Beginning a Career: Confronting the Urban Environmental Crisis and Becoming a Technical Expert, 1971-79

One has to start somewhere; that is, in a context over which one has very little control. From that point on, one can exercise discretion; that is, choose one direction over another.

Having graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1966 with a bachelors degree in history, and having emerged unscathed from the U. S. Army in 1969, I wanted to find work that was socially productive and would help solve the urban crisis that had emerged in the 1960s. Understanding environmental pollution to be a key part of that crisis, and responding to federal environmental legislation passed in 1969 and 1970, I began working in 1971 for the Air Pollution Control District (APCD) in Louisville, Kentucky.

Employed there for almost five years, I acted as an administrative assistant to the director, chief of the land use and transportation section, and finally as chief of the air quality section. Working in those capacities I helped write new regulations implementing the new Clean Air Act at the local scale, studied the feasibility of establishing a county-wide environmental protection agency, prepared a study of carbon monoxide emissions, designed a carbon monoxide monitoring network and modeling study, served on a water quality management plan advisory group, and did a variety of other tasks.

I have very fond memories of several of the people I worked with back then, especially John Tate, Chuck Kleeberg, Barbara Kramercy, and Ray Vogel. I also owe a pretty deep debt of gratitude to Bob Offutt, the director of the District’s staff, for introducing me to the complexities of air pollution and local politics.

While working at the APCD I also managed to complete a masters degrees in community development and all but my thesis toward a masters in political science, both at the University of Louisville. As part of these masters programs I wrote a hypothetical plan for the development of a working class neighborhood (Lake Dreamland) located inside a large petrochemical complex known locally as “Rubbertown,” developed an environmental education curriculum for the county just south of Louisville’s, did some work for a mayoral candidate and a member of the city’s board of aldermen, drafted a masters thesis about political power in relationship to the planned Riverport Industrial Park, and many other things.

When working for the APCD I felt as though I was working on a fascinating and challenging socio-technical problem for the good of the community. But I also felt confined by the agency’s narrowly-defined technical-functional mission and the institutional constraints imposed by the agency’s enabling legislation.

In 1976 I moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to begin working as an Environmental Scientist and Project Manager with a consulting group named PEDCo Environmental. Over the next three years I wrote or co-authored many technical reports for the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and for state agencies. Some of these reports provided air pollution emission inventories, air quality modeling assessments, and data analyses to state agencies in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Tennessee, and California, whereas others provided advice to managers about how to assess the sources and concentrations of Total Suspended Particulates (TSP). All this work was quite technical and tightly connected to the concepts and institutional arrangements embedded in the Clean Air Act and the creation of the U. S. EPA. Our interactions were limited to EPA project officers and state agency managers, and we had no incentives or opportunities to interact with community organizations, interest groups, or elected officials.

Two examples illustrate this work quite nicely. In Digest of Ambient Particulate Analysis and Assessment Methods (1978), Kenneth Axetell and I provided a compendium of 26 techniques that had been or could be used to analyze and solve a suspended particulates problem. In Technical Assistance in Developing Nonattainment Plans for Selected Areas in California (1979), I served as primary author of a report that used 12 of the techniques identified in the preceding report to interpret TSP concentrations at a number of sites in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys of California, and to identify the sources causing violations of particulate air quality standards at those sites. As part of these two projects I had the opportunity to direct a workshop on assessment methods for environmental managers, and to present the findings of our research to the California Air Resources Board. Again, our highly technical work involved no interaction with the general public.

As was the case with my time in Louisville, I have very fond memories of some of the people I had the opportunity to work with, especially Ernie Scott, Joe Carvitti, and Bob Zimmer.

While working for PEDCo I had the opportunity to take three masters-level courses in urban planning at Kansas University. These courses, especially one about planning theory taught by Tom Galloway, helped me see my past work in an entirely new light. I began to see there were ways to practice planning other than as a rational-technical scientist following the rational-technical model.

Feeling inspired, I wanted to find a path to something I thought of as “productive environmentalism”; that is, better ways of integrating human activities with the natural world, and the economy with the environment. Off I went to UCLA’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Context and choices matter, and lots of what if? questions could be asked. No doubt the same is true today.

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