Voices of DEC
This department will be a cabinet level agency with primary responsibility for maintaining clean air and water throughout the State and for establishing standards for adequate environmental surveillance of the design and construction of major public works and private projects such as pipelines.
A credible environmental agency is essential to economic development in Alaska. Development in state-of-the-art fields, such as research or telecommunications; resource extraction activities, such as mining, or oil and gas development; and other industries such as tourism and seafood all depend on our ability to run competent regulatory programs and to offer the public fundamental assurances about public health and the environment.
I have always said the best decision of my life was to go to Alaska and the hardest decision of my life was to leave it. To arrive in 1975 as a newly hired drug and alcohol counselor for the city and borough of Juneau and then to become the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conversation in 1985 was a deeply rewarding and wildly exciting ride for sure! My story was an example of the dynamism in Alaska in that pivotal time in the State’s history. I met my wonderful wife in Alaska and forged meaningful friendships that continue to deepen today. Surely there are Commissioners who have led and directed ADEC better than I did. Definitely most of them served longer than I did! I am, however, proud of what we accomplished at ADEC. We built the path to a better understanding of what environmental conservation means for Alaska and we did that with high standards for professional integrity, commitment to public service and the clear application of the rule of law. Thanks to all of you who served with me, treated me well and did your best in those difficult and rewarding times. Keep up the good work, those of you who are blessed to work there now! Happy birthday ADEC!!
Submitted May 5, 2021
On What DEC Has Meant to Me (and other trifles)
DEC Career Summary
I started working for the Northern Regional Office of DEC in Fairbanks in 1981 after a long, cold drive that began on the East Coast. Before long, I had moved from Fairbanks to Juneau to work in the Central Office. There I stayed. All told, my career with DEC spanned about 23 years with a hiatus of 7 years, or so, to try my hand at consulting.
Greatest DEC Accomplishment
To me, the most exciting agency accomplishment during my tenure was assuming primacy from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) wastewater discharge permitting program.
Some may not remember that from the very beginning wastewater permits in Alaska were written and enforced by EPA staff primarily out of Seattle. This was despite Congress’ express intent that the program be administered by the states. It was only where a state did not wish to administer the program that the federal government would step in. And that had been the case in Alaska (and one other state) until Commissioner Ernesta Ballard was appointed in 2002. She decided to change things.
The effort officially started with legislation which passed in 2005 directing DEC to seek primacy. It did not conclude until EPA’s final approval in 2012. While initiated under Commissioner Ballard, it was continued by her successor, Commissioner Kurt Fredriksson, and completed under Commissioner Larry Hartig.
The undertaking involved convincing often suspicious (or at least doubtful) representatives of Alaska industry, municipalities, environmental organizations, EPA, and ultimately the public via the Alaska State Legislature that the State could run the program in a responsible manner that improved upon a federal program run from afar. A working group was formed. Hundreds of pages of regulations were drafted. Budgets were developed (in part to demonstrate the requisite commitment to EPA). New resources were allotted. Staff were hired. The program slowly took shape and began to assume responsibility.
All-in-all it was a tremendous effort. I hope by now that a state-run program seems like business as usual. The last I heard, program staff had won over many of the initial skeptics and doubters. They were issuing permits to Alaskans written and enforced by Alaskans – permits that make sense to the permittees and protect our invaluable water resources. To all of you making it happen: Keep up the good work!
The Things I Learned at DEC
Below are what I consider at least some of the most important lessons I learned while working at DEC (and to some extent while representing clients to DEC as a consultant). I am sure others will occur to me, but off the top of my head…
Most of the time, the people and entities DEC regulates truly wish to comply. If they do not, it is often because they cannot – or at least believe that. Either they do not understand the rules or consider them cost prohibitive. True environmental outlaws are rare.
Many people and small businesses are deathly afraid of DEC. They may not act like it, but they are. Being regulated is not comfortable to those unaccustomed or ill-equipped. DEC brings the specter of all sorts of anguish – money, time, lawyers, even jail. They don’t consider a visit or letter from DEC a blessing. It is never on their list of "the best things that happened to me today."
Industry is not the enemy. I found many industry folks as committed to environmental compliance as I was. Sometimes they had substantial budgets and technical resources at their disposal. To make matters worse, some knew more than me. I learned to learn from industry.
Environmental groups are not friends. They do not need to be rational or right. They represent a perspective — albeit an important one. They cannot be satisfied. It’s not in the job description. I learned to listen, but ultimately to satisfy the law and let the chips fall. On that note…
Decisions must be based in law. I learned to turn to the law whenever asked to make or recommend a decision. I found the Department of Law to be a great resource. I learned to be careful not to superimpose my technical understanding or outside influences over what the law requires. I learned to keep an eye out for regulation masquerading as "guidance."
The Governor is the boss. If the boss wanted me to do something that was plain dumb, I'd register an objection. I’d try to educate, inform and persuade. But in the end, I’d just do it. (By the way, I was never asked to do anything illegal or otherwise out-of-bounds. This lesson wouldn’t apply in those cases.) The boss got elected. I didn’t. They get to set tone, chart direction, make decisions. That is how the system works. Win some, lose some.
