To gain individualized knowledge of environmental services and policies offered by a government agency, I was able to interview one of the directors in the Environmental Services Department in El Paso, Texas. I found the agency suitable for the report in terms of statistical and information requirements. Initially, I chose the organization and the positions within it to further explain its programs and initiatives as a border state with Mexico. My interview was with John Garza of El Paso City’s environmental services, who has headed the department for 9 years. While I carefully planned my questions to gain the ultimate information needed for the report, I was surprised to find Garza at times vague and guarded in his answers, forcing me to do a lot of digging for clarification on my own. Thus, the report where necessary contains assumptions based on information available, and upon certain interpretations of Garza’s responses that seem appropriate in relationship to other findings.
The City of El Paso website describes its Environmental Services Department as “dedicated to cleanliness, safety, and providing beautification and health to the environment of El Paso.” Growth oriented, the city’s specific aim, beyond a tightly run program, is to continually improve programs that prevent the environmental deterioration plaguing many cities throughout the U.S. It collaborates with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and other local, state and federal government agencies as watchdog along the Texas border with Mexico (Environment Issues in Texas…). This is not surprising, given its location. For cities such as El Paso, it is of the utmost importance to maintain a strict environmental policy that often belies what is going on in that respect across its border.
Code enforcement and waste management continue to be a part of the mission driving the department, but new initiatives are ongoing and ever newer initiatives are being introduced. Given the increase in budget this fiscal year of around 10 million dollars, the programs will continue to grow and the concerns of those in Environmental Services will be better addressed. The budget increased from $78,507,038 to $88,527,016 in the last fiscal year. (City of El Paso)
Each function of El Paso’s program is broken down into specific departments, including air quality, trash collection and recycling, code maintenance, and management of its landfill. “The City of El Paso Air Quality Program (AQP) conducts air pollution control activities (enforcement) and monitors ambient air in the City in order to comply with state and federal laws, such as the Clean Air Act” (City of El Paso). Monitoring of air quality is a large part of the AQP operation, since air quality affects public health and safety. A relatively new focus of the department is the area of air pollution occurring with possible terror attacks. In light of revelations regarding accessibility of chemical weapons, this focus, while placing added administrative duties on the department, is one it takes very seriously (City of El Paso). The Program’s budget is funded by a combination of several air quality grants from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the City of El Paso (Environmental Issues in Texas…)
Clean El Paso is a wide-ranging program covering a variety of services, including dead animal removal, free paint and mulch programs, used electronics collection and sign abatement. This latter aspect of the program, initiated over the past several years, has grown with resident approval of free access to collections, without which they had to find their own disposal outlets. In this area, dead animal collection is specifically important, given the number of wildlife, particularly coyotes, that are victims of cars on highways and often create issues for residents. The activity is also seen from the perspective of the health department as a necessary contribution to the spread of air born disease. The service is particularly useful when removing dead domesticated pets and farm animals (City of El Paso). Sign abatement, or as it is sometimes called, “sign pollution,” has become a popular function in terms of beautifying areas previously clogged with temporary signs. The program is run through the Department of Environmental Services Beautification Program. Its the goal is to remove all signs not adhering to ordinances mostly placed by residents advertising garage sales and left there after the event (City of El Paso). El Paso, which unlike many communities still operates a landfill on a fee-per-load, basis, includes hazardous waste (City of El Paso). It is considered a Type 1 facility accepting industrial waste and several categories including radioactive. Considered state-of-the-art, the landfill uses “multiple impermeable barriers. A state-of-the-art, liner system is made of multiple geomembrane impermeable liners and collects leachate though a system in its on-sight leachate evaporation pond. (City of El Paso) Unlike many communities, El Paso still operates a landfill on a fee-per-load and materials basis that can fun as high as $200 or more for items from automotive to radioactive materials (City of El Paso). It is considered a Type 1 facility, with impermeable liners that collect leachate though a system in its on-sight leachate evaporation pond (City of El Paso) .
Interview with John Garza, Assistant Director of Environmental Services
The position John Garza holds is also listed as Deputy Director on the website. Being that the position is managerial, it can be considered as seriously effecting operations and outcomes. Mr. Garza handles the issues related to customer service, special projects, and employee relations. His position comes with the mission of providing waste management and environmental protection for a better quality of life in El Paso. As part of, and intrinsic to the department’s overall function, Garza’s power derives from how the public views operations of the department—a wise standard for any person managing public agencies. Garza in the interview could have been more forthcoming and seemed a bit guarded.
