(Photo: John Hartigan)

As new chemicals enter the marketplace and often end up in the nation’s waterways, Elizabeth Southerland’s office at the Environmental Protection Agency produces the research that the agency uses to set water-pollution limits.

Southerland routinely meets with state, local, industry and environmental groups concerned about water-quality criteria emerging from her office, which implements major science, technology and regulatory programs under the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Evolving pollution standards are aimed at keeping the country’s rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters safe for swimming, fishing, drinking and aquatic life.

“Everything we do is done in a fishbowl, and everyone wants to weigh in on the quality of the science,” said Southerland, director of the Office of Science and Technology in EPA’s Office of Water, who calls those stakeholders “reviewers of our work.”

Although passage of the first water pollution control law nearly 70 years ago, and its expansion in 1972, may seem like ancient history, EPA continually examines and updates water-quality criteria based on new findings and better understanding of the science.

“We constantly have work going on, collecting data to see if we need to update old science or have new science available,” Southerland said.

For example, EPA recently changed a standard on ammonia, a pollutant municipal wastewater treatment plants use to treat sewage, which is toxic to fish and shellfish. Southerland’s office released “a brand new toxicity criterion that’s more stringent than one previously used.”

State officials now are discussing with Southerland’s office when they’re going to adopt the criteria, and what approaches municipal treatment plants can use to update their facilities in an affordable way.

“We always work on both ends, with the state and the affected party,” said Southerland, 65, who oversees a multidisciplinary staff of 130 people.

“Her office prepares the scientific basis for the actions we take here in the water office,” said Ken Kopocis, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water.

“We’re never finished. There are always new challenges facing us,” he said, pointing to problems in Toledo and Charleston, W. Va., last year, when residents couldn’t use their tap water due to the presence of toxins or chemicals.

“We’re always looking at chemicals of concern, and we develop proper standards,” he said.

Southerland has her staff cast a wide net for science-based information. They review toxicological studies from around the world, and if that’s insufficient, they may turn to EPA’s Office of Research and Development to perform original research. EPA makes national recommendations on allowable pollutant levels based on that science.

Southerland and her staff also work with 10 EPA offices around the country to review and approve, or disapprove, state water-quality criteria used to issue permits to industrial or municipal facilities that discharge pollution into the waterways. Their work also results in national drinking water advisories, which are not mandatory, that water utilities use as guidance to prevent drinking water from containing unhealthy levels of pollutants.

Separate from setting water-quality criteria, Southerland’s office establishes national pollution-control technology requirements for industries. Industrial facilities, no matter where they reside, must meet national permit levels based on the best available, economically achievable technology.

“Congress’s intent was to prevent pollution havens,” Southerland said.

One new and controversial technology rule requires controls on water intake used to cool turbines and machinery at all power plants and some manufacturing facilities. Instead of indiscriminately sucking in huge amounts of water and killing small fish, plants, larvae and other aquatic life, facilities have to install filtering equipment.

“There’s all kinds of recommended equipment for how to do it,” Southerland said. “Billions of organisms are killed each year.”

Industry believes the rule is too stringent and environmentalists believe it is not stringent enough, Southerland said, which has led to litigation from both sides. She seems unflustered by the controversy.

“That’s the process,” she said. “A lot of times the courts rule for EPA, but we’re subject to complete discovery. In the end, we want everyone to feel they had their voice heard.”

The job appeals to Southerland, who has a Ph.D. in environmental science and engineering and who, during her 30 years at EPA, also worked on the Superfund hazardous waste program. Her EPA work gives her the opportunity to fix inadequate rules, examine new areas of science and gain access to the world’s literature and leading experts in environmental science.

Then her office gets to support recommendations that protect people and marine life, based on the applied sciences that hold such interest for her.

“I’m not an abstract person,” she said. “I like to work in things that have immediate effect-on-the-ground actions. That’s what I do that is so exciting.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.