2011 Emerging Leaders

Katherine Antos

Led the creation and evaluation of state plans to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary, and one of the planet’s first identified “marine dead zones.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled a long-awaited plan in December 2010 to restore the water quality of the troubled Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, a complex blueprint calling for six states and the District of Columbia to substantially reduce pollution in the nation’s largest estuary during the next 15 years.

Among those working behind-the-scenes at the EPA was Katherine Antos, a 31-year-old water quality team leader. Antos is credited by colleagues with being instrumental in helping the states develop and evaluate their individual environmental plans, and in assembling the comprehensive package to cut pollution that has been killing fish and wildlife, destroying wetlands and contaminating drinking water supplies.

Jeffrey Corbin, a senior advisor to the EPA administrator on the Chesapeake Bay Restoration project, said Antos led a team of experts that kept the key issues on the front burner, advised the states on scientific details, prodded the ones that were lagging behind and reviewed more than 14,000 public comments on the draft environmental proposal.

“Katherine displayed a unique ability to communicate to all stakeholders, and a knack for getting everyone to work cooperatively and move forward,” said EPA mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin. “We had a great team involved in putting this together, but Katherine was the glue that made it all work.”

The Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem has been devastated over the years by pollutants from sewage treatment plants, manure and chemicals from farms, and runoff from suburban development. This pollution has depleted the life-sustaining oxygen of the waterway, destroying marshlands and other habitats, and greatly reducing the once rich fisheries and wildlife population. The pollution has created dead zones that have suffocated fish, oysters, crabs and other marine life, and hurt the fishing industry and economy of the region.

Antos said that her job included assembling some “big picture ideas” for what a successful and fully accountable restoration process could look like, conferring with lawyers to fully understand EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act, examining the scientific and engineering aspects to determine feasibility, and consulting and coordinating working closely with state agencies to create plans that would drive restoration actions over the next 15 years.

“I spent time interviewing at state and local partners to gather perspectives on what had previously been successful and what had not worked. We needed to change to succeed,” she said.

Based on the discussions and the technical and legal reviews, Antos and her team came up with a detailed framework, moved it through the internal EPA processes, negotiated with the states and set expectations and deadlines for them to present their proposals for review and approval.

“I had to rely on a basic understanding of many different approaches in order to speak the same language as the lawyers, senior officials, scientists, engineers, and other agency colleagues,” she said.

The federal and state governments have spent billions of dollars since 1983 in efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and its 64,000 square mile watershed, but they have had nominal success. While the states made improvements to the wastewater treatment plants, they did not press for changes to limit many other pollution sources. At the same time, the EPA admittedly did not always take enforcement actions against the states for failing to meet their obligations.

The new plan requires Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and the District of Columbia to set maximum daily limits for how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment can flow into the Chesapeake each day. By limiting the daily flow of pollutants, the EPA believes that it can, over time, restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

The plan has drawn opposition from farming interest representatives, who have filed a lawsuit and have garnered backing from some members of Congress critical of the initiative.

The EPA’s Corbin said Antos’ job was not to deal with the politics, but to move the project forward based on the best science and in line with important environmental objectives.

Antos said she worked with a group of EPA employees who wanted to succeed, believed in the mission and supported her efforts. On a personal basis, she said, the work was very gratifying.

“I’ve always had an interest in water quality because of its effect on wildlife, but more importantly on human health,” said Antos. “To be in a position to protect water quality was so exciting, intellectually challenging and rewarding.”

William Early, a deputy EPA administrator in the mid-Atlantic region, said Antos showed “maturity, patience and persistence which well exceed the years that she has been here at the EPA.” Garvin, his EPA colleague, described Antos as a natural leader.

“In sports, they talk about people who want the ball at the end of the game and people who don’t,” said Garvin. “Katherine is definitely the person that wants the ball at the end of the game—and people here, her team, want her to get it.”