Through individual research on the department’s website, I found initiatives that are beneficial in developing a healthy El Paso and thought of a few of them noteworthy. The Environmental Services Department offers a Citizen Collection Point for those who pay a monthly waste fee. It is a fee that is included in the resident’s utilities. Most waste can be included for pickup by the waste management companies around El Paso, but some items are not included. To dispose of bulky items, furniture, oil or other hazardous liquids, electronics and some recyclables there are separate fees. Given this initiative taken by the department, that fee burden is eliminated and can be attributed to its recycling program.
Another program that I found intriguing was its Reusable House Products Program. Citizens of El Paso are able to pick-up recycled home cleaners and products at no extra cost. The purpose of the program is to use up products as intended in order to reduce the amount of household hazardous waste that has to be specially disposed of throughout the year. This can also be done at the Citizen Collection Point.
These are two programs offered of many from the Clean El Paso initiative. It creates a cleaner El Paso with the help of the residents, while also being economically efficient.
During a hunt throughout El Paso’s Environmental Services, I literally stumbled upon Garza, Assistant Director or Deputy Director of El Paso’s Environmental Services. He has been employed in his position for 9 years. Prior to being hired on as Deputy Director, he worked as the department’s Engineering Division Manager. Mr. Garza credits his passion for environmental services to an internship he experienced with Exxon’s environmental group. He acknowledges the joys of both the field and desk work. Mr. Garza is no longer in the early part of his career, as he states his current roles involve desk work and little field interaction.
I asked Mr. Garza a variety of questions related to the program’s operation and difficulties in managing such a wide-ranging, complex and rather interconnecged city program. Mr. Garza, who has worked his way up from the ranks in the department, indicated while he was pleased to have the position and believes the department is doing a good job. He did, however, expressed a bit of frustration with federal rules and codes that seem to be ever changing and ever more stringent. While the cost of the program has increased, he admitted that funds to run it have increased in proportion. The landfill operation is the most complex and involves tremendous amounts of paperwork, since hazardous materials are involved. The public services have apparently gone well and have been generally well-received by residents. Coordination of programs can get complicated, he admits, since the program does not operate in isolation, but in conjunction and coordination with other state, county, and federal agencies. The complexity apparently has turned his position into one of spinning lots of plates in order to keep things running. The fact that El Paso is a border town presents unique cultural problems vis e vie language and attitudes toward protecting the environment. It was something Garca recognizes and takes into account on a daily basis.
The most important finding from the interview with Mr. Garza is that trade-offs are prominent in dealing with environmental services and policy. Mr. Garza stated, “It’s a balancing act and sometimes you have policies with conflicting goals. Protecting the environment and preserving open space is important, but so is job creation and economic development.” This answer was in regard to some policies being more important than others. The issues and policies were not elaborate, but trade-offs were obvious in some environmental policy decisions.
While looking through the services provided by El Paso’s Environmental Service Department, I gained further information on 15 different programs and initiatives that maintain the environment in El Paso. Mr. Garza focused on the involvement of the residents and citizen participation as vital to the success of these programs, which, at the beginning, was not easy to get. “People, you know, are resistant to change, especially when it comes to longstanding patterns of behavior.” As a manager of the project, he was often called upon to speak publically at pro-environmental rallies where there seemed to be as many residents against as for. “I am not a scientist, and I sometimes was asked to explain the scientific basis for programs simple as recycling. So, I really had to be prepared.” He wasn’t always comfortable with this but has become better at it over time.
The Glass Recycling Program is a program with the goal of finding beneficial use for crushed glass throughout the community. I knew it existed but did not know much about it or the extent of its application. Glass can be recycled as many times as we are willing to recycle it. This initiative encourages the citizens to recycle glass and reduce the prolonged decomposition of glass in landfills around the city. It also reduces environmental issues caused by simply trashing glass, while offering alternatives for the use of crushed glass for the citizens of El Paso.
Oddly, of the many programs offered by the Department, he considers the Free Mulch and Paint Program one of the most successful. The program allows El Paso residents to acquire recycled paint for home projects and offers free mulch to the general public. “People will always go for anything that’s free.” There is a 5-gallon limitation per visit, but resident can come back as many time as they wish. “It has virtually eliminated empty paint cans in the trash. Local pro painters love it because before they had to pay to get rid of empty cans.” The public can have mulch for free; business get charged a nominal fee. An initiative that aides in the production and providing of mulch is the department’s Christmas tree drive. All who are willing can drop off their live Christmas trees for recycling at any of the four collection points; ground, they will be used to create the mulch.
