By Molly Englund
At the Environmental Protection Agency, three Goucher graduates are working hard to protect our water, land, and air. To do so, they must be vigilant, committed, and adaptable—traits they honed long ago.
Restore the land and you restore the person—that’s something Debra Shore ’74 learned long ago. Shore was living in Chicago when she heard about people doing habitat restoration.
Prairies and oak woods and wetlands are still woven throughout the Chicago metropolitan area, and a group of volunteers were trying to restore them to health.
Shore joined the volunteers one weekend and discovered that she liked the work as well as the people. “I kept going back,” she said. “The work changes with the seasons. We cut brush to remove invasive species like buckthorn. We pull weeds to remove invasive species like garlic mustard or white sweet clover, and we disperse seeds in these areas that we’ve cleared.”
Shore kept learning about the native ecosystems of her home, and she realized they were being neglected by those charged with their care. That’s when she got into politics.
She began to help get reform-minded commissioners elected to the Board of the Cook County Forest Preserve District. Soon, other people were helping get her elected. In 2005, two men approached her about running for a seat on the Board of Commissioners for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.
“I believe that water is going to be the issue in years to come,” said Shore. “In many places, it already is. So I thought, ‘Well, maybe I have something to bring to this.’”
Shore was the first person with a conservation background to run for the position in 20 years. She was elected in 2006 and served for almost three terms when her life changed, again.
In 2021, President Joe Biden appointed Shore to a position at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She would become the regional administrator for Region 5, which covers six states—Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin—and 35 tribal nations. It’s the largest EPA region and has a unique set of environmental circumstances.
“Region 5 is home to the industrial Midwest,” Shore said. It’s where the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, which was horribly polluted and oily, caught fire in 1969, leading to the creation of the EPA and the Clean Water Act. But among these contaminated industrial sites are highly agricultural areas, as well. “The issues we face are numerous,” she said.
Three things make Shore hopeful. One, the Cuyahoga River is not going to catch fire ever again. “We have made a lot of progress in cleaning up historic pollution and in trying to prevent more pollution through both a system of regulation and laws and permits,” she said. “Everyone deserves safe water to drink, clean air to breathe, and to not live on contaminated soils.”
Two, if we stay vigilant about restoring our habitats, “species that were once rare come back and thrive,” she pointed out. “We can absolutely make a difference.”
And three, “The final thing that gives me hope is the imagination and energy of people much younger than I am who want to work on these issues, who recognize that we have an obligation to take care of our planet and each other,” she said. “We see that in communities all over, and that gives me hope.”
Debra Shore is not the only Gopher to work at the EPA. In fact, she’s not even the only Gopher to work as a regional administrator at the EPA. The same day that Biden announced Shore’s appointment, he also announced that Adam Ortiz ’96 would be in charge of Region 3. As Shore and Ortiz were the first two administrators chosen by Biden, for almost six weeks, 100% of the EPA’s regional administrators were Goucher graduates. “It’s the feeder school for regional administrators,” joked Shore. Shore called Ortiz to congratulate him, and he was delighted by the connection.
Ortiz also had a background in politics before coming to the EPA. After graduating from Goucher, he worked for a human rights group. Looking for a place to live on a nonprofit salary, Ortiz ended up in a small town called Edmonston in Prince George’s County in Maryland. “I brought my activism to the community, going to public meetings and speaking about a variety of issues,” he said. Soon, his neighbors drafted him to run for mayor, hopeful that he would address the challenges the community was experiencing. He won.
Ortiz took office in 2005. Within two months, the town suffered a terrible flood. “There was a series of four floods in four consecutive years,” he said. The first flood happened just after Hurricane Katrina had devasted New Orleans and parts of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. “It was clear that the weather was changing, the climate was changing, and that we were entering an era of more severe storm events,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz worked on a flood resilience plan with other officials that was forward-thinking for the time. It was embraced by the community, which spurred the town’s government to do more. “We wanted to make the town as sustainable as possible, so we didn’t pass environmental challenges on to other communities or other generations,” he said. “We ended up with a very aggressive and progressive environmental plan for the town that ended up being a hallmark for what small working-class communities can do to make their towns beautiful, clean, and green. And I got a crash course on applied environmentalism just in order to protect our town.”
From there, Ortiz went on to work at Montgomery County’s and Prince George’s County’s departments of environmental protection. In Montgomery County, he started programs for recycling and curbside compost collection, improved building energy efficiency standards, and introduced watershed restoration projects. Prince George’s County, meanwhile, boasted the highest recycling rate in the state during Ortiz’s time there and launched a $200 million green infrastructure program creating hundreds of local environmental jobs.
Now Ortiz is in charge of EPA Region 3, which covers the whole Mid-Atlantic, from Pennsylvania to Virginia and West Virginia to the ocean. “We count Goucher College as one of our constituents here in the region,” he pointed out.
“It’s a wonderful diverse region and in many ways, a microcosm of the country,” Ortiz said. “We have industrial areas, mountains, coastal areas, urban areas, as well as suburban and farms, and each of them has its own unique challenges and contributions to our environmental health.”
Ortiz’s team has a handful of priorities for the region, but there are three big ones: climate resilience and adaption as the planet continues to warm, environmental justice to protect our most vulnerable communities, and the Chesapeake Bay.
The Chesapeake has suffered from floods, erosion, and pollution. “It’s taken a bit of a beating going back 400 years to the clear cutting and farming of the colonial era,” Ortiz explained, “then the two phases of industrialization and suburbanization have amplified the amount of pollution and stress in the bay.”
