Environmental Resilience Institute Internship Grant Reflection: Maitlyn Murphy

Internship Location: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Journal Entry #1:

My name is Maitlyn Murphy and I am a rising fourth-year student studying Global Sustainability and English. As an EPA intern in the Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) Program, I have helped draft the updated version of the EPP Program’s “Recommendations of Specifications, Standards, and Ecolabels for Federal Purchasing” that will eventually be posted to EPA’s website. I have also helped organize and prepare for the Federal Environmental Symposium coming up in the fall, researched and drafted potential new product categories in which the EPA may assess additional standards and ecolabels, and crafted deliverables aligning the EPP Program’s work with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Overall, I have really enjoyed getting the opportunity to sit in on meetings while I take notes and try to decipher the many government acronyms. I could not have been luckier to work on a team of three powerful women who have been at the EPA for many years and are eager to share their knowledge and expertise. 

Working on the EPP team, I have been afforded the opportunity to have a foot in both the public and private sector. My team’s meetings often collaborate with other government agencies such as DoD, DOE, GSA, and HHS, as well as private sector organizations such as Global Ecolabelling Network and other standards developers. I really appreciate the holistic perspective this internship has provided on the ecolabelling community, standards development, and assessing standards and ecolabels against certain criteria.

Working on a government agency, the first thing I noticed immediately was all the bureaucracy. Sometimes I feel hopeless with regards to reaching our goals, and I can tell my team is used to disappointment under this administration. The current political atmosphere is fairly discouraging with regards to environmental efforts, and this has been a huge learning experience for me. Coming from UVA where the general student body is relatively environmentally conscious, it was a bit of a shock to have to deal with different parties that do not have the same fundamental agreement on simple terms like “climate change.”  This is something that I had taken for granted. The current political appointee who overlooks our Pollution Prevention (P2) branch was previously a chemical company lobbyist against the EPA prior to being appointed to her current high-level position within the EPA. The P2 branch needs upper management approval for seemingly minor matters, such as updating webpages on the EPA website. As a result, it took my team about six months to update the EPP Program webpage with language reflecting Trump’s Executive Order 13834. The pace of progress was the first obstacle I struggled to accept at the EPA, but I learned from my team how to be assertive, and patient, while working within the systems in place.

In the future I hope to see the EPA and America realign itself with global sustainability goals, such as the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals at minimum. Hopefully the United States can become a leader in sustainability efforts, because currently we have the experts, resources, and funds to be able to make significant change. I hope that soon that EPA employees will be empowered to preform to the best of their abilities and encouraged to think outside of the box, as I can only imagine how phenomenal this agency is with more support.

Journal Entry #2: 

In the second half of my internship at the EPA, I began to set up meetings with many different people across the Agency. I met with various parents of friends and random connections that I had made during that summer, which was an amazing experience and allowed me to gain a much bigger picture of the EPA’s role and responsibilities within the government. The most notable person I met with was Alex Dunn, the Administrator’s Assistant for my office at EPA. I met Alex at the TSCA three-year anniversary celebration and there she offered to have me shadow her for a day. It was tough for me to hear how she had to make the final call approving pesticides that are toxic to bees, but Alex justified the decision by realizing that the benefits outweighed the risk. In her mind, losing bee colonies is just a risk she (and therefore the EPA) is willing to take to protect crops against pests. She also says that she trusts the scientists 100% and if they recommend that this action is best, then she will listen. This fact made me feel more confident, because science is unbiased truth. Yet, I also talked to a lot of people in the EPA about this encounter I had with Alex, and they mentioned how many of our scientists may actually be biased because they use the data reported by the chemical manufacturers, who may instruct their scientists to round up the numbers to get it past regulation. There are many places throughout the process where the data could be skewed.  I was shocked to unveil the truth about the status quo for many tasks at the EPA, and although it is true that there are some labs at the EPA, the majority of people work as desks and analyze the data and numbers provided by the chemical manufacturers when making a decision about certain pesticides approval or prohibition. The system may be corrupt at different points of the process, and that is why it is very important to have great people working at the EPA who can hopefully demand the highest level of transparency. Again, I would be so excited to work for the EPA in a future administration because I believe there is room for change and room to make an impact. I was told by a colleague that the EPA needs people like me, and I was extremely flattered and inspired by this offhanded, unexpected compliment. I hope that Trump is not actively trying to stop government agencies from being able to function properly, because these agencies are very critical to our country running smoothly. At least at the EPA, his appointees for the most part seem to try their best to halt all action and progress. My grandfather recently gave me this book called, “The Fifth Risk” by Michael Lewis, and how Trump’s detrimental government management and uninformed appointees could cause a serious disaster. I have thought a lot about Lewis’s ideas recently, and now more than ever, I am extremely proud of the dedicated public servants who are combating these challenges to “keep the machine running.”

I have learned so much from interning at the EPA this summer, and especially from seeing an agency when moral was probably the lowest it has ever been. I have felt a range of emotions while being at the EPA: inspired and empowered, but also angry and stifled by upper management from being able to do our jobs to the best of our ability. I worked on many more projects during the second half of my internship, including researching how EPA’s recommended standards and ecolabels can help inform TSCA high priority chemicals assessments, helping the DOE asses cleaner standards, comparing the EPA’s Guidelines to assess standards and ecolabels with Global Ecolabelling Netowrks’s GENICES criteria and identifying similarities and differences, researching health impacts of 5G wireless network, and helping organize and prepare for the Federal Environmental Symposium. I was given such meaningful tasks and projects, and truly felt like my presence was a contribution to their office this summer, which is a very rewarding feeling.

My manager, Jenna, was the most incredible mentor I could have ever asked for. I was extremely lucky to have such a friendly, intelligent and open boss who could explain everything in the clearest terms; she is such a great teacher. I highly recommend anyone to intern with Jenna, Alison and Holly, because they are truly go-getters and hard workers despite the current difficulties. I appreciate and have great respect for their determination and work ethic. They are also some of the most welcoming women who took me under their wing and helped me learn everything about their work with standards and ecolabels. My experience has been invaluable this summer, and I cannot thank ERI enough for supporting me throughout this internship. This was such a special opportunity that I will never forget, and I feel extremely lucky to have had this chance to intern at the EPA. Thank you very much!!!