El Paso, through its Christmas tree recycling programs into mulch has hurt local business who used to collect them, turn them into mulch, then sell the mulch. “Needless to say, they were not happy. But as a public service department, our job is to make things convenient for the public. In many cities, it poses a difficulty to have bulkier items picked up and trashed but not recycled. The list of services available in El Paso is admittedly pretty impressive. Gardo makes a point of this.
Analysis and Recommendations
As analyzed, as sign of its commitment to the environment El Paso Environmental Services Department activated the number 311 within the city limits. It can be used by landline or cellular device to contact the department, day or night regarding environmental issues or questions. This puts the city in the realm of urban areas completely committed to improving the environment through a full series of relevant programs. It stresses its commitment to that goal. Interviewing Mr. Garza, I believe some of his reluctance to answer certain questions, particularly regarding the landfill and its extensive operation, could be due to the nature of the material processed, and perhaps his lack of expertise and control in that area. As with most local communities, the processing of such materials as nuclear waste is not something they promote. Monitoring operations are mostly left to experts, usually federally trained. Yet fears do persist that any facility dealing with nuclear waste endangers the public, no matter the government’s insistence to the contrary (Martinez).
Outside of the city limits, the line is still available but with a 9-digit phone number. This line reaches the city’s customer service. Any questions regarding the programs or initiatives in place by the department can be answered or addressed by one of the representatives. This line can also be used to file a complaint about potholes or light signal issues, etc. The city of El Paso keeps the city beautiful for its visitors and its residents. I believe that these initiatives and programs will continue to aide in the beautification of the city, and that El Paso’s Environmental Services Department will continue to create, test, and enact programs and initiatives to further its beautification. “It is never an excuse to have codes in place within the city you reside and to not be lawfully abiding by them.” Words from Mr. Garza resonate while introducing the terms code compliance into the interview. El Paso has city codes that are enforced and reiterated by the Environmental Services Department. These codes include a span of health and beautification responsibilities for the citizens of El Paso to protect their environment as well as their lives and others. These codes include necessities in maintaining agriculture and vegetation on property, properly storing indoor materials outside, parking, dumping, and obstruction of walkways and sidewalks. Violators can be subjected to fines and other penalties. These codes also include vector control. Vector is defined on the department’s website as any agent (person, animal or micro-organism) that carries and transmits an infectious pathogen into another living organism (City of El Paso).The city of El Paso has an active team dedicated to alleviating risk of transmission of the things carried by these vectors to include rats and mosquitoes, a major step forward in the fight against the Zeka virus.
Based on the study of El Paso’s Environmental Services Department and the interview of its Deputy Director, I gained a better understanding of what a full range of environmental services and protections should look like. Most importantly, I was able to see the effects changes have made in one locality, and those that perhaps can be a model for other national programs. For every successful local and regional program, there exist an opportunity for others to model it
on a global scale. National initiatives and programs then in this way extrapolate to aid in global protection for the environment (World Bank Group). For example, the Vector Program introduced by the El Paso Environmental Services Department aids in the protection against widespread diseases like the Zika virus causing deformity in babies. The isolation of this virus has ramifications across borders, as does the careful toxic waste management that goes on at the landfill. But aside from the obvious benefits of the El Paso Environmental Services Department, the agency itself stands guard at the border, a champion of its own commitment to a safer and cleaner environment, and a testament to what other areas might accomplish as well across its border.
- City of El Paso. Environmental Services, 2017.
https://www.elpasotexas.gov/environmental-services Accessed June 19, 2017.
“Environmental Issues in the Texas Portion of the U.S.-Mexico Border Area.” Texas
Commission on Environmental Quality, 2017. https://www.elpasotexas.gov/environmental-services Accessed June 19, 2017.
- Martinez, Leonard. Department of Energy says article allegedly causing radiation fears in New
Mexico, West Texas is false. KVIA August 26, 2016,
http://www.kvia.com/news/dept-of-energy-says-article-allegedly-causing-radiation-fears-in-new-mexico-west-texas-is-false/55814000 Accessed June 19, 2017.
- World Bank Group. “The Role of Local Benefits in Global Environmental Programs.” OKR,
Open Knowledge Repository, 2006.
https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/7137 Accessed June 19, 2017.