Environmental Watchdog Honored Vigilance In An Often Thankless Job Earns Health District Worker Respect
Last summer, when a district judge all but erased a fine against environmental outlaw John Hern, Jeff Lawlor wasn’t too upset.
After all, after his ruling, Judge Craig Kosonen praised the Panhandle Health District for its diligence and restraint in trying to get the businessman to comply with environmental laws.
“You take your little nuggets where you can,” said Lawlor, a district employee who tried for years to get Hern to follow the rules.
As a paid guardian of the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, Lawlor has found himself at odds with many people over the years who find his inspections and regulations meddlesome.
But Lawlor won’t back off.
His doggedness was rewarded last week with a big nugget of praise from his peers when he was named Idaho’s field environmental health specialist of the year by the Idaho Environmental Health Association.
“He’s Mr. Energy and Mr. Persistent,” said colleague Dick Martindale. “He’s done a lot to keep the aquifer program alive and kicking.”
The program has been under critical scrutiny in recent months. Kootenai County commissioners threatened to pull funding from the health district over the Hern matter, for instance.
Hern refused to allow Lawlor on his industrial park site to inspect it. Facilities over the aquifer must have approved septic systems and secondary containment systems for hazardous materials.
In the year it took the health district to gain access to the industrial site, several barrels of cyanide disappeared from one of the businesses there, United Plating. The cyanide and other hazardous materials were dumped in the Panhandle National Forests, not far from Coeur d’Alene.
Once on site, the health district found bathrooms that drained into underground barrels instead of a septic system, and improperly stored hazardous materials.
After Hern was fined $495,000 in 1996, the county commissioners accused the health district of vindictiveness and threatened to pull its funding.
“All we wanted from the beginning was compliance. He chose the path,” Lawlor said.
As Lawlor made the inspection rounds, he noticed that several businesses drain their wastewater from car washes and oil spills into injection wells. The injection wells essentially are holes in the ground and anything put into them can seep into the aquifer.
The wastewater either should be treated on site or discharged to a sewage system, according to a policy later adopted by the health district.
“We’ve made a lot of accomplishments,” Lawlor said. “Dozens and dozens of injection wells have closed. We’ve got hundreds of facilities with secondary containment.”
Nonetheless, not everyone’s been cheering the health district’s success.
Last summer, Concerned Business of North Idaho called for the district’s environmental programs to be taken over by the state Division of Environmental Quality, complaining of duplication and a lack of responsiveness from the health district.
Subsequent study by an Environmental Health Task Force, chaired by two district board members, found little duplication. But the task force has acknowledged that the district’s environmental health department has a bit of a community relations problem.
“Any time that we, the health district, take a regulatory or enforcement position, we run the risk of getting a bad rap,” said Chris Beck, task force co-chairman. “I don’t think it’s a big problem, but if there’s anything we can do to help our cause, we should.”
The word among the staff is that they’ll be getting special training on adopting a customer-service approach to regulation.
Lawlor calls it “charm school.”
“We’re going to take a class and learn how to say ‘No’ with a smile,” he said.
Lawlor believes the district’s critics are a minority. Overall, he said, people strongly support what the health district does to protect the drinking water.
“We have to constantly look out for the public. That’s our job,” he said.
Beck, a member of Concerned Businesses, said Lawlor’s done the job well. “He’s well-deserving of the award,” he said.
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