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Since May 1, Corey Buffo has been general counsel of the newly formed District Department of the Environment.
Can you tell us about the Department of the Environment? I’m not sure many people know what it is. Well, the agency is still being constructed. It was created by the D.C. Council, effective February 15th of this year, and the goal was to take the various pieces of department roles and combine them into one agency focusing on the environment. The main piece is environmental health and administration, which was once part of the Department of Health. We’re a Cabinet-level agency. Another big piece comes from the Office of Energy. I think the Council was thinking that there were different agencies focusing on the environment and that there was a need for one agency that was more centrally focused. Also, we felt it raised environmental issues to a higher level.
How big is the department overall? We have positions for approximately 275 people, with a lot of openings. We’re still creating a management team and still working on refining the focus and goals of the agency.
And how did you end up as general counsel? It was a competitive hiring process, and I was actually assisting the acting director informally to some degree, along with other people in the Office of the Attorney General.
What’s the focus of the department? Right now biggest challenge is to break out of its role almost as a contractor under EPA and other federal grants, where it hasn’t had its own focus. Our focus has largely been driven by grant funding. We need to redefine ourselves to make us relevant to the person on the street. We also need to identify new sources of funding, which is a challenge because federal grants are staying the same and maybe even getting lower.
What are some examples of federal grants? There are quite a few, including water-quality grants, air-quality grants, grants for underground storage tanks, energy-assistance grants, hazardous waste, brownfields grants, grants to cover lead-based-paint construction standards.
The District has been in the news lately because of reports that city agencies misled the public about the source of lead in the bloodstream of their children. Was that something that was under your watch? No. It is my understanding that the Department of Health conducted investigations a couple years ago to determine the most likely sources of lead poisoning for children with elevated blood-lead levels, and that it was those reports that were the subject of the recent news. Generally, they found that in the majority of the cases the main source was lead-based-paint hazards in the home. This is in keeping with most national research results. However, there were a few cases in which lead in the paint at home did not appear to be the source. From there it can be anybody’s guess, as there are a number of alternative sources.
What legal issues will you be handling? That’s difficult to say with a new administration — it’s difficult to know the focus for next year. Right now we’re trying to determine what our priorities will be and to concentrate on enforcement, which is robust in some programs and almost nonexistent in some. One that is good is the watershed-protection program, where we review plans for compliance for storm-water management and erosion and sedimentation control. And when we’re seeing something that’s not compliant in the field, we send a notice of infraction or take other enforcement action. The rest of our programs are also largely regulatory, so there should be stepped-up enforcement under most of them. We don’t yet have an office of enforcement. I’m in the Office of the Attorney General, and the enforcement lead really needs to be coming from the agency.
Does the Attorney General’s Office supply counsel for most city agencies? I’m with the Office of the Attorney General, but I’m physically in the agency, and my orientation and daily work is with the agency. Most agencies under the mayor do use the Attorney General’s Office for legal advice, yes. This has been a gradual transition, with the final formal stages of the transfer coming this October.
How has that affected the work you do? It hasn’t had any effect on me, except that I do feel like I have a greater support behind me, but as far as accountability, I feel I’ve operated with some supervision, and it hasn’t impacted me much.
How big is your legal team, and what do they do? We have a team of four additional attorneys here, besides me. The Office of the Attorney General brings cases before the Superior Court or in federal court, and they would handle the litigation for the DDOE, at least until I have a chance to reveal to them that I have brilliant litigators on staff here. We’re waiting for the right case. One of my goals is indeed to work closer with other divisions in the Office of the Attorney General. We handle administrative enforcement actions, assisting the program and occasionally representing them before the Office of Administrative Hearings. We also generally guide the programs in determining their legal role in an issue and often answer the question as to what they can do in terms of regulatory oversight. It gets complicated when federal regulations are getting more complex by the day. There are so many fields that we’ve suddenly taken over. And then we do rule-making here, too. For instance, hazardous waste — those regulations can be incredibly complicated. We might try to hone that down for them and create a program. We’re doing all this with limited resources — we’re steering the ship as we’re rebuilding it.
You previously served as general counsel of the Department of Motor Vehicles. How does that job compare to this one? They’re both regulatory agencies, but the other is more focused on customer service. The subject matter here is much more complex. There’s much less of that in the DMV, which is much more streamlined. It was possible to see the entire legal landscape in the DMV. Here, I have to rely more on others
Do you have enough resources? The resources for our office come from the Office of the Attorney General. As the department is still forming itself, we’re not as robust in enforcement as we will want to be. Maybe later we’ll have a greater need for legal assistance, as the department builds its investigation capacity and broadens its focus into new areas. At this point I anticipate a need for more resources, but I can’t say for sure what those will be.
Do you use outside counsel? We haven’t. We recently paid the Environmental Law Institute to draft some regulations, but we’ve had to revise those. Some work in agencies such as ours is handled by outside firms, but that goes through the Office of the Attorney General.
What’s your background? It was really my goal that I was interested in coming to D.C. to do international environmental work, but with the change of administrations, it never really materialized and I found myself going locally. I’m glad I did that. Before the DMV, I was with the Office of the Attorney General, then named the Office of Corporation Counsel. We had different client agencies, and DMV was one of those. It wasn’t my first choice, but it had a great director and management team. I was there two years, but they were my client for about six. [Environmental work] was my goal all along, and so I’m glad I finally have been able to go to that area. It’s really been a lateral transfer into that field. Originally, I’m from Oregon, and I went to school in California. I lived in Alaska for a while, where I fought fires for the U.S. Forest Service. I spent five years as a forest firefighter. I would work about a half-year and then spend the other half traveling abroad, mostly in Asia, spending the money I made. But I got tired of looking at life from the outside and not having a set home. In fact, I thought my experience in the real world would benefit me here, but then I showed up here and kids much younger than me were running the government. I went to law school because I had no job experience or skills in terms of white-collar jobs, so the logical step was law school. Politics have always interested me. I didn’t anticipate necessarily becoming a lawyer. I went to law school at UC Hastings and came here in my last semester for an internship with the general counsel’s office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Division. Then I went to the Office of Corporation Counsel. I certainly feel I’m part of the local fabric. At the DMV we had all the local issues, like parking and efficient government service. Everyone had a good idea, but not all of them could be implemented.
Where would we find you when you’re not in the office? Most weekends, with my lab, hiking near some water somewhere. There are a remarkable number of places nearby, if you look. There are parks in D.C., and a lot of places along the Potomac River that allow you to feel like you got away from it all, if only for a brief moment.
Read any good books lately? I’m still slogging through Anna Karenina.

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