Russell Train: A Personal Memorial

During the wee hours one cold winter night back in the ‘70s, a ringing telephone awakened the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. An irate driver was calling from Minnesota, a thousand miles away.

Unlike many other high-ranking government officials, the head of the EPA kept a listed home telephone number, which was how the angry man had tracked him down.

With the clock nearing 3 a.m., the head of EPA agreed to listen to the man’s story of frustration with EPA regulations: his car had run out of gas, and he had walked four miles through snow to fill up a gas can, only to find the nozzle wouldn’t fit the opening of the car’s gas tank, “all because of your (expletive) stupid EPA regulations!”

The head of EPA calmly told the man he didn’t blame him for being upset. Having vented, the Minnesota driver ended the call by quietly saying that he just wanted Mr. Train to know.

That’s the kind of man Mr. Train was. A man of integrity with a powerful dedication to public service, Russell Train was the ideal choice to lead EPA during the turbulent years of the Nixon and Ford administrations. I was privileged to know in person what many of my fellow Americans knew from afar, because Mr. Train was my father-in-law.

Mr. Train’s passing last month reminded Americans of his accomplishments in enforcing our new environmental laws at a time of economic tumult. During EPA’s early years, Mr. Train led the agency with a tactful but firm hand that was instrumental in the progress we have made reducing air pollution, cleaning up lakes and rivers, and limiting unhealthful chemical exposures.

Mr. Train did more than carry out the law. He educated Americans about the broader context of our country’s environmental problems. At a time America was reeling from oil price shocks, Mr. Train spoke publicly about the connections between our energy choices and consequences, including environmental impacts.

He spoke out about the tangible benefits of energy efficiency and finding new ways to produce energy, even though there were times during high-level meetings that his stance made him feel, in his words, like “the proverbial bastard at a family reunion.”

A secret to Russell Train’s successful tenure at EPA was that he stuck to the facts, treated all parties respectfully, and did his best to shield environmental policy from partisan political considerations. His service holds powerful lessons for today, as we face a different but equally compelling array of environmental risks at a time of economic tumult.

Too often in today’s world, short-term thinking and partisan agendas interfere with rational decision-making on matters that affect all of us, regardless of our political affiliations. Clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment are not luxuries but necessities. Our country is stronger and more prosperous because of, not in spite of, our setting and keeping of environmental standards.

These are not new insights. My father-in-law understood the imperatives of environmental stewardship and acted on them with fair dealings and good sense. The best way we can honor Russell Train’s memory is to follow the example that he set.

 

James A. Rowan
Chevy Chase, MD
 

 

 

 

 

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