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Photo by Jay Paul
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Photo by Eric Vance / Courtesy of U.S. EPA
Corbin (center) serves as the senior advisor to Gina McCarthy (right), administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, on issues related to the Anacostia River and the Chesapeake Bay. At left is EPA region 5 admistrator Shawn M. Garvin.
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Photo by Eric Vance / Courtesy of U.S. EPA
Before being named to his federal post, Corbin worked for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and served in the administration of former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine.
The first thing Jeff Corbin does when he gets you on his boat is pull out a map. He wants to show you the big picture right off the bat. “So here’s where we put in,” he says, pointing his finger to a spot on a big curlicue of the meandering James River in eastern Henrico County. “Deep Bottom landing is on this oxbow. Richmond’s sitting up here, probably seven or eight miles above us.” From the marshy riverbank, a great blue heron rises. Corbin watches the bird flap slowly away. “This is a gorgeous spot of the river,” he says.
Last summer, Corbin spent every weekend on this part of the James, fishing with his sons on his Carolina skiff. With his laid-back, low-key attitude, you’d swear the 50-year-old Corbin had spent his entire life on the water. He’s got the contented smile of a river rat.
But Corbin doesn’t spend his working days slipping up and down Virginia’s waterways. Instead, he spends them slipping through the halls of Congress and the federal offices of the Environmental Protection Agency, and threading through the traffic — not the rivers — of Washington, D.C.; Maryland; Pennsylvania; Delaware; Virginia; West Virginia and New York before heading back home to his wife and two sons in Richmond.
Corbin travels to keep his finger on the pulse of what people in six states and the District of Columbia — throughout the 64,000 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay watershed — are doing to restore the health of the largest estuary in North America. His job is to make sure whatever’s being done is working. Whatever the news, good or bad, it goes straight to the top. That’s because he’s the voice in the ear of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy regarding federal policy on the Chesapeake Bay. And it’s his voice that counts. On the streets, they call him the “Bay Czar.”
It’s a nickname he doesn’t like. He prefers his formal title: senior advisor to the EPA administrator on the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River. “It’s more accurate,” he says with a smile. “There are many more people who have been involved in the Bay restoration over the past 30 years, who are more deserving of the title ‘Bay Czar’ than I am.” Instead, Corbin describes his job as standing at the helm of a big ship, helping to steer through waters that river rats all agree are mighty treacherous.
And they would be right. The Chesapeake Bay restoration program is now more than 30 years old, and the multibillion -dollar effort managed by a unique federal, state and private partnership is far from over. In fact, one could argue it’s hardly begun. The nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) most recent January “report card” on the health of the Bay gives the effort a miserable D+. OK, so that’s better than the D- the Bay received seven years ago, in 2008. Nevertheless, it’s been 32 years since the first agreement was signed in 1983, and the waters Corbin navigates are still murky indeed.
But Corbin has steered through turbid waters before. An Illinois native and a trained oceanographer, he was working in Texas for the state’s environmental resources agency when he and his wife had the itch to relocate. It seems that Richmond picked them, rather than the other way around. “We literally sat down at a Barnes and Noble café one Saturday, borrowed an atlas from the bookshelf and said, ‘OK, here’s Knoxville, where my wife’s family is, and here’s South Carolina, where I did my undergrad work and have a lot of friends, and here’s Rhode Island, where I did my graduate work,’ ” Corbin recalls. “We looked at each other and said, ‘What about Virginia?’ ” It was uncharted territory. Neither he nor his wife had done more than drive through the state on their way to somewhere else. But on Monday morning, when Corbin sat down during his lunch hour and typed “environment” and “marine scientist” into the Times-Dispatch’s online want ads, the first thing that popped up was a job opening with CBF in Richmond.
Roy Hoagland, then executive director of CBF’s Virginia office, remembers Corbin’s phone interview well. “Jeff had a great way of conveying science in laymen’s terms and was very genuine. He was so impressive that when we got off the phone, I said: ‘We gotta have this guy come here.’ ” Two weeks later, Corbin accepted an offer from CBF, and six weeks later, he and his wife were moving to Virginia. That was 20 years ago.
Little did Corbin know that in 1996, he was entering into an environmentalist’s nightmare — the political climate couldn’t have been bleaker. Becky Norton Dunlop, appointed secretary of natural resources by then-Gov. George Allen, announced her arrival with a mission statement sent to the state’s regulatory agencies under her purview. High on the enumerated list was the statement that human beings — not air, not Virginia’s waters, her diverse landscapes or even her bountiful fish and wildlife populations — were the state’s greatest natural resource. The times, they were a-changin’.
