While pursuing her undergraduate and master’s degrees in biology, Mary Ellen Hogan worked on a project that assessed the environmental impacts of coal strip mining in West Virginia and the Ohio River Basin. Much of the public sentiment at the time was that strip mining was evil, she recalls. From a public policy perspective, though, she learned the impact was more nuanced.
Surface coal mining operations removed coal in often ugly rings around mountains and allowed people in impoverished areas to earn a living through mining—and strip mining was safer than conventional underground mining. Overall, there were certain benefits to its impact on society that had to be taken into account when regulating industry. This led Hogan to realize that environmental law needed to understand yet reach beyond the science of pollution control, and that she wanted a role in translating science into law and public policy regarding the environment.
Hogan, now assistant general counsel with automotive component supplier Tenneco, was inspired by that observation and embarked on a career path to bridge the gap between science and law. During her more than thirty years practicing environmental law, Hogan has translated science for legal and business audiences while successfully navigating shifting trends in how environmental law is crafted and enforced.
“[The COVID crisis] was a challenge of a lifetime to figure all that out. . . The pandemic pushed the boundaries of work in this field.”
“I have spent most of my career with experts on the technical side in regulatory and environmental litigation,” she says. According to Hogan, to get the best outcomes in most cases, it’s far better to work to solve environmental problems and reach agreements with regulators than fight through the courts to the end. In the early years of her career, regulators adopted a “carrot-and-stick” approach to enforcement, which she says was not always effective.
Today, companies like Tenneco have internal codes of conduct on compliance and align with their customers who demand business partners that do right by the environment, Hogan observes. In fact, Tenneco was recently named Compliance Program of the Year by Compliance Week.
Standards-based organization such as ISO (International Organization for Standardization) also have more impact on corporate environmental behavior than in the past—arguably, as much if not more impact than government regulators.
“At Tenneco, we take ISO certifications at our facilities very seriously,” she says. “I am an ISO-certified auditor so that I can assist the compliance team with certifications. That’s not something counsel generally does, but I found it critical for my work with the Environment Health & Safety (EHS) team.” Certification includes external audits by independent parties—a process that cannot be taken lightly—requiring a cross-functional team effort.
The legacy of historical manufacturing practices before the 1980s includes many instances of environmental pollution. At Tenneco, Hogan has been involved with many instances of site mitigation efforts worldwide. These projects involve teams of technical and legal specialists working to assess the damage and create solutions that are acceptable to both regulators and the company.
For these projects, Hogan hires trusted outside counsel, who are essential to the fact-finding process. Based on more than three decades working in a law firm setting, Hogan favors working with medium-sized firms that are flexible and cost-conscious. “Having been a litigator for a large law firm, I understand how outside firms bill,” she says. As a result, Tenneco strives for fixed monthly fee arrangements for routine advice in contrast to hourly billing.
She looks to outside counsel to help devise solutions to problems like environmental remediation and workplace safety issues monitored by OSHA. She has found that when a company works on a solution posed by an employee complaint and presents it to regulators, the outcome tends to be more favorable. “You want to give the agencies enough to go on so they are comfortable with what you are doing,” she says. This is preferable to waiting for the agency to impose its own solution in a vacuum.
The COVID-19 pandemic proved that point, presenting an urgent and tricky workplace safety crisis. “It was a challenge of a lifetime to figure all that out,” Hogan says. Tenneco was deemed an essential business shortly after the crisis dawned, so its manufacturing plants stayed open. Company leaders relied on Tenneco’s EHS to make the workplace safe for employees.
“The pandemic pushed the boundaries of work in this field,” Hogan says. It was the ultimate merger of science, law, and public policy.
“By and large, these [safety] measures allowed us to limit the spread of COVID within our operations. Our workers have said they feel safer in our plants than the surrounding communities.”
The EHS team, which includes Hogan, quickly researched the impact of the disease, looking to sources such as the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization for guidance. “We worked every workday from March 2020 through January 2021, and three days a week after that, on the COVID policies and procedures,” Hogan says. Based on protocols recommended by the CDC, WHO, and OSHA, the team developed effective policies based on available science.
“Early on, it became clear that COVID was a respiratory disease impacted by distance,” Hogan recalls. So first came a comprehensive assessment of how closely workers were spaced. “Where we could move machines six feet apart, we did,” she says. “If that was not possible, we placed plexiglass in between work stations.” Tenneco also launched a vigorous contact tracing regimen so that infected workers could be identified and quarantined.
“By and large, these measures allowed us to limit the spread of COVID within our operations,” she says. “Our workers have said they feel safer in our plants than the surrounding communities.”
Challenges like COVID, which straddle the worlds of science and regulations, allow Hogan to employ all of her skills and experience. At Tenneco, she continues to fulfill the mission she set in the formative years of her career: melding science and legal principles for environmentally responsible business outcomes.