Marylander who leads EPA’s mid-Atlantic region strives to build environmentally safe, climate-resilient communities.

Published on: November 23, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 23, 2022 10:57 AM EST

The Edmonston pumping station, which Adam Ortiz upgraded with $6 million in funding from Prince George's County, which substantially enhanced its capacity to drain floodwaters and is a lasting solution to Edmonston's flooding problem.

EDMONSTON, Md. — On a gray day in early fall, Adam Ortiz stepped out of La Fondita restaurant for a stroll along Decatur Street, the main thoroughfare that runs through this working-class town tucked away in the northwest corner of Prince George’s County.

Ortiz’ career over the last two decades meanders through this close-knit community of some 1,600 people and a dozen or so roads peppered with ranch-style homes spread out along both sides of the main street.

“I became the mayor in June of 2005. In July that year, the town suffered a terrible flood. It was real-time emergency management, evacuation, finding homes and supplies for people and then working to get the water out,” said Ortiz, who now serves as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s mid-Atlantic region.

The floods tore through Edmonston for four consecutive years, thrusting Ortiz into the new age of climate awareness and giving him a crash course in disaster management. “The equivalent of a 100-year flood event happened four years in a row and this neighborhood was hit the hardest, and almost 60 homes were underwater,” Ortiz said, pointing at the rows of houses on each side of Decatur Street. “This was sort of ground zero for the floods.”

The sudden screeching of tires interrupted the calm, and Ortiz hurried toward the middle of the road, where a dog came running with a leash dragging behind and no owner in sight. Amid the ruckus, one of the residents in a nearby house appeared on his porch and saw Ortiz. Both men greeted and inquired after each other, wondering who the owner was just as the dog strayed further away on a side street. “I’ll hail a police car if I see one and let them know about the dog,” Ortiz told the elderly neighbor before walking away.

“That was Mr. Frank who lived here for decades. During the flooding, his house was badly impacted,” Ortiz explained a minute later, adding that as the mayor he knew each and every person in town.

“This house right here was like an aquarium, and we had to rescue the woman and her son who lived here by boat,” Ortiz said, pointing to a vintage-style bungalow behind him. “The whole area was waist deep in water. It was bad.”

From policy geek to environmental leader

Originally from Dutchess County in New York’s Hudson River Valley, Ortiz grew up hiking and fishing on the river. In 1992, he enrolled in Goucher College in Baltimore and majored in human rights, public policy and criminal justice reform.

After graduating in 1996, Ortiz spent his early professional years in Washington, D.C., working for nonprofit groups, including Amnesty International, where he wrestled with contentious political issues such as police brutality and accountability, the death penalty for those with intellectual disabilities, and improving prison conditions. He was also part of the organizing effort to free Taye Woldosemaite, an imprisoned labor organizer in Ethiopia.

From 2002 to early 2005, Ortiz was affiliated with the American Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice Center in Washington as a Soros criminal justice fellow, and worked on abolishing the death penalty for juveniles. The legal struggle culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that executing minors was unconstitutional.

“I was a policy geek. So, that was really my trajectory and a great career. I loved it. It was like my passion project,” Ortiz said, emphasizing his commitment to human rights and equity issues.

However, he did not enjoy living in Washington.

“I wanted to move someplace more down-to-earth and I had friends in this area,” he said. “And when I was in this neighborhood, I felt like, yeah, this is where I belong.”

Moving to Edmonston shaped Ortiz’ political and professional career profoundly. “I thought it was really cool to live in a little town where you could talk to the mayor and council members,” he said. Soon, he started showing up at town meetings and commenting on community and environmental issues.

He ran for mayor and won, holding the office from 2005 until 2011. As mayor, the back-to-back floods forced him to conceive and launch his signature green street project, which prevented flooding by capturing and filtering storm-water runoff and brought relief to the town’s residents.

“The floods literally poured cold water on me about the changing climate and the need for resilience in working class places,” he said.

Ortiz’ next career breakthrough came in 2012 when Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III appointed him as the county’s environmental director, a position he retained until December 2018. Under Ortiz’ leadership, the county moved towards zero waste principles and won environmental accolades for significantly reducing and diverting waste, and increasing recycling and composting.