But fate had brought Corbin to Richmond, and he unexpectedly thrived in Virginia’s political environmental wasteland. “I remember we threw him right into the General Assembly,” recalls Hoagland. “He’d never done that kind of work before, but we threw him in the deep end anyway. And he did just fine.” Corbin took a leadership role in the development of a report on the quality of Virginia’s waters, and he and Hoagland used that analysis as justification for promoting a bill that became the Water Quality Monitoring, Information and Restoration Act. That piece of legislation essentially rewrote, or at least better defined, how the state Department of Environmental Quality was required to monitor Virginia’s waters for pollution, report its findings to the public and develop plans for restoring the ecosystems. “It’s amazing how one little word can make a big change — the word ‘implement,’ ” says Corbin. “The law says that not only does Virginia have to develop plans to restore the polluted waters, but they must ‘implement’ them. It has been a longstanding national point of discussion as to whether the federal Clean Water Act requires implementation of restoration plans, but in Virginia the law is clear — it does.”
For nine years, Corbin worked for the Bay Foundation, moving up through the ranks to the position of deputy director. While others during those dark days wilted in despair, Corbin learned how to stay in the game. “When I started out, I was in kind of a ‘battle-cry’ mode, you know? Everything was a challenge and was going to be a fight. But then you realize, when you get a little older and a little smarter, that you just can’t fight everybody. You realize that it takes time and a lot of talking to people — a lot of discussion — to get people to understand what needs to be done.” He pauses, gazing out at the river. “There’s really nobody I’ve ever met who doesn’t think cleaning up the Bay or cleaning up their favorite river is worth it. They may disagree on how we’re going about it; they might not like the pace you’re doing it at, or the tools you’re using, or the tone of your discussion. But even our strongest political opponents would never say that cleaning up the Bay isn’t worth it.”
In 2006, when the environmental skies cleared in Virginia, Corbin was ready for the new day. He was tapped by then-Secretary of Natural Resources L. Preston Bryant Jr. — an appointee of Gov. Tim Kaine — to become the department’s assistant secretary. Many thought Corbin had lost his marbles. “When I stepped out of the nonprofit world and smack into the middle of the executive branch political world, a lot of people cautioned me, saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re going to hate it. It’s bureaucratic.’ ” Corbin’s face crinkles into a smile. “And I gotta tell you, I loved every day of it. It was the best job I ever had.”
He explains: “I think it was just kind of a natural transition. As a scientist, you want to make a difference, and that happens in the policy world and the legislative world. So you transition out of the technical side into the policy and political side of things. Of course, it’s not for everybody — policy and politics don’t move very rapidly, and that can be very frustrating for people. But I like the idea of focusing on the big picture — you know, the ‘Where do we need to be five years from now and 10 years from now?’ ”
In the Kaine administration, Corbin had plenty of room to do just that. The Bay-related issues were many, from grappling with the complexity of measurably improving water quality, to crafting policy to address crab and oyster fisheries teetering on sustainability. “Jeff was the governor’s go-to guy on these issues,” says Bryant. “Gov. Kaine trusted Jeff’s judgment immensely.” In point of fact, Bryant says it was a “rare occasion” when he himself substituted his own judgment for Corbin’s. “On the odd occasion I had the gumption to do that, Jeff was usually right and I was wrong,” he admits. “But Jeff was always good not to rub my nose in it.” That’s just the kind of guy Corbin is. “He has no ego,” says Hoagland. So what’s a guy with no ego doing as a high-level political appointee on the hotseat of the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Program?
At the end of the Kaine years, the staff of the environmental “match made in heaven” were casting about for jobs. Corbin had already established himself as an influential player on Bay issues, having helped Kaine usher in the game-changing two-year milestones for the Bay restoration efforts, replacing the ineffectual 10-year goals that had plagued the 30-year cleanup effort. (“Two-year milestones were something that we thought was very, very critical,” says Corbin. “With two-year milestones, you have to lay out a plan, show people what you’re going to do and come back in two years and show ’em that you did it. So that really changed the game. It brought a whole new level of accountability to the process.”)
Corbin had become known as a man with an exceptional technical knowledge who knew how to craft policy and the regulatory framework necessary to make effective change happen. And remarkably, for a man spending four years in the rarefied air of state politics, he had emerged refreshingly unchanged. Corbin may have hailed from Illinois, but he had now earned his place as a Virginia boy. His “just the facts, ma’am” peace-making perspective was something the contentious (and oft-accused as being too Maryland-centric) Bay restoration program desperately needed.
