By Donna Kemp Spangler
Thirty years ago, becoming an environmental protector wasn’t exactly a common career choice.
But many of Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ’s) top watchdogs first found their niche in the 1980’s, and protecting Utah’s environment has been a passion ever since. Because of their efforts, Utah’s environment is better today than it was in the 1980’s or 1990’s.
Utah DEQ turned 25 years old in July, and many of those watchdogs have been around to celebrate the milestones along the way.
“A lot of us were around when the environmental programs evolved in the 1970-90’s,” said Brad Johnson, deputy director of DEQ. “It was a growing industry, and a lot of us found work and ended up staying.”
Drinking Water Director Ken Bousfield has been with DEQ for 40-plus years, and he and his staff have kept up with increased regulations and a growing population. Dave McNeil, branch manager of air quality planning, has been here for 35 years, having developed the first ozone statewide air quality plan in 1983.
Brad Johnson was inspecting solid and hazardous waste facilities before he became manager of the Superfund section when the Division of Environmental Response and Remediation (DERR) became a division of DEQ. He later became deputy director of DEQ, appointed by former Executive Director Amanda Smith seven years ago.
And Bryce Bird was a 24-year-old intern, printing off certificates for gas station owners in the Underground Storage Tank Program. He later became an asbestos inspector, unaware that one day he would become the director of the Division of Air Quality (DAQ).
DEQ’s emergence coincided with federal revisions to environmental laws. The Underground Storage Tank Act in the late-80’s, early 1990’s, paved the way for DERR, which also took over cleanup programs like Superfund, which was established under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (CERCLA).
DERR also took on environmental response, responding as a team with the Highway Patrol to areas of the state without hazmat teams. “We had a response van containing equipment to field or identify unknown chemical substances,” recalls Neil Taylor, an environmental scientist with DERR who is part of the State Emergency Response Commission.
“The van pulled a response trailer containing an oil-spill containment boom and a variety of oil absorbents and chemical neutralizers. Our Duty Officers took samples, performed field analyses, laid absorbents, and brought in cleanup contractors when the spiller did not have the funds to do so.”
DEQ’s responsibilities are now shared with local health departments and public safety. DERR tracks environmental incidents like spills in an interactive map that provides a database of all incidents recorded that the public can view.
And Water Quality was just getting its feet wet with groundwater source protection. “We were just coming into our own controlling nonpoint source water pollution,” recalls Water Quality Director Walt Baker.
Utah was among the first states in the nation to have an air quality program that pre-dated the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977. The 1990 revisions to the Clean Air Act established the Title 5 permitting program that resulted in more scrutiny in regulating industry.
That was the fear that prompted some opposition to a state agency overseeing environmental regulation that was once delegated to various bureaus within the Utah Department of Health.
“It took years before the Legislature supported the idea of a Department of Environmental Quality,” Dave McNeill recalls. “It took business support, and a commitment to not become a big bureaucracy.”
Don Verbica, manager of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Section of the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control (WMRC), recalls industry’s lack of trust, fearful that new regulations would put them out of businesses. It’s different now, he said. “Businesses see that we want them to succeed. Overall, we have a great working relationship with those we regulate.”
The most recent change in the agency’s structure was last year’s merger of two divisions – Hazardous Waste and Radiation Control. This was in large part due to the successful completion of Solid and Hazardous Waste’s oversight of the destruction of 44 percent of the nation’s stockpile of chemical agent at Utah’s Deseret Chemical Depot in 2012.
Some things haven’t changed. DEQ’s commitment to stakeholder involvement remains strong. DAQ meets monthly with environmental advocates. Environmental interests, as well as businesses, are represented on each of the regulatory boards.
“From the beginning, community relations and public participation have been an important part of how we do work at DEQ,” explained Renette Anderson whose assignments have primarily focused on stakeholder involvement over the years. “In the 1990’s, we did Superfund cleanups in neighborhoods associated with Sharon Steel, Bingham Creek, and Sandy Smelter. We did the traditional public meetings but also met with people in their homes, set up neighborhood offices where people could drop by, and took thousands of phone calls over the years.”
“All DEQ divisions have made it a priority to ask impacted stakeholders what they think as policies are developed or problems solved,” said Anderson. “It’s a time-intensive process, but it pays off. Utah’s environment is better because we do our jobs – and because business leaders, environmentalists, and average citizens have cared enough to get involved and make their voices heard.”
This month DEQ features a public display of poster-size success stories in the lobby of its building, Multi-Agency State Office Building located at 195 North 1950 West. If you can’t make over here to visit, you can also view these posters on our website. Mostly, please provide your comments on Utah’s environment over the last 25 years and how DEQ can better serve this great, beautiful State and the people who live here.
I am the Communications Director for DEQ and a former reporter for the Deseret News. I write a monthly blog post. You can read my previous blog posts here at deq.utah.gov. You can follow me on Twitter @deqdonna