In 2019, neighboring Montgomery County tapped him to lead its Department of Environmental Protection, where he oversaw initiatives involving renewable energy and the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions, composting and waste management, watershed restoration and environmental compliance. From there, the Biden administration tapped Ortiz in 2021 to lead the EPA’s mid-Atlantic region, encompassing Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and seven federally recognized tribes.

“I think it’s a logical progression in some ways,” Ortiz said. “This is the field that I’ve invested in and I’m so passionate about. I’m very grateful and honored.”

In his spare time, Ortiz doubles as a guitarist for indie-rock and classic rock bands. He likes Neil Young, Black Pumas, and, these days, the American indie-rock band Built to Spill. But now, environmentalism trumps rock ‘n’ roll at the heart of his self-image.

Ortiz said he sees himself as part of the climate generation of public leaders, whose experiences were shaped by floods and his own personal clash with climate change.

In Edmonston, a baptism by fire

Edmonston offers a microcosm of Ortiz’ struggles and successes. It was less a walk in the park than a baptism by fire.

In so many ways, Edmonston is similar to many other frontline communities, Ortiz said, with shared challenges rooted in a past punctuated with inequitable development and environmental racism.

“As part of my community-building effort, one of the things I learned was that the town was founded by a freed slave family from the plantation just to the north of here owned by the Calvert family, which was one of the founding families of Maryland,” Ortiz said.

After the Civil War, Adam Plummer, the freed slave, purchased 10 acres of what is present-day Edmonston to settle his newly freed family. He then traveled south to find other family members sold in slavery and brought them back and established the town.

“I raised this because it’s clear to me now the land that the freed slaves, families of color, were allowed to buy created the environmental justice issues that linger right up to this day in vulnerable communities,” he said, explaining that Edmonston remains the lowest lying area in the region.

“These series of experiences changed my career trajectory. I went from being a human rights or international relations guy to being an environment guy,” Ortiz said. “We did a bunch of projects, such as the ‘green street’ project and sophisticated flood management. And then I ended up earning the reputation as being the environmental mayor of Maryland.”

The walk along Decatur Street led to the bridge spanning the Anacostia River, a waterway that extends from Prince George’s County to Washington and has a history of severe flooding. But Edmonston was not flooded by the river. Instead, Ortiz said, it was the roads, parking lots and shopping centers that sent waters racing into the town and destroying properties.

He pointed to the pumping station to his left, originally built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s to drain excess water into the river. With a $6 million county investment, and help from Dutch engineers, Ortiz had three new pumps added to the station that substantially enhanced capacity to drain floodwaters. He also launched the green street project in 2007, using green surfaces, native trees and permeable concrete to reduce flooding on the main street.

As a result of this two-pronged strategy, Edmonston went from being climate-vulnerable to being climate-resilient, and it boosted Ortiz’ credentials. “Because of these successes,” Ortiz said, “I was frequently invited to speak at EPA conferences. I was on an advisory committee to [EPA] administrators, Lisa Jackson and Gina McCarthy. Together we launched different programs on environmental justice, flood prevention and job creation, green jobs.”

Thousands of communities like Edmonston are not able to keep up with the changing climate because of aging and insufficient infrastructure, he said. “So, the investment made available by President Joe Biden and Congress, in three successive landmark pieces of legislation, are going to go directly to closing that gap — not just in infrastructure broadly but in the places that need it the most,” he said, alluding to Biden’s Justice40 Initiative.

Signed by Biden within days of taking office, the executive order requires at least 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal infrastructure investments go to historically disinvested communities, which, Ortiz said, are smacked around by extreme weather events with fewer resources to adapt.

Engagement is the key

Ortiz also played an active role in local and state politics. Both he and Baker, the former Prince George’s County executive, belonged to the progressive network in the area Democratic Party.

Ortiz said “engagement” was the key to his successful management; he cited the clean water partnership program that he launched in 2015 as director of Prince George’s environment department.

