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, a process that relied heavily on the legal skills and guidance of Jessica Hall Zomer, a young attorney with the agency.
“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 35, 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 that it’s rare to give someone so young such responsibility.
Zomer not only made sure the rule met all legal requirements under the Clean Water Act and related statutes and executive orders, she also helped lead the team that issued the complex regulation, which will be phased in beginning in 2018.
The new standards will lead to the removal of roughly one-third of all industrial pollutants now discharged into the nation’s rivers, lakes and streams by industries regulated under the Clean Water Act, equaling about 1.4 billion pounds of pollutants per year.
Pollutants discharged by steam electric power plants, especially toxic heavy metals, can contribute to the development of cancers and other illnesses, and cause lower IQ among children exposed to them. They also lead to deformities in fish and wildlife and create dead zones in critical water resources such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
The new standards will help end the practice of power plants storing vast amounts of coal ash wastewater in holding ponds that are at risk of catastrophic failure, like the disastrous coal ash slurry spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in 2008.
“Everything had to go through Jessica,” said Elisabeth Southerland, director of the Office of Science and Technology in EPA’s Office of Water. In addition to her legal talent, Zomer “has incredible positive energy,” Southerland said.
When the new regulation was proposed, the EPA 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. In addition to the public comments, Zomer helped ensure the rule was issued with 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,” Neugeboren 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 understand the legal issues and make informed decisions both within and outside the agency, including the White House, he said.
Her ability to think about the big picture contributed to agency decisions that not only protect human health and the environment, but also recognize the costs, and how to make the rule practical for the industry to implement, Neugeboren said.
Part of the challenge was understanding the technical nature of the rule and explaining the EPA’s technology-based decisions in a way that policymakers, and later courts, could understand, Minoli said.
Zomer’s ability to explain the rule will continue to be important since the power industry, as expected, has challenged the new rule in court.
“Jessica will be the lead attorney defending the rule,” said Mary Ellen Levine, EPA assistant general counsel.
In addition to the power plant regulation, Zomer has contributed to other important actions that help the EPA and the states establish strong water quality standards to protect drinking water and fish.
Zomer’s interest in water and marine life began early, she said, with family scuba diving trips. Today, as a certified scuba diver, 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,” she said.
She sees her work on the power plant rule as “striking a sensible balance between legitimate commercial interests and protecting both human health and the environment,” she added.
“It is my sincere belief that there is no inherent contradiction between a strong economy and a healthy environment.”