"Grab opportunities as they come and don't be afraid to jump in, even when the water's deep," she says.

Because one day, it may be the President on the line, offering you the job of a lifetime.

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