An Insider’s View of the Rules

Nov. 1, 2010

A member of the Mountain States Chapter, where he has served on the board of directors since 2004 and as president for the past three years, Steve Bubnick brings a unique perspective to IECA and its role in limiting the effects of accelerated erosion on river, streams, lakes, and oceans.

He knows the US Environmental Protection Agency’s stormwater management rules and programs inside and out. He should. In the early 1990s, the former EPA staff member helped introduce Phase I of the EPA’s newly adopted National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System to contractors and others in the Pacific Northwest. Not only that, but he helped develop and write some of the policies and regulations designed to protect water quality from the impact of construction, mining, and various industrial activities in the country.

This kind of knowledge and experience prompted him to serve IECA, first as a speaker at various IECA educational events, and then as a member. “I could help people sort through the differences between local, state, and federal water quality regulations and better understand various stormwater management issues,” he says.

During his 22-year career with the EPA, Bubnick was based first in Seattle, Washington, with Region 10, which includes Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, and then in the Denver headquarters of Region 8, serving Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. “I loved my work,” he says.

Following his retirement from the EPA last year as a senior environmental scientist, Steve and his wife, Cathy, formed Loma Environmental, with offices in Denver and Phoenix, Arizona. The consulting firm, which also includes a biologist and landscape architect, specializes in solving shoreline erosion problems and designing wetlands.

One of the company’s recent projects is part of the final phase of a 1,160-acre project to clean up a former EPA Superfund Site in Utah. Located south of Salt Lake City on the Jordan River, the area was once the site of a steel mill and copper smelter as well as silver and gold mines.

Loma Environmental is designing and installing wetlands for a regional stormwater pond at the site. It is designed to remove pollutants in runoff from a new 74-acre light industrial development and recreation trail system. The company also is installing two bridges for foot traffic over the river and stabilizing the banks. “A lot of toxic materials, such as arsenic, lead, and chromium, are buried on one side of the river, and we want to prevent any erosion that could expose these contaminants,” Bubnick says. “We’re armoring these river banks with riprap, and we’re using soft armoring techniques, like benching and willow plantings, to protect the banks on the other side.”

An Early Career Start
Loma Environmental is just the latest example of Bubnick’s determination to help protect the environment from pollution. He grew up in Aberdeen, Washington, on the Pacific coast. “The town had two pulp mills, a number of wood mills and a fish plant,” he recalls. “Their huge smoke stacks were going around the clock. As a kid, I remember walking outside at times and my nose would burn from sulfur in the air. I knew at a young age that this wasn’t right. We shouldn’t have to be living like that.”

As a junior in high school, Bubnick turned such thoughts into action when he and a friend started the school’s Environmental Club. That was in early 1970, several months before the world’s first Earth Day. Enlisting the help of more friends, the club took on its first project—picking up litter in parks and other public areas. Then, for that first Earth Day, the Environmental Club worked with advisors and other teachers to organize a daylong celebration. Speakers from local industries and government discussed different aspects of environmental protection and what they were doing to clean up the air and the water around them.

“Also, we had a big cleanup contest to see which class could collect the most trash,” Bubnick says. “The school bus company took us out and we filled the buses with trash we collected from the roadsides. When we finished, we dumped the trash on the high school football field. The sophomore class built the biggest pile and won the contest.”

Over the next two years, as Bubnick continued learning more about the challenges of protecting the environment, the idea of making a career of it began to form in his mind.

“While studying geology in college, I discovered there was field called environmental geology,” Bubnick says. “I just had to get into it. I wasn’t all that interested in rocks. But, I was interested in protecting people from the impacts of geological processes, like floods, landslides, and earthquakes. Understanding these processes would help me do that.”

Pursuing that interest, Bubnick went on to earn two geology degrees at Western Washington University—a bachelor of science degree in environmental geology and a master of science degree in coastal geology.

Writing the Rules
Early in his career, he worked in western Washington as a county engineering technician, inspecting road repair projects involving some of the area’s numerous landslides, before taking a job with a small geoengineering firm.

After joining the EPA in 1987, Bubnick was put in charge of implementing the stormwater permit program of NPDES Phase I, which became effective in 1991, for his region. That left him, along with his counterparts in the other EPA regions, the job of figuring out just how to do that.

“The people at EPA headquarters didn’t have field experience in managing stormwater runoff,” Bubnick says. “So, those of us in the regions had to write the guidelines for the program.”

From mid-1990 through late 1992, he chaired the EPA’s National Stormwater Committee that helped headquarters define the NPDES program. In addition to Bubnick, the committee included his counterparts in seven other EPA regions, along with two members from mining states. They conferred regularly by phone about problems and questions that would come up in the field and for which they could find no answers in EPA policy statements and regulations.

“As the person in charge of the stormwater program in my region, it was up to me to take a stand on one side or another of an issue that would come up in the field,” says Bubnick. “During our phone conversations, I’d explain what I did and why and we’d discuss it and how those in other regions handled a similar situation. Then, we’d reach a consensus on the best way to resolve a particular problem or issue, we’d write up our recommendations and send them off to headquarters. Usually, headquarters adopted our approach, and it became part of national policy.”

Mutually Satisfying Solutions
In addition to implementing the EPA’s stormwater permit program for construction sites in his region, Bubnick was a civil investigator for the agency, dealing with groundwater contamination problems at mines and other sites. After moving to the Region 8 office, he joined with two others at the Denver office to form the agency’s mining team. They wrote various regulations and developed the EPA’s national policy concerning stormwater permits for hard rock mine sites. During the formative years of NPDES, Bubnick also was involved with implementing the industrial stormwater permit program.

As with the construction and mining permits, it was an on-the-job learning experience for both Bubnick and the industry people alike. The types of industrial activities he dealt with ranged from plastic molding facilities and mobile asphalt manufacturing plants to seafood processors.

Determining how the various industries could meet the stormwater permit requirements frequently involved some head-scratching and creative thinking on both sides of the program.

“Because the stormwater permits were so new at the time, we and the site owners didn’t know what would work and what wouldn’t,” Bubnick says. “If I was unfamiliar with a specific industry, I’d visit several different operations and talk to the owners and crews to learn what they did and how they did it. I’d explain that they need to prevent their activities from polluting the water. Then, they’d figure out a way to do that, which allowed them to do their job while still meeting the requirements of the permit.

“Later, I’d go back to the site and often the people there would be eager to show me what they had done to manage the stormwater properly,” he says. “I really enjoyed those visits. There was no confrontation. We came at a pollution problem from two different perspectives and sides, and we worked together to come up with an effective solution. It was a wonderful thing to watch.”