In conversation: Charles Reyes, associate director of the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials (ASTSWMO), and Kale Connerty, LUSTLine editor at NEIWPCC.
Kale: Charles, thank you for talking with me this morning about NEIWPCC and ASTSWMO’s partnerships and the upcoming National Tanks Conference [NTC].
Charles: Thanks for having me.
Kale: And for our records, I’ll just say we’re meeting towards the end of July 2022 here, in the midst of a pretty big conference season. At NEIWPCC, we’ve been very busy getting ready for the National Tanks Conference in September, but it looks like ASTSWMO must also be pretty busy with some other events as well.
Charles: Yes, we have several, and with COVID the past few years, it’s kind of pushed everything into the same calendar year. We’ve been busy with our Superfund & Brownfields Symposium and our RCRA conference, which are two of our larger conferences for the Association, and then we have the National Tanks Conference and we’re also getting ready for our Annual Membership meeting in October, which would be our first one in three years. We did a lot of virtual gatherings over the past few years, so it’s going to be good to really see everybody.
Kale: We’re kind of running into that too, where we’re transitioning out of COVID, or, at least, this phase of it, and it’s kind of like all our in-person events that we had put off, some of them were on a cycle of every other year or every three years, and now a lot of them ended up lining up. It’s been a really busy event season for NEIWPCC.
I think we work with similar kinds of groups of people, which maybe you can tell me a little more about. But NEIWPCC works with a lot of different kind of environmental officials, policymakers — state and federal and territorial and tribal — and I know it’s kind of almost an old conversation now, but we had to have this huge shift of the way that we were doing environmental work and we’ve been seeing at our conferences that everyone’s just been elated to be seeing each other in person again.
Charles: Definitely. Just making those connections. I’ll see that for probably the next year or so: friends getting back together who haven’t seen each other in a few years, and then a lot of new staff, which you’re probably seeing it with your base as well, just have never really had these opportunities yet. And trying to onboard them into the work that we do.
Kale: Right, right. Actually, as I remember, the last thing that NEIWPCC did in March of 2020 that was travel-related was some of our staff went to the planning meeting for the Tanks Conference that was supposed to happen that summer, in Pittsburgh, right?
Charles: That’s correct. Yep. Early March.
Kale: And it was something like, they came back on a Friday and then on the following Monday, it was, we’re all working from home for two weeks. Stay tuned.
Charles: Yep, same thing here. I went into the office, I believe it was that Friday or Monday, just basically to pick up my computer and all my notebooks and anything I needed for home.
Kale: You’ve been working at ASTSWMO for 15 years, right?
Charles: Yes, 15 next year.
Kale: Maybe you could talk a little more about that and how long you’ve been involved specifically with tanks and the NTC.
Charles: So, I started at ASTWSMO in 2008 — came over from an environmental consulting firm where I was representing a lot of DoD clients, working with federal facilities, and took on essentially that same program with ASTSWMO — the Department of Defense – Defense Environmental Restoration Program.
But with ASTSWMO, we’re representing the states. We’re a trade association and have been around for almost 50 years now, and our members are the solid and hazardous waste management officials in all the states, D.C., and the five territories. So, anybody who works for those programs we consider members.
So, I had the program background and when I moved over to ASTSWMO, it was essentially just the client base that switched, working with the state regulators. I did that for a few years and then in 2011, the person who worked before me managing our Tanks Subcommittee left the Association and they asked me in the interim to start doing some work on tanks until we could find somebody to take it over, but that never happened. They found me. I kept the tanks program. I still have federal facilities as well. I already knew a lot of the members just from some of the ASTSWMO conferences, had never been to an actual tanks workshop or NTC prior to that. But just having the relationships with the members already established made it an easy transition.
And then 2012 was my first tanks conference. I believe that was St. Louis. I was able to join that planning team right from the start and see what the work with NEIWPCC was all about and all the things that you all did to support it — all the logistical background, and coordinating folks from the states, EPA, and others on the planning team. That was my first experience working with NEIWPCC and on the Tanks Conference.