The program imposed a fee on churches, businesses and residents to fund the efforts to reduce stormwater runoff from polluting the Chesapeake Bay, as part of the EPA’s clean water regulations. For years, the idea of imposing a fee was politically contentious. Ortiz took on the challenge.

“We had an interest in stepping up our green infrastructure because of the topography, being in the coastal plain,” he said, “and also because Maryland is a very progressive state when it comes to environmental protection.”

Ortiz said that before launching the program, he organized meetings with the county stakeholders, including business leaders and ministers. And, he said, he’s never forgotten going to a meeting with a large group of county ministers to present his ideas and getting “yelled at for probably 45 minutes.”

“The rational human reaction would be to leave as soon as possible,” he said. “But I stayed in the room and talked to every single person who yelled at me and explained that it’s not just my job to clean the environment and I needed their help.”

It took months and many more conversations to design the program, Ortiz said, which reduced fees for churches, made their properties more resilient and sustainable, and, separately, created partnerships with minority businesses to invest in stormwater management projects. “So, instead of being adversaries, they became partners. But it took listening and willingness to take some punches to do that.”

Under Ortiz, the county earned the distinction of running a nationally-recognized compost and solid waste management program. Ortiz transformed the agency’s approach from waste disposal to waste reduction and diversion, based on the assessment that three-quarters of municipal solid waste could be recycled.

In addition to training staff in zero-waste approaches, the county led an aggressive public outreach campaign asking residents to reuse, recycle and compost. As a result, Prince George’s County came out at the top for successful waste diversion, beating its wealthier neighbor to the west, Montgomery County.

In 2019, Ortiz became Montgomery County’s environmental director and set out to achieve ambitious targets there, including waste reduction and lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the state’s most populous jurisdiction. He is particularly proud of setting groundbreaking initiatives in motion such as energy performance standards for old and new buildings.

“Green construction codes apply to new construction and leave out the vast inventory of existing buildings,” Ortiz said. “So, we created standards that building owners had to meet to become energy-efficient over time. And the building owners were not pleased.”

He said that by showing good faith, staying in the room and listening to feedback, the county council unanimously passed the bill a few months ago.

The bill, which became law in May, established minimum energy performance standards for existing buildings and requires county-owned, residential and commercial buildings that fall within its scope to report their compliance data to the Department of Environmental Protection on a yearly basis. In case of economic hardship or unavoidable circumstances, property owners can propose a plan to the department for review.

These lessons in community engagement are already proving useful for Ortiz at the EPA.

“I was in West Virginia for meetings where there’s a lot of distress from surface coal mining,” he said. “In Pennsylvania, the source of major distress is the agricultural runoff into the Chesapeake Bay — a sensitive issue for local farmers.”

Ortiz said that stakeholder engagements in both states have produced results, especially in Pennsylvania, where three big pieces of legislation passed over the summer after more than a decade of failures. One of them, passed in July, created a $250 million Clean Streams Fund for clean water programs and to encourage conservation practices on farm land.

Fredrika Moser, director of Maryland Sea Grant, which is a University System of Maryland program that works for preserving and restoring the Chesapeake and coastal bays, remembers Ortiz from his days in Prince George’s County as someone who was curious, innovative and believed in science-driven policymaking. “I was interested in having him on my organization’s external advisory board, and my colleagues said we should have Adam Ortiz on the board,” she said. “And so he was our wonderful board member from 2014 to 2018.”

Moser said that Ortiz brings his authentic self to every conversation, and deeply believes in the mission of environmental protection and that everybody deserves a clean environment. “He does that in an incredibly personable and thoughtful way,” she said. “I think that’s what makes him so effective. People want to work with him.”

Moser recalled that as a board member, Ortiz pressed her organization to think deeply about how to better serve under-resourced, underrepresented communities through the work the Sea Grant was doing. “He held you accountable without ever making you feel bad about it, and I think that’s his gift,” she said, adding that Ortiz has good instincts about what works and what doesn’t and he gets things done, even in bureaucratic settings, which is an achievement.

Finding strength in challenges

Some challenges have evaded Ortiz’ managerial prowess. In October, the EPA’s two-year milestones evaluation said that most of the Chesapeake Bay Program states were failing to reduce nutrients and sediment levels to meet goals set for cleaning up the nation’s largest estuary by 2025.