So when he took the job as the EPA senior advisor on Bay issues in 2011, Corbin once again signed on to steer through muddy waters — but this time, they were crisscrossed with dangerous currents born of 30 years of disappointment and finger-pointing. Just three years earlier, on the 25th anniversary of the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Program, the sewage quite literally hit the fan: The truth came out that things were not as rosy as they had been presented. It may not have been a cover-up, but the harsh facts were that after a quarter of a century of monumental effort and the expenditure of nearly $6 billion, the ambitious multistate and federal clean-up effort had failed to reach any of its goals. Why on earth would Corbin willingly even dip a single toe into those waters?
“I gotta be honest,” he says. “If I didn’t think restoring the Bay was doable, I probably wouldn’t have taken this job. You don’t want to take a job where it’s your job to fix something that’s unfixable. But this is fixable. It’s not easy, it’s not going to be cheap, it’s not going to happen overnight, but it is doable.”
This is no cheap talk. Corbin is first and foremost a scientist who is not afraid to look at the technical difficulties of what’s possible and what’s not. He pegs himself not as an optimist, but as a realist. He freely admits that some issues are going to be tough to overcome. “Dealing with stormwater management is going to be a challenge. It’s very expensive and it’s a big, tough issue to get your head around.” But Corbin’s convinced that somehow, some way, it can get done. That’s because he’s seen it happen before.
“If you had told me 10 years ago that by 2014 we’d be on the verge of upgrading every single sewage treatment plant in the watershed, I would have to say you were nuts,” says Corbin. “But that’s where we are. Virginia alone has spent more than $2 billion making it happen. Ten years ago, everybody said: ‘We don’t have the money; we can’t do it; we don’t have the technology.’ Then the requirements were put in place, and it happened. I’m not saying that everybody lined up and said, ‘Yeah, we want to do it.’ But over time, we got to the point where everybody realized that it could be done and we could come up with money to do it, and here we are in 2015 and we did what we said we were going to do.”
Corbin admits that grappling with the reality of declining federal, state and local budgets is among the most difficult and frustrating obstacles the program faces right now. “We’re not going to restore the Bay for free. None of this stuff is cheap, and most of these programs have less and less money going into them. I don’t blame people in Congress at all for asking, ‘Where’s the progress?’ It is slow. … When you look at the amount of pollution we want to reduce, we’re about halfway there. The problem is, it took about 30 years to get there.”
Corbin’s job with EPA is a whirl of moving parts. Not only is he charged with keeping track of the efforts of the six states and the District of Columbia in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the federal agencies involved in Bay restoration, but he spends a great deal of time keeping the peace with outside stakeholders — from nonprofit environmental groups to agricultural interest groups — trying to keep them all working together toward the same goals. “It can sometimes be like a big Italian family,” he admits. “We all get together and scream at each other, but then we all kiss and make up.”
Even in the role of peacemaker, there are days he momentarily loses hope, but he corrects that impulse by keeping an eye on the track ahead, and the big picture. “I advise the [EPA] administrator on what we’re doing and what we should be doing, but my job is also to advise her on what potentially could go wrong and turn into a big issue.” He also keeps an eye out for the next reef on which the program might run aground.
So what dangerous reefs does Corbin spy ahead? “The first thing staring at us in the near-term is urban development and how we manage growth. It all has a big impact on environmental quality.”
And then there’s the elephant in the room: climate change. “I wouldn’t even call that a reef,” says Corbin. “I’d call it: ‘We’re sailing a ship, and it’s 500 years ago and we’re about to sail off the end of the world.’ We know that the climate’s changing, and it’s having an absolute impact on the Chesapeake Bay — and it’s going to have an impact on how we go about restoring it. … There are 17 million people living in the Bay watershed. And we’re the problem. We’re the ones driving the cars and building the houses and cutting down the forests. … A lot of people ask me, ‘Well, what difference can I make? I’m just one person.’ But if all 17 million people each make a tiny little difference — all those tiny little differences? — they add up to a huge impact.”
Last June, a new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement was signed by six state governors, the mayor of Washington and federal officials. It is the fourth such agreement since 1983, and with its two-year goals and long-term commitment to restore the Bay by 2025, Corbin believes it can be done.
“It’s 100 percent doable. But the bottom line is political commitment. You have to have committed leaders at the top. And really, if we can’t show people that we can clean up the Chesapeake, what hope do we have for cleaning up any other place?”
Corbin stows his map away and steers his boat out into the James, seeming already to know the way ahead.