On Nov. 19, 2019, Josh Alexander, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Air Quality Permit Writer, convened a meeting at the Sauvie Island School to talk with the community about what they should do if there was an accidental anhydrous ammonia release from a nearby facility, J.R. Simplot. The meeting featured an 11-person panel. Two things were notably unusual about this meeting: nine people on the 11-person panel were not from DEQ and the two who were never had to answer a single question. I sat down with Josh to talk about why this meeting was so important and what lessons DEQ could learn from it.
Q: What happened that led to the meeting?
Josh: A group of concerned citizens affiliated with the Sauvie Island Neighborhood Association responded to a notice for public comment for the J.R. Simplot facility. It seemed that their concerns were probably outside the scope of our permit. I decided just to contact them – it was only four comments. I reached out to each one to get a better sense of what their concerns were. Through those conversations, it was readily apparent that their concerns were related to seismic resiliency, emergency preparedness and emergency response – all things that were largely outside the scope of the air quality permit.
We decided to offer a community engagement meeting as an alternative to a public hearing, since a hearing would be limited to issues within the scope of the permit. I talked to the neighborhood association about their options and what a community engagement meeting would mean as opposed to a public hearing. I tried to convey that a hearing would not address their concerns, whereas a community engagement meeting would allow us to broaden the scope of discussion.
Q: What was their response to the idea initially?
Josh: They were a little hesitant at first, because they didn’t want to give up their right to something. They wanted to know why they couldn’t have both. I tried to emphasize the fact that the meeting would best address their concerns. I had that conversation a couple of times. Of course, they weren’t precluded from having a hearing. I think, in getting comfortable with me, they let go of the feeling of needing to have a hearing. They just needed an agency’s attention.
They were looking for a voice and wanted someone to listen to their concerns.
Q: I didn’t realize that they were hesitant at first. Sounds like they were worried about us avoiding our regulatory requirement.
Josh: I think that they didn’t want to be punted down the line. They’d had a previous meeting with the facility and had reached out to other agencies, and didn’t get the results they wanted.
Q: It seems like that attitude changed as you started planning the meeting.
Josh: The attitude quickly changed. I think they found me to be someone that was supporting them in their desired outcome. They got excited about what it could be and, as they saw it develop, they became increasingly enthusiastic. Seeing that there were representatives from various agencies that were willing to participate made the community feel like they were being heard.
Q: How did you decide who to invite?
Josh: That was the hardest part to figure out. I really had to cast a wide net. I got a couple of leads, took those, and started calling and emailing. Folks were gracious in helping direct me to the right person. I found them to be very grateful to know that there was someone out there willing to do this legwork and coordinate the logistics.
Q: Who all ended up on the panel?
Josh: It was a long list, but everyone had a vital role to play. There were representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Multnomah County Emergency Management, Oregon Office of the State Fire Marshal, Portland Fire and Rescue, Sauvie Island Fire District, Local Emergency Planning Committee and then J.R. Giska and myself from DEQ.
And people stayed after the meeting. I think everyone stayed at least half an hour afterwards to talk and connect with community members. It felt like no one in the community was left needing more time or more information.
Q: Based on this experience, what would be your advice to others in the agency?
Josh: There is always a way to help. We get a lot of random calls. People call DEQ because they don’t know who else to call. In this case, the group knew they could respond to the public notice and ask for a hearing. Usually, people just want to have a voice. We are public servants and there is always a way to help. It’s hard to navigate the system. At DEQ, that’s something we really have to consider and recognize the importance of how we communicate with people on a day-to-day basis.
Lastly, time is limited in our work and we are all trying to figure out how to use it most efficiently. And, yes, it took a lot of time to set up this community meeting and figure out the logistics. Did it take more time than getting ready for a public hearing? Maybe a little, but I think it was fairly equitable. My hope is that by connecting the community to the agencies, the meeting served DEQ and the community better in the end. I think if we’d gone the public hearing route, we would have left a lot of people frustrated and they would have gone on to try to use future hearings as a mechanism to discuss their concerns. In the end, a little help can go a long way and ultimately help all parties.
− Lauren Wirtis, public affairs specialist