Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 14, Number 3
Spring 1992

ALUMNI PROFILE -- Walter Kovalick

Crashing bureaucractic barriers for the EPA
by Richard Lovegrove

Walter W. Kovalick Jr. (Ph.D. '86) works in an arcane world of bioremediation, solvent extraction, and thermal desorption--all "innovative" technologies with the potential to help clean up the nation's 1,200 badly polluted Superfund waste sites. But to assure the technologies get used, Kovalick, who is director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Technology Innovation Office, also delves into the less esoteric world of battling bureaucracy, knocking down regulatory barriers, and bringing people together in a common cause.

It's in that battle--the effort to persuade people with sometimes competing interests to cooperate in using virtually untried technologies, and to help those people find each other--that Kovalick applies the techniques he studied while earning his doctorate in public administration and policy from Virginia Tech. "It's a technical job by most measures, but not at its heart," Kovalick says. Because of his degree work at the university's Northern Virginia Graduate Center, he says he approaches his work "with a sense of a model or a structure around it."

Kovalick's current job did not even exist in 1988 when he finished his studies in inter-organizational cooperation, a subject he examined simply because it interested him. "I wasn't doing it to get another job," Kovalick says. But when the EPA established the Technology Innovation Office in 1990 and appointed Kovalick director, he found himself making daily use of his studies while trying to forge links among consulting engineers, technology vendors, foreign countries, and federal and state agencies.

Kovalick has spent his whole professional career in the EPA or one of its forerunners. The son of a manufacturer, Kovalick earned his B.S. in industrial engineering and management science from Northwestern University, and then went on to Harvard University for an M.B.A. with a focus on managing non-profit institutions, an emphasis he figures might have been a rebellion against his father's for-profit business world.

All this was during the Vietnam era, so Kovalick applied to and was accepted in the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service as an engineer. He was assigned to the National Air Pollution Control Administration, one of the forerunners of the EPA. "It started as an assignment as an officer and turned into a career," Kovalick says. "It was serendipity, I guess."

During his EPA career, Kovalick worked as an assistant air pollution control director and program analyst; as a chief of guidelines in the Office of Solid Waste; as a director who developed unified regulations for chemicals; and as deputy director of the Office of Emergency and Remedial Response. "I view it as having not one job, but a multiplicity of jobs," says Kovalick, who has stuck with EPA through the years because of the chance to shape policy that "touches on peoples' everyday lives," and because of the responsibility and challenge that entails.

Because he lives in the Washington, D.C., area, Kovalick was able to choose from several programs when he decided to shoot for a Ph.D. Virginia Tech won out because faculty members made it clear they realized the doctoral candidate is on a highly personal mission--"one's own Mount Everest to climb"--instead of being just another tiny cog in a large university. "If you want to start this enterprise, they want to help you finish it," Kovalick says. He also liked the fact the program was not attached to one department, which he felt gave him "a balanced exposure" to ethics, politics, and other fields.

When Kovalick took over his new office, he found a handful of people doing what was called "technology transfer," a term he considers no more useful than the word "interesting." Now the office is intimately involved in disseminating information about innovative technologies that could play a key role in cleaning up pollution, while at the same time crashing bureaucratic barriers that could keep those technologies from being used. "I still think we're in the early days...we're continuing trying to improve," Kovalick says.

Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 14, Number 3 Spring 1992