Steve Johnson is telling a story about doing some Christmas shopping with his wife a few years back.

Johnson, deputy administrator of the EPA, had discovered a compact disc player his children wanted from Santa Claus on sale at a local discount store. The sale was one of those after-Thanksgiving blowouts that start at 3 or 4 in the morning.

“In our household, if you believe in Santa, you get a present,” he said. “So our adult children … they really believe in Santa. Our two younger children had decided they wanted these compact stereos.”

Johnson and his wife went to the store and got in line, waiting for it to open at 3 or 4 a.m. But when they went to the area where they had spotted the compact disc players prior to the sale they were no longer there. When they inquired, a clerk told them they had moved those stereos, but they had another brand they could substitute.

“The box we had been looking at was this big,” said Johnson, making a cube about 18 inches wide with his hands. “The new boxes were this big (much bigger cube). Now, if you're a kid, would you rather get a box this big (smaller cube) or this big (bigger cube)? Bigger is better, right?”

Johnson put two of the bigger, better boxes in the shopping cart, paid for them at the store counter and took them to the car while his wife did some more shopping.

“I got out to our small car and started trying to figure out how to get the boxes in the trunk,” he said. “That's when I saw the writing on the side that said ‘Each box contains two stereos.’ And I had just paid for two.”

What followed, he said, was a debate between “the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other.” Even though it was 3 a.m. and pitch dark, Johnson decided to take the boxes back inside the store and “do the right thing.”

That's when the real fun began. When he tried to re-enter the store, he was confronted by a security guard who informed him he couldn't return the items because the sale prices were final. Johnson tried to explain, but the guard wouldn't listen and just kept repeating the words “no returns.”

Johnson said he was about to give up and return to the car when someone distracted the guard, giving him a clear path to the customer service counter. When he tried to tell the assistant manager his problem, she interrupted him.

“I saw that guard outside tell you not to bring these boxes into the store,” she said. Persisting, Johnson told her he had only paid for two stereos, not four. The assistant manager shot back: “We don't make those kinds of mistakes.”

With the angel telling him to keep trying and the devil asking why he was even bothering, Johnson spotted the clerk who sold him the stereos and approached him with the cart.

“The clerk was very apologetic and told me I could return them at his register,” said Johnson. “He said he appreciated me bringing them back because if the other two stereos had come up missing, he probably would have lost his job.”

Speaking at the 50th annual meeting of the Southern Crop Production Association in Savannah, Ga., Johnson, who added some embellishments to his version, said his Christmas story really serves as an illustration of what the current leadership is trying to accomplish at EPA.

“EPA is in some ways the guard at the door, in some ways the manager and in some ways the assistant manager,” he said. “EPA does have a role to fill. There is the gun and badge; there is the organization; there is a need to make the operation run smoothly, effectively and appropriately.

“But when EPA really gets in the way of doing the right thing, we're in the wrong place.”

Johnson was sworn in as deputy administrator of EPA last July after 20 years of rising through the ranks at the agency. Many of those years were marked with intense struggles between the agency and manufacturers over pesticide registrations and regulations.

Although Johnson, who served as deputy director of the Office of Pesticide Programs before becoming deputy administrator, was considered to be an agency official who would at least listen to farmers and manufacturers, his superiors often seemed determined to make manufacturers' and farmers' lives as difficult as possible.

The change in attitude at EPA in recent years, including the naming of Johnson as deputy administrator, led the Crop Life America Political Action Committee, the political arm of the organization representing crop protection chemical manufacturers, to make its first ever endorsement in a presidential election — in favor of the Bush-Chaney ticket — this year.

“When you think about the last four years and what we were trying to accomplish, certainly at the administrator level, one of the themes has been that there really is a better way of environmental protection,” said Johnson. “The days of the guns and badges are over, and what we're seeing over the past few years is what I have to think are better ways of doing business.”

Johnson said this new way of doing environmental protection has four cornerstones:

  • Technology: “We know and you are aware that your companies are investing in technology. That technology might be new products; new delivery systems; or it might be biotechnology. Technology is one of the fundamentals of new environmental protection.”

  • Market incentives: “In my history and when (current EPA Administrator) Mike Levitz was governor of Utah, we saw again and again that when you bring market forces to bear on many of these issues, it worked much better than through litigation and regulation.

  • Collaboration: “We have found that if we can collaborate on a particular issue, the issue will be resolved faster and cheaper and, in our experience, in a better way.

  • Results: “You know as business leaders that talk is cheap, and if you don't deliver the results then you as a company or as an organization won't survive.

The new way of doing environmental protection doesn't mean that EPA will always agree with all of its constituents, he noted.

“In our decision-making in various areas, we have sometimes had to agree to disagree. But when it is getting in the way of doing the right thing for the American people, then we aren't doing the right thing.” The burden isn't entirely on EPA, however.

“Likewise, you have a similar responsibility because there are days and times when you have an angel on one shoulder and the devil on another,” he said. “After all, situations are rarely cut and dried. And so your responsibility is also to do the right thing.

Speaking on Nov. 1, Johnson said he hoped SCPA members “did the right thing” in the next day's elections. “But, more importantly or as importantly, as you carry out your day-to-day business, I hope that you help EPA make sure it does the right thing.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com