ECOS – the Environmental Council of States – I suspect that most of you have heard of it, but what do you really know about ECOS? And, why should you care? As the current Past President of ECOS, I acknowledge upfront that I might be biased – but consider the following. ECOS is the national non-profit, non-partisan association of state and territorial environmental agency leaders. ECOS was founded in late 1993 at a time when the relationship between states and the EPA was strained. As Mary A. Gade, then director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, put it: “The times called for states to assume primary responsibility and leadership for environmental protection. As individual states began to articulate this new perspective, state commissioners realized the need to band together for information-sharing, strength, and support.”
Today, reflected in the ECOS 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, much of ECOS’ original purpose remains: “To improve the capability of state environmental agencies and their leaders to protect and improve human health and the environment of the United States of America. Our belief is that state government agencies are the keys to delivering environmental protection afforded by both federal and state law.”
While the purpose remains consistent, how ECOS achieves it has evolved.
One example lies in the ECOS-organized forums where states and EPA meet to discuss - and often debate - environmental concerns and our respective roles in implementing and enforcing environmental programs. While the early ECOS years were not without success working with EPA, the tenor of the overall relationship with EPA was uneven. Today, ECOS has a productive relationship with EPA. We still discuss, debate, and disagree, but in a much more constructive way. EPA representatives at all levels routinely attend and engage in the spring and fall ECOS meetings, as well as other ECOS conferences. ECOS members have been invited to internal EPA budget meetings to share our budget concerns and needs. ECOS and EPA have worked on several joint-governance projects, including the creation of E-Enterprise for the Environment. Through E-Enterprise, state, EPA and tribal representatives work to streamline environmental business processes and share innovations across programs to improve environmental results, and enhance services to the regulated community and the public by making government more efficient and effective.
ECOS is fast becoming the “go-to” organization for Congress, the White House, federal agencies, national organizations, and the media to learn about state issues, concerns, positions, innovations and ideas regarding environmental matters. Through engagement with senior government officials, testimony before Congress and many position letters, ECOS has expressed state perspectives on key legislative and regulatory issues, like reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, funding for state environmental programs and water infrastructure, increased authority over coal combustion residual sites, workload flexibility in state-EPA agreements, enforcement training, expediting federal facility cleanups, and environmental justice tools.
ECOS has developed relationships with the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense: these agencies regularly participate in ECOS. ECOS’ Legal Network brings state environmental agency counsel together with EPA counsel and DOJ’s Counselor, to explore lessons learned from successful enforcement and compliance initiatives, and to discuss best practices and enhanced collaboration.
So, how about the relationship among the states themselves? ECOS has also become a venue for states to explore differences in positions and ideas. Not surprising, membership within ECOS is politically diverse. ECOS has recognized and embraced this diversity by creating a space for states to express their opinions and positions, encouraging members to learn from each other, to reach “across the aisle” to understand differing perspectives, to compromise where needed and to develop strong and lasting relationships. ECOS will pull in experts from within the states and from other organizations to provide valuable and sometimes critical perspectives and analyses on important issues, so that state environmental leaders can better understand the complexities and impacts of environmental programs and initiatives. The lawyers of ACOEL are one source of that expertise, and they have provided valuable legal analyses to ECOS and its members on the Clean Power Plan and WOTUS. ECOS is even reaching across state agency lines, as shown by this spring’s Memorandum of Agreement with ECOS, EPA, and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials to advance cooperative initiatives pertaining to environmental health, acknowledging that the public health and well-being of U.S. citizens relies on the condition of their physical environment.
So, why should you care about ECOS? Because the vast majority of day-to-day environmental program adoption, implementation and enforcement is done by the states. As Mary A. Gade said when ECOS was first created: “Charged with advancing a state’s environmental agenda, state commissioners strategize daily with governors, state and national legislators, and local government officials to accomplish their goals. State environmental commissioners have political access, substantive expertise and, most importantly, legislative combat experience.” When you organize a group of battle-ready commissioners who lead state environmental programs, and who meet and work together on a regular basis, wouldn’t you want to know what they are doing? My advice: check out http://www.ecos.org and find out what you are missing.