Layoffs, Job Turnover Likely in Louisville’s Air Pollution Control District Reorganization

The news last week that the Air Pollution Control District would undergo reorganization in the wake of several critical audits sparked worries from the agency’s employees, as well as criticism from an environmental group that perceived the change as an attack on the APCD’s pollution enforcement programs.

And now, new information has come to light about the number of potential jobs that could be eliminated in the shakeup.

The APCD’s reorganization comes after audits from the state and federal government found serious problems with the way the agency handled its air monitoring program, and called the collected data about Louisville’s air quality into question. APCD director Keith Talley said addressing the air monitoring issues also meant looking at the agency as a whole and reevaluating every department.

“We are one agency so what happened in the air monitoring section, you really need to look at the entire agency to address that issue because there are other problems that led to that. That wasn’t just strictly in one department,” he told WFPL.

“So you want to take a look at the whole agency and look at all of those things that could have led to that audit. And that’s why the entire agency was reviewed.”

That review led to a reorganization, which is why job descriptions have been updated and nearly every APCD employee will have to reapply for their jobs. Nothing’s been set in stone yet, but some people will likely be laid off.

Talley says reports from sources that a total of ten employees would be laid off are fairly accurate. “I would say that’s in the ballpark,” he said. “Again, that overall number is fluid.”

As of November, there were 67 total positions at the APCD, though some were vacant. A current list of employees shows that 59 people were being paid by the agency as of last week.

Talley says those job losses could affect both union and non-union positions. But those eliminated positions don’t include the staff who are finding themselves unqualified on paper for their current jobs. The local union that represents 19 APCD employees—the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—estimates that among union members alone, 15 employees could lose their jobs.

All of the union job descriptions at the APCD have been rewritten to require a bachelor’s degree, whereas before job applicants could substitute experience for formal education. And AFSCME local 2629 president Wesley Stover estimates only four of the environmental specialists, compliance officers and technicians represented by the union could meet the new criteria.

“The reoccurring theme that the audits talk about is lack of training, lack of proper equipment, lack of correct policies,” Stover said. “These items are things that Metro Government has controlled. So it seems the employees have not been provided with what they need to do the job successfully.”

Stover said increasing the education requirements for the positions won’t fix those problems. And for a workforce that’s mostly made up of people with eight to 28 years on the job, there’s a lot of potential experience that could be lost.

“In a meeting with HR, we asked the question, ‘How is someone that is just getting out of college with a communications degree more qualified for this job than someone with 20 years of experience in the job?’” Stover said. “And there was no answer for that, other than to say the mayor requested a private consultant to do a review and that was one of the recommendations from the consultant.”

It was actually one of the recommendations from the Environmental Protection Agency, which suggested the air monitoring personnel should have a degree in science or engineering, but didn’t suggest that standard should apply to all compliance officers and environmental specialists. From the audit:

EPA Region 4 has identified the need for well trained, qualified personnel in the operation of LMAPCD’s ambient air monitoring network. The long term solution will have to address the agency’s ability to maintain qualified, trained staff with strong technical skills. EPA typically fills similar positions with individuals with a college degree in one of the physical sciences or engineering. The complexity and sophistication of monitoring equipment in use today is far beyond the manual sampling equipment in use 20 years ago. Today’s instrumentation is more stable but needs greater care and understanding of its function and operation. As monitoring programs are asked to do more with less, it is critical that operational staff have the technical knowledge and training to meet these new challenges.

The affected union members are the APCD employees who respond to citizen complaints and enforce permits, as well as the environmental specialists and air pollution technicians who conduct air monitoring and lab tests. Their salaries range between about $33,000 and $53,000 annually.

Talley, the new APCD director, pointed out that everyone else has to reapply too (except for Talley himself, a yet-to-be-named Assistant Director, spokesman Tom Nord and all APCD engineers, who underwent reorganization a few years ago).

“The fact that all of the non-union employees are having to apply for their positions I think should indicate that it’s not directed toward any particular department within the agency,” he said. “Our whole goal is for APCD is to be a better and stronger organization, and that’s the only goal.”

The Sierra Club has blasted the agency for the shakeup, saying it’s targeting the APCD’s enforcement division. Here’s what Senior Kentucky Campaign Representative Daniel Sawmiller said in a statement:

“This political shake-up appears to be a handout to big polluters like Louisville Gas & Electric who have repeatedly been fined by this agency for harming their neighbors. Were it not for the dedicated staff at APCD and its air quality tests, many Louisville residents would be forced to continue to breathe in toxic coal ash from LG&E’s dangerous coal-burning plants. This is supposed to be the agency that residents can trust and turn to for help. APCD protects consumers and these recent actions are a symptom of a larger problem — Kentucky’s addiction to coal and preference to polluters over people’s health.”

Talley said those accusations are baseless. Of the union members affected by the shakeup, about half are in enforcement, while the rest are in other departments.

But Talley said the reorganization does also include some changes to the Environmental Manager position currently held by Terri Phelps.

Phelps oversees enforcement for the APCD; she supervises the employees who investigate complaints and has been integral in issuing notices of violation to companies like Louisville Gas & Electric. Under the agency’s current organization chart, Phelps is included in the top tier of employees, supervised by the executive director. But under the new chart, that position will be replaced by an engineering-level position to oversee both enforcement and compliance.

The matter isn’t completely settled, but the change will add another layer of management and improve workflow between the compliance and enforcement divisions, Talley said. And he said the APCD has been given adequate funding and support to perform all its duties.

“This was not driven, at all in my opinion, by financial concerns. It was about making the agency a better agency,” he said.

Listen to APCD Director Keith Talley address the agency’s reorganization:

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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