It is just a job. I learned that if I wanted to do something other than work for DEC, I could. As a result, I was content every single year that I worked for DEC. I saw a few people at DEC that apparently had not learned this lesson. They did not seem happy. I also saw people that learned the lesson before me. They taught me by leading the way. I learned DEC is a great place to work, but it is not the only place.
The value of coworkers. Many have turned out to be my best friends. I worry about what COVID is doing to the DEC office work environment and wish for a speedy return to normalcy. Working from home is probably not all that it’s cracked up to be. While DEC taught me how fun it is to work as part of a DEC team, I probably didn’t fully appreciate it until I had left. I do now. Today I cherish my past DEC coworkers and many friends and consider myself a lucky guy. They enrich my life.
Submitted May 4, 2021
As the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation begins a third decade, let’s rededicate ourselves to the goal of protecting and enhancing this unique part of the world. What is the cost of protecting the environment? The cost is to care. We must care for people, people’s needs, and nature. We must fight disease, and provide clean air, and water for our children. At the same time, we must not take our economy for granted. A person who is cold, hungry, and unemployed is in an ugly environment no matter how beautiful the surroundings. We must care for the whole.
I began my environmental career with ADEC in 1977. I started in a newly created division by then Commissioner Ernie Mueller that worked to connect the department’s independent and singularly focused programs into a more holistic approach (Division of Policy and Program Coordination). Good luck with that! The Division helped establish the Clean Water Act Section 401 certification program and the department’s participation in Alaska’s Coastal Management Program.
In 1979 I had an offer to work for the Governor’s Office of Coastal Management that was all about interagency resource management coordination which I couldn’t refuse. While working on lofty policies regarding subsistence resource protection and coastal development a fellow from the Fairbanks DEC office appeared at the office door and asked a very practical down-to-earth question "how can we create a natural resource interagency office on the North Slope in Prudhoe Bay?" That was and is Larry Dietrick.
Several years later after the nation’s worst "Exxon Valdez" oil spill (1989), then Environmental Quality Director Larry Dietrick and his Deputy Dan Easton asked if I would rejoin the DEC workforce. I agreed and never regretted my decision. Dramatic changes were being made to Alaska’s state laws and budgets to protect Alaska’s resources from future oil spills and contamination.
During the Knowles’ administration DEC Commissioner Gene Burden and then Michelle Brown transitioned the Department’s organization from a regionally structured administration to a programmatic centered administration. Prior to this time DEC staff that were located in the three primary regions (northern, southcentral, and southeastern) carried out all of the primary federal and state legal responsibilities for protecting air, water, land and public health. The department also created a new Division of Spill Prevention and Response with significant new authority and funding to regulate industry oil spill prevention and response contingency plans, and assess and cleanup contaminated sites. With this reorganization DEC staff became specialized in each of the respective environmental programs they were responsible for while being sensitive to the regions they were operating in.
Following the Knowles administration, I had the great pleasure to work for Commissioner Ernesta Barnes as her Deputy Commissioner. Within the first few days of her arrival to the Commissioner’s office she questioned why staff was paying to have bottled water delivered to the office when ADEC was responsible for regulating the quality of drinking water provided by the public water system? That brought an end to the weekly bottled water service. During Commissioner’s Ballard’s time at DEC, Alaska’s legislature authorized and provided funds for the department’s assumption and administration of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System pollution control program. This was a major step in Alaska taking responsibility from the federal government for protection of Alaska’s environmental resources.
Following Commissioner Ballard, I was appointed Commissioner by Governor Frank Murkowski. One of my favorite memories during my appointment was working with Division of Environmental Health Director Kristin Ryan to get the Governor’s and Legislature’s approval to fund, construct and open the department’s Environmental Health Laboratory. It was made all the more difficult when Governor Murkowski looked at the construction blueprints and asked what the page labeled as "penthouse" was all about. I fumbled with an explanation that the blueprints were referring lab’s rooftop ventilation and mechanical systems. He accepted the answer but recommended changing the term "penthouse" to improve the chances for approval. I’m happy to say the Laboratory was built and serving Alaska today.
I have great memories of my career with ADEC. Working with the department’s professional staff, executive branch administrations, legislatures and public during my tenure. I was able to be a part of accomplishments, of which there are too many to recite here.
Submitted June 9, 2021
- We fought for "cold start emissions" when there was a lot of pressure to weaken them. We won despite sub-rosa opposition from the first Senator Murkowski.
- We created the village sanitation program and got Senator Stevens to get federal funding which is still going strong and appropriately named after Stevens.
- Worked closely helping the great Bill Ross become an excellent Commissioner (we aimed for Deputy and over-achieved).
- I coordinated closely with John Katz a wonderful man who, at that time, ran the State office.
- These are just a few experiences working for the great state of Alaska and the wonderful DEC.
Thanks for the opportunity.
Submitted May 3, 2021