For most people, there simply are not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that needs doing. But William H. Sanders, III, PE, DrPH, looks at life from a different perspective. What makes him happy is being incredibly busy.
In his position as director of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics at the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, Sanders is responsible for the leadership, policy direction, and administration of a wide variety of statutes and voluntary programs. He heads a staff of eight senior managers and five hundred employees and oversees a budget of $100 million.
"The EPA is an absolutely wonderful place to work," Sanders says. "There's so much going on here. There's always been more work than you could handle and an awful lot of learning to do."
Sanders grew up on Chicago's South Side. He chose Lindblom High School for its college prep program, graduated in 1964, and attended Roosevelt University for two years on a full scholarship. Based on his interest in math and science, he majored in engineering. Following his two years at Roosevelt, Sanders moved to UIC, and in 1969 received his BS in structural design/civil engineering. A four-year stint with the United States Army Corps of Engineers as a journeyman engineer in the Chicago District Office moved him to the planning side of engineering. He worked on early plans for the Chicago underflow "Deep Tunnel" projects and was responsible for public outreach and education. "The work was okay, but it wasn't satisfying. I wasn't doing a lot of hard core engineering, and I wasn't nearly as busy as I wanted to be," Sanders says.
In 1973, Sanders took a job at the fledgling EPA, an agency created just three years earlier by President Nixon. As a civil engineer in the Michigan Project Evaluation Section, Construction Grants Branch of the Water Division, he reviewed grant applications and supporting documentation for wastewater treatment plants. In 1974, he received a masterís degree from DePaul University in management of public services based on quantitative methods.
Over the next twenty-five years, Sanders moved upward within the EPA. He worked as Chicago unit coordinator for the Minnesota-Wisconsin Planning Branch, Water Division; Chicago chief of the Michigan Project Evaluation Section, Construction Grants Branch, Water Division; Chicago deputy director of the Water Division; and Chicago director of the Environmental Sciences Division.
Meanwhile, Sanders had married and was helping his wife raise three sons and a daughter. During his years in the EPA's Chicago office, he and his family lived in Country Club Hills. Sanders served the town in various capacities, including president of the school board, president of the Board of Directors of the South Suburban Housing Center, alderman of Ward 1, president of the Winston Park Homeowners Association, and cubmaster of Pack 347.
In 1986, Sanders decided to study for a doctorate in public health. With his career now squarely set in the environmental arena, he felt a need to know more about epidemiology and biostatistics. "I was working full time, but I discovered it was better for me to take three classes each semester than one," he explains. "With three, there was so much work that you never stopped. I got it all done, and I did really well. When I took three courses, I aced them. But when I took one course, somehow there was always an opportunity not to get around to doing the work."
At the same time, Sanders also served as homework helper for his four children. The challenge was to get their work done, put them to bed, and then start on his own homework. "I was so busy I didn't know what a TV looked like," he says. "But my experience at UIC was a very good one. I especially liked the international flavor. Because the students were from around the world, I was exposed to different types of medicine, and I saw that Western medicine was not the only way to do things. In the United States, we do studies, look at statistics, and try to prove something. The feeling is, if you can't prove it, it's not real. But in looking at therapies like acupuncture, I learned that just because you don't know how something works, that doesn't mean it doesn't work."
Since May 1995, Sanders has worked for the EPA in Washington. He's excited about the agency's new Chemical Right-to-Know Program, announced on Earth Day 1998 by Vice President Gore. "Most people feel if you don't know something negative about a chemical, it's safe. But that's not necessarily true. As Carl Sagan said, 'Absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.' Chemicals are useful and have given us this lifestyle. But we're seeking to understand them more completely, to derive safer substitute chemicals, and to do risk mitigation or risk management to reduce or eliminate people's exposure."
Now in his early fifties and a grandfather of two, Sanders has given some thought to retirement, but not retirement of the golf-and-travel variety. Instead, he's looking forward to starting a second career building "green" residential houses. "We've learned that houses are polluters," Sanders says. "Creating the products it takes to build, sustain, manage, and run them uses up fossil fuels and causes pollution. I want to build houses using nontoxic and recycled materials, houses that are energy efficient and good for the environment."
Contributed by Janice Rosenberg
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