We start off today’s show with a look at the agency that’s in charge of protecting the environment in Wyoming. Many of our reporting in the past has led us to conversations with angry landowners, and folks who have concerns about industry’s effects on the environment and human health.
As you’ll hear in this show, the concerned parties aren’t always satisfied with the answers regulators provide. But before we get into that, we wanted to give regulators an opportunity to have their say. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov spoke with the Director of the Department of Environmental Quality, Todd Parfitt. The DEQ is in charge of regulating many aspects of industrial production in the state. Irina, what did you find out?
IRINA ZHOROV: Todd Parfitt started out by reading DEQ’s mission statement, which is “To protect, conserve and enhance the quality of Wyoming’s environment for the benefit of current and future generations.” At a recent public hearing in Fort Laramie about an oil loading facility, an attendee actually read this mission statement back to those present, saying she didn’t think the agency was really abiding by its mandate. So I asked Parfitt how exactly the agency works towards those goals.
TODD PARFITT: We have standards in place for both water quality and for air quality. When we issue permits we ensure that those permits are protective of those standards. Now the compliance, inspection, and monitoring we establish inspection schedules for the year and ensure that we're doing a fair amount of inspections to ensure compliance. And then when we do see noncompliance then we follow that up with enforcement action if necessary. Both in the air and water quality, we have monitoring efforts to assess the ambient conditions and to ensure that the permits that we've issued are actually protective of those resources. And then lastly it's reclamation. We have reclamation requirements.
ZHOROV: So what we’ve heard over the years as we interviewed people is that often the standards and monitoring efforts and all that weren’t satisfactory. People sometimes feel as if the agency is doing the bare minimum for people and concentrating a lot more on what industry needs. Parfitt didn’t agree with that.
PARFITT: The standards that we establish for air and water and for all of our programs when we establish rules there's a certain process that we go to ensure that there's opportunity for public input throughout that process, as well as the industry. In that process we'll put out drafts for comment and take comment on those when we’re talking about rulemaking.
ZHOROV: He says permits are also opened up to public comment and the DEQ holds public hearings. Indeed, Parfitt set off for a public hearing in Douglas as soon as our interview was over. Of course, the agency doesn’t have to adopt all suggestions, which probably leaves some people without resolution.
BECK: A citizen complaint I’ve heard is that the agency tends to be more reactive than proactive.
ZHOROV: Yeah, I’ve heard that, too. And actually in November I heard Todd Parfitt speak at the Energy Law Conference at the University of Wyoming. He was talking about claims that groundwater was contaminated by fracking. Here’s what he said.
PARFITT: DEQ gets involved when there is a problem. So when we do have contamination of groundwater, that’s when DEQ gets involved in the process.
ZHOROV: When we talked more recently he had this to say:
PARFITT: I would say that we are being proactive. We have established a baseline groundwater monitoring program outside of what the Oil and Gas [Conservation] Commission had recently passed and will become effective in March. We've been working with the U.S. Geological Survey and offering to have certain wells in what we would view as areas of the state where there might be high levels of activity, where we want to have a better handle on what the background conditions are. It's not as comprehensive as the Oil and Gas Commission rules that just passed. But it does focus in on areas of high development where we offer to residents the opportunity to participate in that program at no cost where we'll collect the background information.
ZHOROV: He also mentioned the agency’s network of air quality monitors.
PARFITT: We do an evaluation of our monitoring network every year. And we determine where we need to have monitors. For example, last year through that assessment we determined that it would be appropriate to have a monitor up in the Converse County area. That assessment let us determine again this year that we needed to continue to have that mobile monitor in Converse County. I don't know what our conclusion will be next year but we'll look at the results of that monitoring effort and determine if we need a permanent monitor or not.
ZHOROV: You’ll hear later in the show that monitoring is one of the things that folks living in areas with a lot of development bring up. DEQ says they’re already going above and beyond when it comes to monitoring and that they are constrained by money at times from doing more.
BECK: I would imagine budget constraints are not limited to monitors.
ZHOROV: That’s right; I’ve heard that from DEQ people in reference to a variety of things. It’s also the reason they rely on industry to do some self-monitoring in addition to their own inspections. So I asked Parfitt about whether DEQ is proactive in trying to get more funds when they feel they’re needed.
PARFITT: Every year we have an opportunity to present to the Governor and to the legislature a budget request. And we actually go through every year and assess all of our programs and determine whether or not we have adequate resources or whether or not we have too many resources in a particular area, if we have a program that’s phasing out. So we do that assessment every year, to determine whether or not we have adequate resources. And as an example, I’ll point out that since 2004 the agency has had a net increase of 53 FTEs, full time employees. And that is a result of our agency going through and assessing our needs in all of our programs.
BECK: So does he think the agency is sufficiently funded at this time?
ZHOROV: Here’s what he says.
PARFITT: We do have adequate resources as we stand in terms of full time employees. We do have an exception request for some additional funds in air quality. But by and large it's pretty much a status quo budget request.
ZHOROV: Their new requests will mostly be related to modeling projects.
Parfitt says that as with anything much of the agency’s work is a balancing act, usually involving budget limitations and the agency’s responsibilities. For example, I threw out another complaint we hear often, that there aren’t enough inspections happening at industrial sites to make sure they’re functioning as they should be.
PARFITT: As far as having people on the ground and inspectors and our inspection process to ensure that we have compliance with permitting activities, you have the spectrum. We've got thousands of outfalls or emission points, and it's not practical to have an individual or a staff person at every one of these outfalls or emission points. The other end of the spectrum would be not to have anybody overseeing the activity. So we have not only our inspectors going out to these facilities and ensuring compliance, but we also have the self-monitoring and we have the information that comes from the regulated community.
ZHOROV: So, Parfitt thinks that overall the DEQ is getting that balance right and is doing so with their mission in mind.
BECK: Alright, thanks Irina.
ZHOROV: Thank you.