Reader ideas to fix the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s broken image range from changing how the agency is funded to a sweeping public engagement to align its regulations with citizen expectations and current environmental best practices.
Other ideas include comparing Oregon environmental controls to those in Washington, California and the European Union, recruiting and hiring the best and brightest in the field and hooking up with technology partners to find cost-effective ways to constantly monitor for air and water pollution.
CFM asked readers for their ideas to help the troubled DEQ rebuild its image and regain trust. Here are some of the more probing suggestions we received.
Clackamas County activist Tom Civiletti offered the most straightforward suggestion. “DEQ should be supported from the General Fund, not pollution permit fees,” he said. “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”
Ken Rosenbaum, a former congressional staffer and now an environmental consultant, urged open, broad public engagement, similar to what has been used to address forest management practices, to examine how DEQ “makes decisions and [those decisions] work out in practice.”
The engagement, he said, “should look not just at DEQ, but at how other agencies, state and federal, affect environmental quality.” DEQ should do more than consult key stakeholders, according to Rosenbaum. “It should convene them and try to get them to agree on problems and priorities. The result can be a powerful roadmap for reform, with broad public backing.”
Rich Rodgers – a former Portland City Hall staffer and now a partner in a private equity investment firm in Buffalo, New York, that deals with historic preservation, adaptive reuse and energy efficiency – echoed the call for transparency and public involvement with DEQ to “overhaul its strategic plan and mission.”
“Give citizen voices a say in what laws need to be changed, and have experts on the workgroup to respond to them,” Rodgers said.
On a practical level, Rodgers said DEQ should give close scrutiny to renewed permits to ensure they are based on current scientific knowledge and environmental standards. “Companies shouldn’t just get permit extensions without a close look at their processes and pollution.” he said. Rodgers also suggested taking a fresh look at regulations covering rural industry, which has undergone radical change since many regulations were adopted.
Rick Hohnbaum said DEQ needs more staff and updated technology to fulfill its mission and erase a backlog of permit applications. “Permits for municipal waste water plants are way behind schedule,” he said. Some delays, Hohnbaum adds, are the result of new Environmental Protection Agency rules, which face court challenges. In other cases, he says, DEQ simply lacks adequate funding to do its job.
Josh Spivey, a local creative business owner and former CFM staff member, said, “DEQ should engage the academic community where scores of bright, talented students would jump at the opportunity to make a real difference.” A partnership with Oregon universities, he explained, “would provide a place for students to practice and learn from the challenges of real-world air quality monitoring, while injecting idealistic new blood into the system and reinvigorating the drive to excel.”
Spivey sees a role for the private sector, as well. “Private-sector business should be challenged to create more cost-effective solutions for constant monitoring and systems that keep up with evolving federal environmental regulations,” he said. Affordable, reliable systems will produce “Big Data to further our understanding of air quality throughout the region and shed light on inconsistencies between data collection devices,” Spivey said. “There should be a constant drive to innovate, improve and iterate.”
The new DEQ director “must be committed to creating a culture in which all employees feel both a deep responsibility to their communities and an implicit understanding they are capable of making a real impact,” Spivey said. “The more time the team spends in innovation and community outreach, the more they will feel like they are creating real value for all Oregonians.”