Reader Profile: Cynthia Finley

Jan. 19, 2017

A toilet is not a trashcan, points out Cynthia A. Finley, yet many consumers treat it as such. The consequence: the nation’s water quality—and the infrastructure conveying wastewater—is compromised. In some cases, surface water is a potable water source. That which impacts water quality is always on Finley’s radar as the director of regulatory affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). Currently, flushable wipes and dental amalgams pose “very important and interesting issues” about which she feels strongly.

“In the case of wipes, there already is a huge impact on utilities,” she says. “The EPA’s dental amalgam separator rule has the potential to impact utilities nationwide.”

In 1970—two years before the Clean Water Act became law—individuals representing 22 large municipal sewerage agencies came together to secure federal funding for municipal wastewater treatment and discuss the emerging national interest in improving the nation’s water quality, forming NACWA. Its membership now numbers 300 publicly owned treatment works of all sizes.

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What She Does Day to Day
Finley works on a variety of issues affecting NACWA members, including pretreatment, pollution prevention, facilities and collection systems, security and emergency preparedness, energy, and flushable wipes. “I spend time learning about these issues and communicating with our members, federal agencies, and other partners about them, forming strategies for how NACWA can best advocate on behalf of our members,” notes Finley.

While most of her day is spent in front of a computer screen, she enjoys opportunities to speak with others about issues on which she’s working. She speaks at conferences about EPA’s proposals and the work NACWA is doing with other associations to address flushable wipes and other inappropriately flushed products.

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What Led Her Into This Line of Work
Finley was inspired to go into engineering by her father, a civil engineer. At age 12, she worked as his lab technician in his geotechnical engineering company, earning $1 an hour. She earned degrees in civil engineering, specializing in geotechnical engineering; a bachelor’s from Texas A&M University, a master’s from the University of Washington, and a Ph.D from the University of Texas at Austin.

She served as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia for two years before moving to the Washington, D.C. area for family reasons. She attended a fly-in held by the American Society of Civil Engineers. “This was a great experience for me,” she says. “Talking to members of Congress about infrastructure issues made me realize how important it is for engineers to be involved with shaping public policy. I knew I wanted to move my career in that direction.” A few months later, she found a job with NACWA and has remained there for a decade.

What She Likes Best About Her Work
“The people are the best part of my work,” says Finley. “Our members at public wastewater agencies are fantastic. They do such amazing work protecting the health of the public and the environment and get so little recognition. They have incredible knowledge about wastewater treatment and such dedication to serving their communities.”

Finley says she also feels privileged to work with the staff of federal agencies and those at other associations and organizations, “all of whom are so devoted to their work.” She considers NACWA staff a second family. “I cannot imagine working with a better group of people,” she says.

Her Biggest Challenge
The flushable (but not biodegradable) wipes present Finley with her greatest challenge. It’s a puzzle with many pieces and NACWA is working with other wastewater associations and wipes manufacturers on updating flushability guidelines for flushable wipes and improving labeling for non-flushable wipes.”Wipes manufacturers have very different interests than public utilities, so it has been challenging to balance all of our interests,” she notes.

Finley considers how Federal Trade Commission actions and class action lawsuits fit into NACWA’s advocacy work on wipes. “Regardless of how wipes are manufactured or labeled, we also have to change consumer behavior,” she notes. “There are so many products people use and flush that can harm wastewater systems and the environment. The environmental impacts are usually not evaluated until there is some problem. We will be seeing more problems from them in the future.”
About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.

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