An Agate Original
It’s March, and Deb Swackhamer recently returned to Minnesota from the Solomon Islands, where one of the highlights of a snorkeling expedition was watching “cleaning stations,” where brightly-colored tiny fish called wrasse eat parasites and dead tissue off manta rays with 20-foot wingspans. “These huge manta rays would circle around, slow down, and let the ‘cleaner fish’ clean them off, which feeds the smaller fish and keeps the rays healthy,” Swackhamer said. Before long she’ll be off to the Caribbean for more snorkeling and SCUBA diving. Recently retired from the University of Minnesota, she’s immersing herself in her favorite places.
But she’s also chairing an important advisory board at the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and speaking to groups all over Minnesota about the importance of clean water. It’s a relaxed schedule compared to what she was used to in her nearly 30 years as a professor.
Swackhamer’s career combined hard work on cutting-edge research with savvy policy chops to produce an unusually influential body of work. As a graduate student she made surprising discoveries about polychlorinated biphenyls – research that contributed to the decision to ban PCBs globally; she capped her career by creating a new framework for state water policy.
After earning a B.A. in chemistry from Grinnell College in 1976, Swackhamer joined a research project on PCBs at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She described this in a recent interview as a “stroke of luck.” Polychlorinated biphenyls were widely used in industry until the U.S. banned production in 1979. “They’d only been discovered in North America ten years earlier, so we didn’t know much about them,” she said. “Our understanding of toxic chemicals was infantile.” Without intending it, she chose a field that turned out to be cutting-edge science.
As a graduate student, she discovered that PCBs were not just sinking into lake sediments, but were evaporating back into the air. “At the time, people thought it was just a one-way thing. So that was exciting; I got hooked on understanding toxic chemicals and how they behave.” Learning that PCBs could cycle back and forth between air and water brought the realization that they wouldn’t just get buried and disappear; they would pose an ongoing, global problem.
That awareness prompted changes in the Clean Air Act in 1990. It was a turning point for Swackhamer. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can actually make a difference in how law is made,’ so that got me very interested in public policy.” In 2004, the Stockholm Convention imposed a global ban on PCBs, DDT, and other persistent organic pollutants called the “dirty dozen.”
Swackhamer then wanted to figure out how these toxic chemicals get into the food chain. “Because that’s the public health issue,” she explained. “If you can catch fish but you can’t eat them, that seems like a bit of a problem.”
As a faculty member at the University of Minnesota, she spent eight years learning how PCBs move from water into algae, the first step on the food chain. “I came to understand it was not a simple process,” she said, with an almost rueful smile.
In 1996, Swackhamer was the target of an industry assault on her research that prefigured the harassment some climate scientists are experiencing today. Her studies had detected surprisingly large amounts of toxaphene in northern Lake Michigan. Toxaphene, another persistent organic pollutant like PCBs, was a pesticide used primarily on cotton and soybean fields in the south. It had been phased out in the 1980s, so it was a mystery why so much of it was showing up in Lake Michigan. Researchers wondered whether it had been used more heavily than reported on cranberry bogs or cherry orchards in Wisconsin, or whether it might be produced as a byproduct of the pulp and paper mills perched on rivers that flowed into the Great Lakes.
A top Wall Street law firm filed a Freedom of Information request that the University of Minnesota said holds the record for the most comprehensive such query it has ever had to deal with. “They wanted to see records of my grants, my teaching materials, phone calls, all my data, for a thirteen-year period,” Swackhamer said. “We shipped off container after container of papers; they kept coming back for more and more information.” A similar request was sent to the EPA where her husband, David De Vault, was administering research projects on toxaphene.
Swackhamer and others concluded the pulp and paper industry must have been behind the FOIA requests. “I think their motive was not only to stop me doing research, but they really wanted my husband to stop funding it. I think basically they were trying to intimidate us.”
