Talking Compost, Sustainability and the Economy with New England EPA Boss Curt Spalding

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BOSTON — Curt Spalding, former head of Save The Bay, has been running the Environmental Protection Agency's New England region for three years. During a recent interview with ecoRI News he offered his insights on environmental issues relating to Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New England.

Rhode Island economy vs. Massachusetts economy. The Cranston resident takes the 7 a.m. train from Providence to Boston each day. Recent improvements in transportation between the two cities and plans for other regional links promote economic progress, he said. “If you want to grow, you have to do it regionally.”

Boston’s economic growth. "A couple of years ago, Governor Patrick made the commitment and made it very publicly, and made it a top-level challenge to the community. His economic plan involved clean energy and responds to the problem of climate change. His administration lined up on it, they started by creating the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. They actually created an integrated approach and started investing significant amounts of state dollars in innovation. And they have a whole system here on how their whole economic development system works to develop economic clusters or know-how clusters.

“They took some real risks. What’s different up here risks are taken, but they tolerate failure too. There’s an understanding that in this innovation economy you’re going to have successes and failures. So it’s clear to me that in Massachusetts, there’s a know-how in terms of building clusters and really moving innovation forward.”

Rhode Island’s green economy. “There’s a conversation in Rhode Island now about how to do the same thing, but it needs work. At the end of the day, people are going to have to roll up their sleeves and understand how it’s done. And on the other hand, there’s opportunity because as much as people in both states may see them as different places, economically they are the same place. As I said, people get on the train in Rhode Island and come to Boston to work. It’s back and forth. So there are probably opportunities as this economy grows in Boston to see clean-energy type companies settle near Rhode Island, or in Rhode Island, or employ Rhode Islanders. ... You see this innovation happening where talent is moving back and forth. And maybe it starts to happen in Rhode Island too now that they’ve really started to put some of the same incentives in place that Massachusetts did.”

Responding to Climate Change. The EPA will be helping states implement their climate-change plans and federal goals, he said. “So we’ll see things in New England that can work in a very tangible way to not just deal with climate change, but also help with resilience and preparedness for storms. So what these state implementation plans in new England will show is a variety of tools that are reducing CO2, creating jobs, and probably making our communities more resilient to the vulnerability of storms and heat, and all the things that are coming with climate change.”

New England and Massachusetts are head of the curve on addressing climate change compared to the rest of the country, Spalding said. “When change is required, the United States prospers. We need to get that next level of understanding. Climate change is real; humans are the reason it’s happening to a large degree. And going to the low-carbon economy can be a great opportunity for all of us. And that’s the part we’ve got to really work on. I think this climate action plan as its been described by the president really embraces that idea. It’s all about innovation, clean energy, renewable energy, all those sorts of things, and once people get comfortable ... maybe some of the political angst around it will go away. They can’t be just talking about sea-level rise, and all the problems, we need to talk about how the solutions will be better for all of us. I think getting the vocabulary right for us is very, very important.”

Sequester has cut seven days from EPA staff time, and grant money has decreased, he said, but so far none of the big infrastructure projects have suffered significantly. But, Spalding said, sequester also hurts regulatory oversight. “Less inspections means less protection of the community. They way we look at inspection is as a protection activity. We make sure that air-pollution control equipment is working right, hazardous waste is being managed correctly, that the risk of fire and explosion is reduced under the Clean Air Act. More times than not they advise that company how to do it better, most times they are small things that they just fix based on that inspection.”

New England is also generally safer as a result of regular inspections, he said. "The big fertilizer fire in west Texas was an example of what can really go wrong when you don’t have adequate visits and oversight on these firms. So, I want to be very clear in New England there are multiple layers. Anyone would admit what’s going on in Texas is not the same in New England. There’s a higher level of public safety and inspection going on here. So, I don’t want to say there is enormous risk (from sequester), but certainly the risk goes up when there is less (inspection) activity.”

Compost. “It would be great if our laws could be framed around sustainability. In a way, instead of regulating what comes out of the pipe, encouraging not to create the waste stream in the first place. But what we are trying to do with composting is sort of get aligned with the states in our region who are now looking at waste streams and how they can reduce these waste streams so we are regulating less — and recycling more or source-reducing more. And part of that is doing it in your own neighborhood."

The EPA has a sustainability action plan it will be implementing soon, Spalding said. A sustainability team has been in place for four years and is working on how to incorporate sustainability in all activities. “We have this rich experience that we can bring to Washington and the rest of the country. To me it’s a sign that while Washington is wrestling with issues on climate and sustainability, all these things (are taking place) at the grassroots level, in cities and states. It’s moving elsewhere and we’re tying into it. It’s pretty cool."

From Save The Bay to the EPA. Spalding returned to the EPA in February 2010 after nearly 20 years as executive director of Providence-based Save The Bay. He now serves business interests, as well as advocates and the community at large.

“The role is entirely different. At Save The Bay, our job was to build constituencies, communicate issues, and from time to time move a bond issue through and try to get investment in the bay, and do all we could through voluntary (efforts) and advocacy and communication and occasionally litigation to move the vision forward. Of course, we did a huge environmental education role of teaching kids and helping schools. So it was a completely different role.

“Here, and I’ve learned very clearly, you’re the decision-maker on some very important issues. I’ll give you an example. It’s one thing to advocate for permits to recycle water at Brayton Point (power plant). It’s another thing to be signing the permit and making sure it’s legally defensible, and working with all the legal  and policy and engineering experts to make that decision as sound as you can make it so that it can withstand the challenge and controversy that will follow."

And it’s important to watch what you say. “I learned that as I went through things and realized now that under the specter of a YouTube situation that people out there who don’t agree with you can be out there looking for every last word you say and actually make an issue of it. So I’ve learned you need to be very precise with your comments and clear about what you are doing.”

Travel and history. "The best part of this job was the opportunity to travel all over New England. It’s one of the stories we forget that this region was exploited for its environment, great prosperity was created. Pollution kind of ruined it and now we’re bringing it back. I think that story of how we are bringing it back and how we are bringing New England  back to a level of environmental quality that’s really special, and is something that I see when I go all over New England.”