“The sooner that we speak the truth and plan accordingly, the more successful we’ll be,” Ortiz said in his public comments, hinting at the need for recalibrating the timeline. He blamed the backslide on climate change impacts and increasing storms, which he said were new stressors, along with the pace of development and agricultural production, which were not accounted for when the 2025 goals were set.

The bay cleanup goals, established by the Chesapeake Bay Program in 2014, require the partnering states, from New York to Virginia, to take steps to reduce nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, from flowing into the bay by specific amounts.

Nitrogen and phosphorus, from sources including agriculture, human sewage and fossil fuel combustion, can cause algae blooms that often lead to respiratory and eye irritation in humans and kill fish, marine mammals and other wildlife.

Beyond the bay, the list of challenges Ortiz must confront as the EPA’s mid-Atlantic regional director is broad and politically charged — ranging from water pollution to fracking in Pennsylvania, to contamination from the abandoned coal mines in West Virginia. In Maryland, “catastrophic failures” at the state’s largest wastewater treatment plants are sending huge amounts of nutrient pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, and in Virginia, toxic runoffs from agriculture and factories are choking waterways. Climate change and extreme weather events put a worrying spin on these persisting systemic problems across his region.

“It’s humbling to watch the devastation in Florida or Puerto Rico or our shoreline communities, as far as Delaware, which is also dealing with flooding today. But we get tremendous support from the White House, and from EPA headquarters to do the work.” There’s no question of the enormity of the challenge, he said, pointing out that as a society we’ve just started to take on 400 years of environmental distress in the last few decades.

Through the American Rescue Plan, Ortiz said, Biden and Congress have provided historic investments in battery technology and clean fleets, with an emphasis on school buses. “A few weeks ago, me and other EPA officials were in South Charleston, West Virginia, cutting the ribbon on an electric school bus manufacturing facility. Everywhere I go, I hear renewables all the time,” he said. “The governor of the coal country is talking about growing renewables. There are hundreds of abandoned surface mines in West Virginia, which are now being turned into solar farms. So, there are solutions and investment, and people are open to it.”

That’s part of the reason that Ortiz feels personally invested in the success of every corner of this region. “A friend of mine who’s a Unitarian minister said that to save the world, we have to also savor the world,” he said. “So, I do take time to enjoy this beautiful region. I have my West Virginia fishing license, so I go fishing when I’m there. I paddle all over the place. I hike a lot and so I’m really invested in it.”

Ortiz finds it reassuring that the core of the EPA is strong, despite many attempts in previous administrations to diminish its role. “It wasn’t just the Trump years. But there have been successive attempts, some successful ones, to defund key parts of the agency,” he noted. The agency is still short-staffed, Ortiz added, but thanks to Biden and Congress, “we have more positions and we’re accelerating our hiring.”

Walking back to La Fondita, which serves his favorite tacos, Ortiz said the distressed communities across the mid-Atlantic region are affected by a myriad of problems. “It’s not just impaired water. But five or six other things on top of that including environmental problems, historical injustices, economic and racial disparities.” Ortiz said that the EPA is using the data it has collected over the years about demographics, air pollution, water quality and public health to help build environmentally safe, climate-resilient communities.

In all of this, making sure that the federal money is reaching the deserving communities is the key. “EPA is developing technical assistance centers, to help coach and mentor communities [to] take advantage of the funding available,” Ortiz said. “So, all the states in our region, even the more conservative ones, are making environmental justice a priority.”

Despite the toxicity in politics, he said people are waking up to the reality of climate change. “When I’m talking to utility operators in Appalachia, they talk about climate change. I’m in central Pennsylvania a lot, working with farmers and they talked about changing climate and changing growing and harvesting seasons. So, it’s not ideological for people who are putting food on the table and supporting their families,” he said. “At the end of the day people know that their communities need to be livable and vibrant.”

Aman Azhar is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who covers environmental justice for Inside Climate News with a focus on the Baltimore-Maryland area.

This story is published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.