Environment policy heavyweight warms up confernece crowd

The dining room of the Sweetwater Branch Inn, a Southern Living-centerfoldworthy Victorian-style bed and breakfast in downtown Gainesville, filled with uproar.
Between the sweet Southern charm, the elegance and multiple forks and a room full of UF Law students and alumni, the audience groaned.

John Hankinson (JD 79), the introductory speaker at the 2012 Public Interest Environmental Conference banquet, forgot his harmonica, and the standing-room-only crowd just wasn’t having it.

Hankinson’s introduction could have sashayed between describing him as the EPA Southeastern regional administrator from 1994 to 2001 who directed a staff of almost 1,200 people and a budget in excess of $500 million and the executive director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. Instead, Hankinson was introduced as “a mean harmonica player.”

Bluegrass skills aside, Hankinson took charge of the interagency Gulf Coast Restoration Task Force, a federal advisory board designed to revitalize the Gulf Coast following the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and subsequent ecological and economic calamity.

As executive director, Hankinson sifted through more than 13,000 public comments on what that Task Force’s restoration strategy should be after discussing it in more than 40 public meetings. The Task Force issued a final strategy in December that called for reducing the flow of excess nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico, and $50 million in assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Services to help agricultural producers improve water quality, increase water conservation and enhance wildlife habitats.

But even missing his trusty harmonica, Hankinson worked the crowd, sending it from sighs to laughter in seconds with stories about his former classmate and conference keynote speaker, Carol Browner (JD 79), including one detailing a popular Browner motto.

“She never said anything else to me in difficult decisions except for, ‘Do the right thing,’”Hankinson said.