So I guess this would probably be my fifth conference. I haven’t counted, so you can probably correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve been doing tanks since then, established great relationships with the NEIWPCC staff…It’s always been a great relationship and, you know, it’s not just work. We, in the planning team, might hang out sometimes or go to dinner, things like that. So it’s always been fun.
Kale: Looking at what we have lined up for this year and thinking about everything that’s happened over the last two years, what differences are you anticipating at this year’s conference? I mean, we’ve already talked a little about how excited you think people are going to be to get back to in-person, but what else do you think is different and what else do you think has changed?
Charles: I would say there hasn’t been much difference with the overall structure of the tanks conference. I think the way that the Expo is put on and then also the presentations, the track system that we have where we try to group things by program areas, that’s been pretty constant. And I think it’s a good thing. I think the EPA, the states, the industry value that as well; there’s a lot of opportunity there. There’s always something that’s going to interest you.
I’d like to think that this year, a lot of the topics at NTC are more about looking ahead. I think the previous conferences were a lot more about trainings, case studies, best practices, things of that nature. While that’s still there this year, I see a lot of forward thinking, and a lot more dialogue-type sessions. We’re including some topics of interest to both states and industry and allowing folks to just have opportunities for open discussion, share perspectives from all around the country. I think that’s a good change.
For example, the supply chain issues that a lot of people are seeing that are probably a reaction to COVID, and probably related to a lot of other things going on with the economy and politics today: I’m looking forward to seeing what people share on that. ASTSWMO has started looking, in the past couple years, at what we’re calling emerging trends — some things that state managers who have been around a while and may be retiring soon have seen over the years that they’d like to share before they leave, on programmatic topics but also just economic, social trends that may impact the whole industry. Things like climate change, the transition to alternate fuels, electronic vehicles, and how that may impact the industry and gas stations. Obviously money, just, available federal dollars, state taxes changes, those areas.
And then aging tanks is a huge issue that’s been talked about for several years, but I think now with warranties ending on a lot of the older tank systems, many states are starting to have initiatives put in place to pull those old tanks. And then what that’s going to leave behind — what’s going to happen with those sites? There are gas stations that might just close up shop, and then there are owners, operators pulling the tanks and replacing them with some of the newer steel and FRP [fiber-reinforced plastic] tanks.
So yeah, overall, I just think that the forward thinking of this conference, looking ahead to the future, is going to be the biggest change from previous years.
Kale: We know, too, that there’s been a lot of staff turnover in the last couple of years. Do you expect to see a lot of new faces, maybe some younger faces?
Charles: Yeah, and also folks who have worked in a different program in the water world or like a chemical cleanup program that have come over to tanks. We’ve noticed that just with our regular work groups. ASTSWMO had our Mid-Year Meeting, our first one in the last couple years, this past May. And I want to say, for the tanks program, 70 to 75% of our work group members I had never met before in person. Some of those are just younger, new staff that have come on in the past few years. Others had just never had that opportunity to work closely with ASTSWMO and one of our working groups.
So again, I think that’s going to be a big thing, with all those networking opportunities that we have at NTC, like the social event the night before the conference, the trade show that we’re going to have at the beginning… Some of the old timers introducing their newer staff to colleagues that they know… I think that’s going to be a big thing, the networking.
Kale: What about the work you’re doing do you find most rewarding? If you have some specific experience, or if you want to talk more generally on what you love about your job.
Charles: Oh yeah, I just go back to the mission for ASTSWMO and our members and EPA of protecting health and the environment. Obviously, that’s the most rewarding thing.
Speaking on my personal experience, looking back as a kid, you’d go to the gas station and all you’d do is smell fumes. You know, you’d see the leaks on the ground. It’s just, maybe folks just thought that that’s just the way gas stations were: dirty, smelly, things like that.
