After nearly two years as the "Bay czar" during which the EPA developed a rigorous new cleanup plan and the Obama administration pledged hundreds of actions to bring "a new era of federal leadership" to the Bay and its watershed, J. Charles "Chuck" Fox is moving on, his eyes set on saving the world's oceans.
At the end of December, he announced his departure to head a new organization, Oceans 5, which will pursue international initiatives aimed at protecting the waters that cover three-quarters of the globe. The organization will focus on international projects that are "highly impactful, results-oriented," Fox said. The exact areas for emphasis are still being developed, he said, but "they will tend to be focused on establishing large marine reserves, improving fishing management or more specifically, constraining overfishing."
The organization is backed by several major foundations, including the Oak Foundation, which is based in Switzerland, the Waitt Foundation in California, the Planet Heritage Foundation in Delaware and others that would be named in the future.
Fox was named as the first senior adviser on the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson early in March 2009, effectively giving Bay issues a direct conduit to the administrator. That position, dubbed the "Bay czar" by some, put him at the forefront of a transition during which the agency moved from being one of several Bay cleanup partners to being the clear leader-and enforcer-of those efforts. The resulting Bay Total Maximum Daily Load is considered the most comprehensive, far-reaching cleanup plan developed for any water body.
"I feel proud of being part of a team that really was involved in changing the future of the Bay," Fox said. "Today it is a vastly different program than it was even two years ago, and to have been a part of that team, and a part of these conversations has been very, very exciting.
"I don't want to gloss over some real tensions and real disagreements that we continue to have with the states, but by and large, the states have been also tremendously supportive of stronger federal leadership here as a way of helping to meet the goals that have been elusive for so many years."
Fox had a unique background for the job. As the EPA's assistant administrator for water during the Clinton administration in the late 1990s, he oversaw a rewrite of the agency's murky TMDL regulations to make them more effective and enforceable. But Congress blocked the new rules from taking effect, and they were ultimately withdrawn by the Bush administration.
Fox said that he thinks the prognosis is better for the current Bay TMDL, although it already faces a court challenge.
"We can always be surprised. But at this point, I cannot imagine a lawsuit that in any way significantly undoes what we are doing right now," he said. "As you can imagine, we spent an enormous amount of time with lawyers."
But he stopped short of guaranteeing the TMDL would deliver a clean Bay, noting it is only a framework for achieving that goal. "By no means does this make all the tough decisions that need to be made. And this is where the real challenge lies."
Whether the goal is met, he said, will depend on daily nuts-and-bolts decisions about how development is handled, how nutrient and manure management are handled at farms, and how various permit programs are developed and enforced. "These are the day-to-day water pollution control decisions that need to be made by state and federal governments that will in the end dictate whether we succeed in achieving our goals or not," he said.
Besides the TMDL, the federal government has ramped up its attention on the Bay, thanks to an executive order issued by President Obama in May 2009. A new Federal Leadership Committee, consisting of the heads of seven federal agencies and chaired by the EPA administrator, now coordinates federal Bay-related activities, and last year issued a federal Bay strategy calling for scores of actions to not only clean up the Bay, but preserve land, restore habitats, improve science and rebuild fish and wildlife populations.
"I think we have been very successful in defining a new era of federal leadership," Fox said, noting that the restoration effort is "on a fundamentally different track today than it was two years ago."
After his previous stint at the EPA, Fox went on to be a Maryland Secretary of Natural Resources and a vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Prior to his recent Bay position, he was a senior officer of The Pew Charitable Trust, managing its marine conservation programs.
Fox said he may well find his way back to Chesapeake Bay issues in the future.
"This opportunity for the oceans is something that I am really excited about. Oceans is my other big passion," he said. "But it won't surprise me if at another point my career comes back to the Chesapeake Bay."