But many efforts by many people over the last 30 years have begun to change that, particularly in Maryland. “We’re seeing the story change,” he said. “We’re seeing native species come back, we’re seeing vegetation come back. The people of the region love the bay, and more people are coming out to enjoy it. And as our economy and our society becomes more complex, there are new challenges, but we have the consensus and investment to turn a corner. And I think our administration represents that change.”
Damon Highsmith ’03 approaches environmental protection from another direction; he is a budget officer at the EPA. Highsmith majored in business management and minored in political science at Goucher. After college, he started graduate school at Johns Hopkins University while also working there as an accountant on public health grants. By the time he got his master’s degree in environmental science and policy, he had joined the EPA as an environmental protection specialist.
While Highsmith is a numbers guy, his work has a big impact in the field. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, which released more than 200 million gallons of oil into the ocean, one of the worst human-created environmental disasters in history. Highsmith joined the Natural Resources Damage Assessment team, splitting his time between that and his regular duties at the EPA. “There was a lot to figure out when building a new program,” he said. “It was really exciting to be part of a group where many of the challenges we faced were new to us.”
Highsmith has taken on many issues that were new to him in his career. One of his biggest successes—and challenges—had to do with water pollution regulations and dental amalgam.
Dental amalgam is the metallic material that dentists use for filling cavities, and it contains mercury. When dentists place or remove a filling, that mercury typically ends up in the wastewater. Highsmith and his colleagues worked for years on a regulation to require dental facilities to capture all those solids before they can enter the sewer, which went into effect in 2016. Highsmith says the EPA estimates that the rule has reduced mercury discharge into wastewater treatment plants by about four and a half tons annually.
They didn’t prescribe solutions; Highsmith says the goal was to encourage innovation. Dental offices, for example, might over time adopt new technology that captures mercury even more efficiently and cheaply. “The science is getting better all the time,” he said.
The regulation was celebrated by environmentalists and regulators alike, which Highsmith pointed out was quite rare. “We struck a good balance in writing what the American Dental Association called a ‘common-sense rule,’ and we were able to achieve environmental benefits. So I’m very proud,” he said.
Today, Highsmith works in the Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds at the EPA, where he leads a team of people who formulate and execute the office’s budget.
The work is hard, and technical, but Highsmith is encouraged by tangible results he sees all around him. His family is from Cleveland, and he vividly remembers stories of the polluted Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969. But the story of urban rivers is changing; where he lives in Washington, DC, advocates are pushing to lift the ban on swimming in the Potomac River. “It’s clean enough on enough days throughout the year that it’s swimmable again,” he said. “And that’s a big deal.”
At the same time, he said, “We have the hypoxic zone in the Gulf; we’ve got harmful algal blooms popping up near drinking water sources. So, there’s still a lot of work to do.” And there’s more work to do to protect the water of disadvantaged communities.
The EPA cohort didn’t major in environmental studies at Goucher—Shore studied art and philosophy, Ortiz political science—but they all believe their education prepared them well. Ortiz approaches his work with an emphasis on building consensus, which he ties back to his Goucher experiences of “not being afraid to have conversations and explore ideas in safe and constructive ways,” he said. Goucher also taught him to make connections; he’s mindful of how interdisciplinary environmental issues are, with transportation, public health, quality of life, aesthetics, engineering, and more influencing the outcomes.
Highsmith credits his study abroad experience for leading him to where he is today. In his senior year as a business management major, he noticed many of his peers were focused on finding corporate jobs or going into finance. But Highsmith was transformed by his time in Havana, Cuba. Seeing the same environmental justice issues in a communist society that exist in the U.S., he came back inspired to do something with a purpose.
Shore brings a philosophical and creative mind to her job every day. The issues are complex, and “working on them is vital as we seek to address climate change and advance equity and justice,” she said. But, she continued, “Restoration is a reciprocal act. That in working to restore nature, nature restores us, our bodies and our spirits.”
Goucher created its Environmental Studies Program in 2010 and offers two concentrations: environmental science and environment and society. One is a lab science track, the other social science. “The Environmental Studies Program provides an interdisciplinary perspective that allows our students to learn about the scientific and societal dimensions of environmental problems, develop career-relevant skills, and apply them to real-world problems,” said Professor of Environmental Studies Germán Mora.
Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Emily Billo also highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of the program. “We have designed our curriculum for students to think through different disciplinary approaches to nature-society relationships,” she said. “These approaches extend across the sciences to policy and economics, as well as social justice. Rigorous methods training in both qualitative and quantitative approaches invite students to design research questions and consider which methods are best suited to answer their questions.”
Goucher students today are prepared to work in this field from the moment they graduate, and many are finding new avenues in which to pursue it. Mora said that in previous years, students majoring in environmental studies tended to find work at nonprofit organizations. “But recently we have seen more students pursuing graduate work in related fields like urban planning, public health, and environmental management,” he said, “or moving into other careers, like data science, finance, or marketing.”
Billo said the program emphasizes the intersection of environmental and social justice. “While understanding the science of environmental problems is necessary, techno-scientific solutions can leave intact exploitative and extractive relationships of colonialism, capitalism, racism, and sexism. Addressing pressing environmental problems like climate change requires solving systemic inequities in the present, to build more just futures.”
Shore couldn’t agree more. “Environmental justice is first and foremost listening to people in communities that have been overburdened by pollution for far too long and redressing that,” she said. “The issues are gnarly, and working on them is vital as we seek to address climate change and advance equity and justice.”