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Regulatory 101: Science, people and America’s waters

Published May 7, 2014

“When everybody is equally unhappy, we probably did our job right,” joked Tamara Cameron, regulatory branch chief. “Nobody ever says, ‘Thank you for making me get this permit.’

“Some of the special interest groups believe we don’t go far enough in protecting wetlands,” she added. “Some of the developers believe we go too far.”

Constant conflict, never ending challenges and a tremendous volume of work does not always make for a fun job but being in regulatory does have its rewards. Serving the public and preserving wetlands in and of itself is rewarding, said Cameron.

The regulatory branch is funded separately and works independently from other departments in the district; but in recent years, there has been more interaction between regulatory and the rest of the district. The reason for this, explained Cameron is that with the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement getting more complicated, regulatory staff are more often reaching out to other areas of expertise within the district, such as hydraulics and hydrology. Additionally, a number of the support offices, such as Office of Counsel, provide ongoing assistance to the branch.

The regulatory mission includes protecting the nation’s aquatic resources while allowing reasonable development through fair, flexible and balanced permit decisions. They manage the nation’s permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act. Under Section 404, a Corps permit is required for the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States. Under Section 10, a Corps permit is required to do any work in, over or under a navigable water of the United States.

The regulator’s role is to take the permit from cradle to grave, said Cameron. This could mean everything from determining jurisdiction, reviewing wetland delineations, determining wetland boundaries, reviewing the application, minimizing and mitigating wetland impacts and enforcing permit requirements.

Cameron currently has a staff of 53; 60 when all the positions are filled. These individuals work in the district’s headquarters building and at eight field sites and serve the people of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Their workload is consistently in the top five for all 38 districts and is comparable in size and scope with Alaska and Jacksonville districts. On average, they complete around 6,000 regulatory actions a year.

Cameron is the only engineer in her branch. Most of the people who work in regulatory are biologists, ecologists, geologists, natural resource managers or natural scientists. What is nice about working in regulatory, she said, is that there is a clear career progression from entry level to chief. “You can start right out of school, or even in school as a student intern,” she said. “One of our entry level positions is the environmental protection technician, or EPT, which ranges from GS-5 to GS-7. They are absolutely indispensable to our work.” Both graduating college students and EPTs with a qualifying degree can apply for a regulatory project manager position, which ranges from GS-7 to GS-11, and then senior project managers or senior ecologists, which are at the GS-12 level. “There are regulatory offices across the country, and many, to include the St. Paul District, are recruiting right now,” said Cameron. “Plus, it is a field that continues to grow.”

Cameron herself started with another agency, the Department of the Navy, right out of school. She did environmental compliance work for the Navy and the Marines, including waters and wetland permitting, and served a short stint with the Federal Highways Administration providing environmental support, prior to joining the Corps in 2002. She came to the St. Paul District as a senior project manager to oversee a permit application by the Crandon Mining Company. When that review ended, she took a variety of assignments from Robert Whiting, regulatory chief, until she was selected to replace him when he retired in 2009. “I thought I knew a lot about the permitting process by obtaining permits, but you don’t realize just how much there is to know until you actually do the permitting,” she said. “There is so much more to know than just regulations – there are decades of court decisions, memorandums to the field, guidance documents and additional federal requirements. There are a lot of rules and regulations to comply with.

“The regulatory environment is also a lot more complicated now than it was at the beginning of the Clean Water Act,” she continued. “It’s never stagnant, and the rate of change has been at a rapid pace, especially since 2008, mainly because of a number of court cases and rule changes.”

In order to be a successful regulator, Cameron said her staff need to have a combination of technical, interpersonal and project management skills. “They deal with people from all different socio-economic and professional backgrounds and levels of sophistication in terms of understanding the permitting process,” said Cameron. “They also deal with people from a number of different agencies and Congressional offices. It’s a challenging job. The exceptional workload per project manager requires juggling a lot of competing priorities. They spend a lot of time telling people what they can and can’t do with aquatic resources, so they have to deal with a lot of conflict in their daily workload.”

Cameron said her staff is particularly good at dealing with the public and being able to explain the permit process in a way that is easy to understand. “The staff really does great work, and they don’t often get recognition for it,” she said. “In fact, there seems to be a culture of taking pride in never getting recognized.” Lately, however, a few of them have been called out. The last three Mississippi Valley Division Don Lawyer nominees were all St. Paul District regulators. This particular award recognizes the Corps regulator of the year. Tim Smith, was also selected as the national recipient.