By Emily Riley
Permits and paperwork is what most think of at the mention of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. While those formalities are surely part of the DNREC outfit, newly appointed department secretary David Small wants you to know there’s far more education, policy and entrepreneurial initiatives at work for the First State. From the dynamic growth of Wilmington’s Riverfront destination to managing the state’s air and water quality, the corps of scientists and policy initiators at DNREC are hard at work keeping our state beautiful and environmentally (and economically) viable.
Secretary David Small had a few thoughts to share in regards to current work at DNREC:
What positions have you previously held with DNREC?
I served as acting secretary early in the Markell administration prior to arrival of former Secretary [Collin] O’Mara. For the past 15 years I served as deputy secretary, and prior to that I served as the executive assistant. I joined the agency in 1987 and was chief of the office of information and education, but prior to that, I was a journalist and editor in print media. I’m maybe a bit of an unlikely candidate to be secretary, but the nice thing about being chief of that office is that I had access to every nook and cranny and program and issue the department was dealing with, which has been a wonderful opportunity to learn about the agency.
How will your position as secretary expand on the work you’ve already done with DNREC?
I think having a working baseline knowledge of the agency has been an incredible asset to me – to know not only the issues but the people inside the agency and the challenges on the outside. I’ve come to know many of the regulated entities that we serve as customers and constituents, which has been very helpful to me because it’s given me insights that maybe other folks coming in from the outside haven’t had, so that’s definitely been one advantage.
What goals would you like to see accomplished during your tenure?
Water quality has been a huge priority for the department. Cleaning up the state’s water has been an ongoing effort, and it’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not something that we’re going to accomplish by regulation only. We live in an age where everyone’s attached to a handheld device, and we’re used to instant gratification – the environment doesn’t work that way, and we’ve got a long road ahead of us. Energy efficiency is another area where I think we’ve made good strides but there are still gains to me made there. The kilowatts and megawatts we don’t use are the best ones and the cheapest ones, so making those investments save consumers money and also put people to work.
The revamp of Wilmington’s Riverfront destination is certainly one of DNREC’s most visible achievements. Are there similar plans for other areas in the state?
The Riverfront development plan is our largest and most successful example of a Brownfield project. It was an area that had been previously used for heavily industrialized purposes that left a legacy of contamination. When former Gov. [Russell] Peterson and former University of Delaware Pres. [E. Arthur] Trabant shared their vision for the area, I’m not sure anybody could have imagined creating the economic engine in New Castle County that stands there today. I don’t know that we’ll ever rise to that scale again, but we strive for that “twofer” – repurposing and redeveloping an existing site and eliminating contamination in that area. Using this model, we have our sights set on places like Fort DuPont in Delaware City and Auburn Heights Preserve in Yorklyn, as well as a the Evraz Claymont Steel site, which presents an exciting and dynamic opportunity for commercial investment right along the Delaware River.
What will DNREC do to keep pace with advances in environmental engineering and technology?
Not surprisingly, and like many organizations, we’re aging. Fifty percent of our workforce is eligible for retirement, so our goal is to get the right people with the right skills to manage our agency into the future. We want to make sure that for our younger staff, they’re not only technically competent, but that we’re giving them the right skill sets to be effective managers for policy planning, human resource management and other areas. If we make these investments in our workforce, we can continue to make great strides over the coming years.
Beyond the paperwork and park fees, what is something Delawareans might not know about DNREC?
I would say there’s a lack of understanding or appreciation for all the responsibilities that the agency has. People know DNREC through a singular experience – getting a permit for an activity, buying their state park passes or gaining a surf permit to the drive-on beaches, but there’s really so much more that we do. We’re constantly trying to improve the air quality, protect public health through the quality of the drinking water, clean up contaminated sites, manage storm water and other continual goals. And it’s difficult to isolate these projects too. When you think about that environment and natural resources, you’re tugging on a thread that’s connected to so many other issues. It’s hard to manage them within individual programs, so what we try to do is connect the dots across our body of policies, which gives us a great advantage in trying to achieve those goals.
(This article was previously published in the 2015 July/August issue of Delaware Business magazine).
James DeChene is the Chamber's Senior Vice President of Government Affairs.