But now, and this might be kind of silly to some people, but, you know, you can see the good work of the regulators, and of the owners and operators, too, and what it’s meant getting them on board over the past few decades. Just seeing that overall change in appearance and technology…You can see our members’ work in action anytime you go and fill up your fuel tanks. It’s not every time I go to the gas station, I think about that. But yeah, I would just say seeing that work in action, really every day, any day you leave the house. It’s rewarding.
And I guess ASTSWMO as a whole, just in the past few years, especially with COVID, that big push to virtual has made it a lot easier to provide education and as many opportunities as possible to our members. A big issue could pop up and now we can quickly put together a webinar or round table on that. And helpful, too, with the next generation of folks, trying to keep them interested not only in environmental protection but in the work that the tanks programs do, passing on historic knowledge and experiences of some of the members down to newer staff to show how important this work is.
Kale: You know, that’s funny you say that, because NEIWPCC is celebrating its 75th anniversary, and then we’re also all celebrating this year the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and, as a young professional who is not yet 30 years old, I’m younger than all of these programs that I’m working with.
So, it’s been really interesting, with the anniversaries, having a lot of different conversations with folks who’ve been working in environmental protection for, to me, a really long time, and some of them who can remember before the Clean Water Act or who were involved with that.
I can’t — I don’t have that perspective on what it’s like when things aren’t cleaned up. It’s just a whole different baseline. We’ve had this big influx of new staff into our office as well, who are very passionate about these issues, but I wonder if it’s kind of different. I mean, it must just be so strange for people who’ve been able to see the impact of their work over the years but then also so many environmental problems are so out of sight, out of mind. Tanks, underground storage tanks, especially.
And I do wonder whether people now aren’t going to know or are going to forget how important all of these environmental programs are, if, because the programs are doing their job, they’re going to kind of forget they’re there. I don’t know.
Charles: We’re trying to focus on training for the new staff, and that’s a good perspective for us to understand, of folks coming into these environmental agencies or a nonprofit or commission like where we work, when we think about what keeps them there. If the programs are running along, while obviously there are always new issues that pop up, how much are new staff going to want to monitor things are going along automatically? You know, checking boxes and metrics and things like that. I haven’t really thought about that, but I think that’s a good point. How do we keep the new, younger staff interested and passionate about the individual programs? I think everybody who works for these state agencies or our associations are passionate about the environment, but you also have to be passionate about your day-to-day work.
But I do think conferences like the NTC are very important for that bonus to the job. Meeting new friends, sharing perspectives. You’re going to meet new people that can help you if a problem comes up in your state or a problem comes up in your agency. You’ve got those contacts. And there’s that friendship bonus too. At least for folks of my age and just from my experience, I’ve always found those opportunities to connect very valuable. I guess that’s one big takeaway from the tanks conference.
Kale: We’ve been talking about partnerships and talking about the different players, the different groups in the tanks community, and about engaging young professionals. I think sometimes we think of these organizations as big, faceless things, when really they’re made up of individuals making those connections. Young professionals can feel like they have a lot of agency to be making connections and to really be taking ownership of their work and problem solving all of the time because of that. I think that’s great.
Charles: Yeah. And I think those more experienced folks are always willing to go and make those introductions with some of their newer staff. Are you going to the tanks conference? Is this going to be your first one?
Charles: Yeah. So I’m sure NEIWPCC does this too, but if not come get me, but, you know, we’re not just going to throw you into the conference by yourself and say go off now and make friends! Everyone makes sure to work with the newer staff.
Kale: Yeah, thanks! I’m really excited for the conference. Everybody that I’ve talked to so far in the tanks world has just been so helpful and friendly.
Charles: Well, that’s good to hear, yeah.
Kale: Yes. Thanks, Charles. I look forward to meeting you at NTC.
Charles: You too, Kale. Thanks.