A shrinking staff, stagnant fees on industry and lagging public trust for an agency tasked with safeguarding the state’s environment are some of the challenges facing new Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Carr Brown.
Brown, however, isn’t coming in without a history of tackling challenges. As an assistant secretary of environmental services at DEQ from 2004 to 2008, he helped oversee the tricky job of disposing of 22 million tons of debris from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
More than 400 sites were used for the treatment or disposal of the stuff, and 39 percent of the debris — from refrigerators to cars — from the storms ending up being recycled.
“It was a challenge,” Brown said. “We got a lot of pushback.”
Although there were community and environmental objections to a number of the sites, Brown said the department chose them using science, research and caution.
“We’re 10 years later, and we don’t have one environmental issue from that disposal,” he said. “That’s what I’m most proud of.”
As the secretary, Brown said, restoring staffing levels at DEQ through increasing industrial fees will be among his top priorities. In an unusual example of agreement, fee increases have been favored by both industry and environmental groups for years, but the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal didn’t allow any because it could have been viewed as a tax increase.
DEQ, which receives no money from the state’s general fund, has seen its staff cut from about 1,000 employees in 2008 to the 677 it now has to handle increased industrial and regulatory responsibilities.
Part of the solution could be fee increases, which mainly hit industrial facilities, Brown said.
In 2010, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an activist group, released a report saying Louisiana’s fees were low when compared to other states. At the time, DEQ claimed it had all the money it needed so there was no reason to raise the fees, said the Bucket Brigade’s executive director, Anne Rolfes.
Upon hearing the agency’s position has changed, Rolfes said it was encouraging.
“We’ve had a really antagonistic relationship with DEQ since 1999, and we should be on the same team,” she said. “With the right attitude on both sides, I think we can.”
Industry representatives also applauded having a discussion about fee levels and structure.
“We would have preferred over the last eight years a modest fee increase for the agency to make sure they’re properly staffed,” said Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs with the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. “The administration said a fee increase is a tax and they were not going to propose fee increases.”
Metcalf said it would have been better for the agency and industry if there had been a modest fee increase each year instead of a possible larger fee increase now that it would be more difficult for companies to absorb.
“We’re seeing a lot of people (at DEQ) retire. We’re seeing a lot of good people leave because they can make more money on the outside,” Metcalf said.
Dan Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, added, “We know the department is suffering financially so we understand the necessity to increase fees.”
It’s important to have a highly professional and well-funded DEQ, he said. He said the fees should be simplified, when possible, to make them less time-consuming for industry and DEQ personnel while increasing the support the agency gets.
Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said she is pleased with the decision to create an advisory committee that will include input from community members as well as with plans to beef up the department’s capabilities.
Brown “understands the importance of building the capacity of LDEQ to effectively protect Louisiana’s public and environment. LEAN is eager to support him in this effort,” she said.
Brown also wants to get DEQ involved in addressing odor complaints. There are rules on the books that allow DEQ to enforce limits on pollution from regulated chemicals, but complaints from communities about a bad smell are much more difficult to handle.
“Odor has been a real problem for years,” Brown said. “There are off-site impacts that may not be an environmental issue, but it’s a nuisance, and we want to get ahead of that.”
Brown said industry has a responsibility to be a good neighbor, and it will be his mission to talk with industries about how they can make short-term investments for long-term benefits, whether that involves fence line monitoring, more job training or other options.
Industry representatives said their past experiences with Brown left an impression of a straight shooter who takes the time to explain decisions and is willing to have discussions, even if the ultimate answer is no.
One meeting that stands out for Borne was when a facility was considering an expansion with a large investment in the state. Brown brought in maps, charts and other supporting documentation and carefully explained that even though the footprint of the expansion might make sense based on the geography, emissions could create a problem.
“He handled it so professionally. He just laid it out why it wouldn’t work,” Borne said. “I think that type of straight-shooter is what we need in that office.”
It’s what Brown said he wants to bring to the department by incorporating education, an open-door policy and more public involvement — whether that’s through social media or a citizen advisory council.
“It’s not going to be business as usual,” he said. “Even if the answer is ‘No,’ you’re going to have your opportunity to voice your opinion.”
The goal is for people to think DEQ is fulfilling a public trust by making the right decisions for the state and its residents.
“We are going to become the agency that we all know this state deserves,” Brown said. “Everybody is going to have a fair stake in what goes on here.”
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.