DEQ’s Voluntary Cleanup Program: A Primer in Customer Service

July 25, 2017

By Joe Katz

Cleanup of the ditch at the Sunset Ridge Middle School site

Someone once told me “A good project is never finished.” It seems like many environmental cleanup projects support this statement, even some you think are well in the rearview mirror. This is the story of one of them.

The Jordan School District built the Sunset Ridge Middle School in 2005. This was the height of the real estate bubble, and development on the southwest side of the Salt Lake Valley, especially around Highway 111, was exploding. Anticipating continued growth in the area, the District also bought a 50-acre field north of the middle school intending to develop a high school within a decade. The middle school opened, teachers taught, students learned. Everything seemed normal and unremarkable. Until…

All around the school, development was transforming the area’s old dry farms into strip malls, business parks, and subdivisions. As an environmental corollary to Murphy’s Law states, whenever you put a shovel in the ground, you will invariably find an unexpected surprise. Just after the school was finished, some of the shovels from the various developments in the area started uncovering a surprise that had been buried and forgotten since the 1940’s.

Early on, no one knew that the batches of distinctly out-of-place, vivid red-orange soil being found below the surface of these old fields were related, but as the development work continued and historical research began, a clear picture began to form. The Bingham-Magna Ditch, or BMD for short, was a 17-mile long canal that had once snaked its way from Copperton to Magna. Used by a predecessor to Kennecott, the BMD transported water for mining activities. As mine waters often are, the water carried by the BMD was impacted by metals – particularly arsenic, in this case. This arsenic was covered over when the BMD was taken out of service and filled back in. Unfortunately for the District, around 3,300 feet of the BMD cut right up the east side of the middle-school property (mostly capped under the brand new parking lot) and continued north and east right through the high school property.

Bingham-Magna Ditch during cleanup

In 2006, the District enrolled the middle school and high school properties into the Voluntary Cleanup Program (VCP). The VCP allows eligible applicants to clean up property with DEQ oversight.  During the summer of 2007, Kennecott hired a contractor and began cleanup of the District’s property. A Certificate of Completion (COC) was issued in 2008. And that was that, until this January, almost a decade after the original cleanup, when the District decided to sell 40 acres of the high-school property to a residential development company.

Property transactions are not unusual for successful VCP projects. The VCP is a tool intended to help contaminated properties return to beneficial and highest use. However, in this case, there was a problem with the COC, and the developer asked for DEQ’s help to resolve the issue.

Under the VCP, cleanups are based on the proposed future land use.  In this case, residential land-use standards were used to ensure protectiveness for school children.  However, the COC said nothing about residential use; it only mentioned use of the property for “public schools.” This ambiguity gave the developer pause, not knowing if future residential use would invalidate the COC. Since a closing date had been set, a deadline was also a concern. How we helped the developer address these concerns highlights some important aspects of customer service that I would like to share.

Cleanup of the high school site

We prepared

We met internally and discussed the site and our initial understanding of the problem. In fact, we even reviewed the cleanup data to be sure we were comfortable with future residential use at the site. This helped us pencil out initial solutions we could offer.

We met

Once we were aware of the problem, we offered to meet with the developer’s team. We placed their team and ours in the same space so everyone heard the same discussion and was able to discuss ideas in real time. This helped immensely to get everyone on the same page quickly, to temper expectations about time frames, costs, limitations, etc., and to discuss solutions.

We listened

We took the time to understand the problem and the constraints the developer was raising. We did not have a preconceived response; we wanted to evaluate the problem. Listening is a customer-focused approach that goes a long way to both getting to the core of a problem and preventing adversarial interactions.

We discussed solutions

After discussing the problem and its nuances, two workable solutions became apparent. The first option was to draft a letter clarifying the land use presented in the COC. The second, slower option was to amend the COC to allow residential uses. We then let the developer choose which solution worked best for them. Obviously, allowing the regulated party to choose the outcomes is not always possible. When it is, it is advantageous because that party has ownership of the outcome, rather than just half-heartedly following an imposed directive.

We explained

The old adage “the customer is always right” may be the standard in the private commercial world, but it does not work in the regulatory one. Consider if the cleanup had not been residentially protective, homes were built on the site, and people started experiencing health effects down the line. Putting aside the damage to DEQ for not protecting public health, but what kind of lawsuits, damages, and other liabilities would the developer now face? Is that customer service? Customer service is not giving the customer what they want because they ask for it. Customer service is absolutely taking the time to explain the reasoning for the agency’s position.

Based on our discussions, the developer opted for the quicker of the two solutions: a clarification letter. In the end, DEQ’s Division of Environmental Response and Remediation (DERR) decided that amending the COC was the better long-term solution. This change of direction brings me to my last thought.

We communicated

Once a week, I updated the developer’s team, even if that update was simply, “We are still working on it.” Once I knew about the change of direction, I called the developer immediately. I thought I would be in for an earful since, after weeks of waiting already, amending the COC would push us beyond the developer’s closing date.  Because our regular communication had shown DEQ was making a good-faith effort to resolve the issue, our conversation was amicable, and the property transaction was able to proceed while the amended COC was being finalized.

While the techniques above were helpful ways to provide good customer service for this project and would be applicable to most projects, every situation is different. I think at the heart of good customer service is asking one question:  if I were the customer coming to DEQ for this issue, how would I want to be treated? Using this answer to guide how you interact with your customers and remembering that your customers are not just the regulated community (they could be your coworkers and colleagues, other regulators, and the public), ensures professional, fair, and responsive treatment–something we strive for every day at DEQ.

Want to learn more about our Voluntary Cleanup Program? Check out our bi-annual Utah Brownfields Connection newsletter for more cleanup success stories and an inside look at how we protect public health and the environment by cleaning up chemically contaminated areas in the state.

I am a project manager in the Voluntary Cleanup Program. I have a chemistry degree from the University of Utah (yes, questioning my sanity for sticking with the subject beyond organic chemistry is completely normal. Believe me, I questioned my own sanity before every final exam). I am recently married and enjoy spending time with my wife (I guess if I did not, being married might be a little more complicated). Outside of work, I like learning, travel, and anything outdoors, especially hiking and landscape and wildlife photography.