The confrontation was covered in a front-page story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on May 17, 1998, where industry officials denied involvement. Ironically, two years later Swackhamer’s own research showed that at least one paper mill, Potlatch in Cloquet, Minnesota was not producing high levels of toxaphene.
Meanwhile, Swackhamer was moving up in the University’s bureaucracy. In 2001 she was named co-director of the Water Resources Center, a multi-disciplinary program that links scientists from every part of the university with students, local communities, and national leaders. Later, the University tapped her to head a committee that wrote the blueprint for another interdisciplinary program, the Institute on the Environment, and she served as its first director.
In 2008, Minnesotans passed the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment, dedicating millions of dollars to cleaning up lakes and rivers over the next 25 years. To make sure the money is invested well, the Minnesota Legislature asked Swackhamer’s Water Resources Center to create a framework for state water policy.
“That’s the single thing I’m most proud of,” Swackhamer said. She shepherded the work of 250 scientists and policy experts and produced a comprehensive and readable policy statement and set of recommendations. “We didn’t compromise on any of it: we called a spade a spade; we said ‘these are the things that need to be fixed and this is how you fix them, even if it’s not politically viable.’”
The Framework’s boldest recommendations deal with agricultural pollution. Swackhamer said until recently, most politicians have treated farming as a sacred and untouchable part of the economy. “Literally, if I mentioned water and agriculture in the same sentence, people would startle; they’d lose eye contact with me: it was like I’d said a dirty word. You don’t criticize agriculture.” She believes politicians eventually must summon the will to regulate the sector. “You do need some regulations to keep business in line, and they’re a business that has very few boundaries when it comes to pollution issues,” she said.
Many of Swackhamer’s colleagues and others working in the field appreciate her courageous plain-speaking on issues such as agricultural pollution. Will Seuffert, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, describes her as a widely respected “thought leader” who can “make clear the source of diffuse and perplexing problems… She understands the complex web of regulations and governance and can cut through the silos and politics to get at the fundamental issues.” According to Daniel Engstrom, director of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s St. Croix Watershed Research Station, Swackhamer’s original research made important contributions to scientific understanding of the threats posed by persistent man-made contaminants, and “these scientific credentials along with a keen ability to traverse the political landscape has made her a highly respected voice in water policy.” He describes her Water Sustainability Framework as a “critical starting point for our ongoing discussions – including the Governor’s recent Water Summit – of the state’s water-quality challenges.”
Since she began phased retirement from the University, Swackhamer has been speaking to many groups about water issues. She tells them Minnesota is at a tipping point where significant change can happen. The investments from the Legacy amendment have helped, and Gov. Mark Dayton’s decision to stake out water quality as a major legacy is key, Swackhamer believes. “Hopefully – because water is not a partisan issue – the state will move with him in the direction he wants to take. If you have leadership, money, and political will, you can get a lot done,” she says.
She is also serving in new roles at the federal level. After a stint on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, she now serves on the National Academies of Science’s Board of Environmental Science and Toxicology, and she also volunteered to chair the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors. That group advises EPA’s Office of Research and Development on technical issues related to its research. “EPA is under fire from Congress, it’s under fire from industry, it’s quite a partisan fight unfortunately,” said Swackhamer. “Critics are meeting their political agenda by attacking science, and by cherry picking the science they like, and by raising doubts. EPA’s science supports its regulations, so it must be of the highest quality.”
Swackhamer modestly attributes a lot of her success in environmental science and policy to luck, and to her own passion for water. Her graduate work set her on the ground floor of the important new field of aquatic toxicology. In college, when teachers advised her to become an industrial chemist, she tried it out in summer jobs and learned that setting wasn’t for her. Even as a kid, she immersed herself in water, as she spent summers on a deep, clean lake in Ontario, in a cabin with bunk beds and no running water. “I was the water supply, carrying buckets from the lake,” she said. “I was the water.”
Find more of Cynthia Dickinson’s photography on her website at http://www.cynthiadickinson.com.