It’s important to make sure people are aware of our interdependencies and take action to protect them.”
Marc Santora was looking for options other than lab or field work when he finished his undergraduate degree in environmental science from the University of Arizona. "I love science, but I wanted to tackle environmental issues from the macro perspective of policy," he says. "I am determined to make a difference by being part of the dialogue." Five years in the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have proven VLS's Masters of Studies in Environmental Law a perfect fit for him: He learned to think policy while experiencing law school first-hand. "At VLS I spent a year in class with second- and third-year JD students, and although they had a head start on the legal foundations, I left with a strong appreciation of environmental statutes and how to research, write, and interpret law," he notes. "I didn't need to be an attorney to do what I want to do."
Santora's work at the EPA has changed over the years, partially due to the rotation-oriented structure of the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) that brought him there. (The PMF is a competitive national program that offers advanced degree-holders with governmental leadership potential a two-year paid fellowship and developmental rotations in one of 80 federal agencies. A number of VLS graduates have won these career-accelerating fellowships.) His first assignment was in the Office of Water, whose responsibilities were evolving in response to the Department of Homeland Security's mandate to improve the security of the entire nation's critical infrastructure. He explains, "my initial focus was facilitating a federal advisory committee comprising diverse stakeholders-water utility operators, trade associations, academics, community right-to-know groups-who devised "best practices" for all water utilities to follow in order to be prepared to respond to natural disasters or malevolent acts." Those practices range from designing security systems into any new buildings to establishing testing protocols and specialized labs to be used in case of a contamination event. "I was responsible for communicating and promoting these practices, managing contracts and grants, and leading preparedness outreach to water utilities," he says. At the heart of his work were efforts to connect people and groups to each other and to the systems they depend on. "You can only do so much with guns, guards, and gates," he advises. "It's important to make sure people are aware of our interdependencies and take action to protect them."
Santora is now part of EPA's Office of Budget in the Office of Chief Financial Officer. He manages the Office of Compliance and Enforcement Assurance (OECA) account with an annual budget of approximately $550 million and 3,300 full-time equivalents. The OECA uses a carrot-stick combination to help keep pollutants out of the environment, and last year secured agreements from polluters to spend a record $11.8 billion to clean up or prevent pollution. In his current capacity as a program analyst, he helps formulate and review budget justifications that will achieve OECA's goals and gain all-important traction with the Office of Management and Budget and ultimately on Capitol Hill. Not surprisingly, he has several colleagues at EPA who are also VLS alums, and finds the school is well regarded in Washington, D.C. "VLS really opened the door for me," Santora recalls. "I use all the principles I studied at VLS on a daily basis. I'm proud to say I'm from VLS."
While he recently completed a master of public administration at American University, he's also planning to stay at the EPA for a while. "In all honesty, I was skeptical when I first came here, but I soon learned that career EPA people are of incredibly high caliber. They carry a sense of purpose and a passion for the mission of the agency." The changes taking place in Washington also hold his interest. "I've held out for five years of the Bush Administration," he says, "and while Barack Obama's certainly inheriting a lot of problems, I want to be here when he is in office."
Santora's fluent talk of policy and politics fits with his description of his office as a home for "wonks." Occasionally, though, the environmental scientist comes through. "A lot of people don't understand how tenuous our existence really is, how our critical infrastructure is so interdependent," he observes. "It's just like an ecosystem, the web of life."