Leading the Charge to Protect Georgia’s Environment
The New Heads of the State’s Environmental Protection Division Share Challenges and Opportunities Ahead – and How They’re Prepared to Meet Them
By Allison Floyd
Richard E. Dunn and Lauren Curry joined the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) at a critical time.
Both hired in June 2016, Dunn serves as Director and Curry as Deputy Director of the agency that is charged with protecting Georgia’s air, land and water resources through the authority of various state and federal environmental statutes. Their efforts, and those of the Division, oversee the implementation of environmental regulations spanning air quality, water quality and supply, coal ash disposal and more. Both sat down with Engineering Georgia magazine to share the most important issues facing the Division, as well as their background and the experiences that led them to – and now help them lead – EPD.
AIR QUALITY IMPROVES
“Over the last 20 years, Georgia has observed significant environmental gains,” Dunn says. “Our air is cleaner today than it was in 2000; we have cut down on pollution, even though the economy and our population has grown tremendously.”
Dunn sees more to be done, but points out how much clearer and cleaner Atlanta air has become after 20 years of work to reduce emissions and cut ground-level ozone. “In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had a standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb),” he says. “At the time, 15 counties in the metro Atlanta area did not meet that standard. In 2015, EPA adopted a stricter ozone standard of 70 ppb. Despite the fact that the standard is now stricter, only eight counties are in non-attainment. That is a big, big improvement.”
Many factors contributed to the improvement, including federal requirements to lower emissions and raise fuel standards. In Georgia, leaders ordered retrofitted locomotive diesel engines and school buses, implemented HOV lanes to encourage carpooling and offered incentives for energy efficiency.
“We have also seen contributions from changes in the economy, such as the retirement of coal-fired power plants,” Dunn says. “The low price of natural gas, which is the cleanest type of fossil fuel used to make electricity, plays a large role as well. In addition, the change in the behavior and preferences of consumers has had an impact. For example, today, there are more electric and hybrid vehicles.”
While programs like the Clean Air Campaign made progress on air quality, a program implemented 12 years ago addressed land issues. The Brownfield Program began in 2004 and encourages the cleanup of contaminated sites. Some are only a fraction of an acre, while others as large as the 122-acre former Ford Assembly Plant tract in Hapeville, Ga.
“It’s been a great success. We are getting the cleanup and the person developing the land is receiving a limitation of liability and tax incentives for coming into our program,” Curry says. “As the economy has begun to recover, we have seen an upswing in our Brownfield Program. Over the past 12 years, we’ve cleaned up 400 contaminated sites that account for 4,000 acres.”
The Brownfield Program also inhibits urban sprawl by encouraging infill development, Dunn says, while increasing the community tax base by returning underutilized property to productive use.
DEFEATING THE DROUGHT
State officials have been attempting to protect the state’s water quantity and quality over the past couple of decades. When drought gripped Georgia in 2007, water supplies dwindled to frightening levels, leading then-Governor Sonny Perdue to declare a state of emergency and water resources managers to get serious about conservation.
“It is really remarkable that in metro Atlanta, total water use has declined 10 percent despite the fact that we added an additional one million people and tremendous economic growth. Our per capita water use in the metro Atlanta area has declined 30 percent in the past 15 years,” Dunn says.
Metro Atlanta lawns have been the focus of some drought response, but South Georgia farmers adopted a culture of conservation to protect the water that feeds agriculture. To conserve water resources, many farmers implemented new best-management practices, retrofitted center pivot irrigation systems, converted to low-pressure sprinklers and adopted end-gun shutoffs. New technology in variable rate irrigation and remote moisture monitoring directed water to where it could be most useful.
“Much of the conservation goes back to the Water Stewardship Act of 2010,” Curry says. “That took all the players coming together – the Governor’s office, the General Assembly, the agricultural community. Many of those agricultural best practices were already in place and were the result of a focus by agencies across the state, not just EPD.”
In many ways, the drought facing the Peach State this fall will test the conservation work of the past few years and new drought response measures put into place by EPD last year. “The drought 10 years ago wasn’t our first drought and this won’t be our last, so we are looking at new water sources and new opportunities to store water,” Curry says. “It’s hard to say if this is a one-year drought – only time will tell.”
Curry adds that this is the first time EPD has had to implement those rules that were adopted in 2015. In September, it went to drought level 1 for 53 counties north of the fall line. “Since that time, we have seen little precipitation,” she says. “That becomes a more serious situation by the day and we continue to look at what steps the state may have to take to mitigate what may be a multi-year drought.”
CONFINING COAL ASH
One of the most controversial, but important initiatives on EPD’s agenda this year is the regulation of coal ash disposal. High-profile disasters in other states have left lasting environmental damage when these landfills failed and dumped tons of ash from power generation into streams and rivers.
“Coal ash is our single largest industrial waste stream,” Dunn says. “In October, the DNR Board amended the Solid Waste Management rules to specifically regulate the disposal of coal ash. Coal ash historically has been stored in large service impoundments or in on-site landfills at the electric utilities.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted rules last fall that set technical requirements for the storage of coal ash at active electric utilities in order to protect ground water from contamination, Dunn says. The state EPD has adopted a rule that incorporates the EPA rule, but also expands it to allow for the regulation of coal ash at inactive electric utilities and municipal solid waste landfills.
“This is a big deal,” he says. “For the first time, we will be regulating coal ash disposal units. Reviewing design operation and monitoring plans will take a lot of our time in the next 18 months.”
ONE-ON-ONE WITH RICHARD DUNN
Richard Dunn was appointed Director of the Environmental Protection Division in June 2016 by Governor Nathan Deal, the latest job in a career that’s often been involved with developing new agencies and finding budget solutions that work for the state. He and his wife, Susan, have one son, Owen.
EG: In years past, the Department of Natural Resources’ Board has chosen Director candidates with backgrounds in science. It seems like the past two or three leaders have had more experience in public policy. Was that on your mind when you were hired?
RD: When this position was offered to me, the need was not for technical expertise. We have a lot of very talented engineers, biologists and ecologists. Technical expertise is not the issue; the focus should be on management. You’ve got to have a budget, you’ve got to set priorities, you’ve got to recruit and retain qualified staff – all those management issues are what need attention.
EG: What did you think when the Governor approached you about this position? Was this a challenge you expected?
RD: I was flattered. It was new and I was perfectly willing to do whatever I could to move the organization forward.
EG: In addition to directing the Governor’s Office for Children and Families and chairing the Georgia Occupational Regulation Review Council, you worked with the former Department of Human Resources. What was your role there?
RD: I was part of the team that created the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. I was working with the Behavioral Health component of the Department of Human Services when legislation passed to create a separate agency. As we created the new agency, we brought in a physician from out of state and he needed assistance with the day-to-day organization, so I was tasked with serving as Deputy Chief of Staff for him.
EG: It must have been challenging and rewarding.
RD: Yes, we were part of a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice about the state of our state-run psychiatric facilities. As we transitioned people from state-run institutions to the community, I was part of negotiating and implementing that settlement agreement. Once that was lined up, I joined the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.
EG: That was in 2011, when you worked on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, right?
RD: I was the Director of the Health and Human Services Division, which set policy priorities and budgets for Medicaid, Behavioral Health, Child Welfare and state employee health benefits. I handled those for the Governor. Then, I became the Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget (OPB), where I worked on issues across the entirety of state government.
EG: How was that work similar or different from planning for EPD?
RD: As Deputy Director of OPB, I was trying to set priorities across state government. Serving one agency requires a narrower focus, but a more in-depth focus.
EG: What do you see as the future of this division?
RD: It’s hard to look out 10 or 20 years to know what will be the biggest challenges we will face. One thing is certain, though: Technology will always be the driver for new and better ways to protect the environment. We will have technological innovations that will provide better ways to monitor, control and remediate environmental harm. Technology will be a big driver, but what that means specifically is hard to predict.
ONE-ON-ONE WITH LAUREN CURRY
At the same time as Dunn, Lauren Curry stepped into the role as Deputy Director of EPD, a position that calls on her experience in communications and administration at several state agencies. Curry and her husband have two daughters, Emily and Elizabeth, who are nine and 12.
EG: By looking at your resume, it’s clear you’ve always known you wanted to work in public policy and public administration.
LC: Richard Dunn and I didn’t know each other before coming to EPD, but we’ve joked that we were both the fifth-graders who were tired at school because we had stayed up late the night before watching the election returns come in – and this interest in politics evolved into public administration. I like to do things effectively. I like to be part of a solution. I believe in government and believe that government is tasked with doing a job that private business can’t do. If private business could do the job, it would be doing it and making a profit. Government takes on the hardest problems.
EG: Your career has involved the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Governor’s office. What led you to these jobs?
LC: I’ve gone places where I thought I could make a difference and bring my skills to bear. All different policy areas interest me, so anytime there was an opportunity – if it was new and different – I enjoyed learning.
EG: You also served as Chief of Staff for the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency for two years. How did that work prepare you for this job?
LC: I’ve worked in a range of areas, but there is more commonality than most people would see. It’s rare that any agency does work in a vacuum. Our work overlaps and I’ve tried to maintain the network I’ve built over the years.
EG: You worked for DNR for several years before leaving, only to return to EPD. What drew you back?
LC: I certainly had no idea that I would be coming back. When the opportunity came up, I was excited to have it. I have a love for natural resources and being outside. I am passionate about the environment and getting kids outdoors. I am intrigued by the idea of nature deficit disorder – how it is affecting the generation today and childhood obesity. Those issues interest me on a personal level. DNR is all about making sure those natural resources are available for generations to come and that is something I am very passionate about.
EG: You volunteer with the Girl Scouts. Were you a Girl Scout?
LC: No, I was not, but I love working with them. There is a ranger badge that’s part of a DNR program. I love the part about animal tracks and helping the girls identify animal tracks in the mud.
EG: What’s next for your career?
LC: I didn’t plan this. It is a blessing to serve every day and to think about how to move the ball down the road. I always go back to efficiency and effectiveness with government. There are great people throughout state government who really believe in what they do. They are all here because they think that they are making a difference… And they absolutely are.
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