Interview with Alisa Richardson
This week we have a special guest for the podcast. We are interviewing Alisa Richardson! Alisa is a professional engineer and currently working with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. She is the acting administrator of the environmental division at that agency. Prior to being at DOT, Alisa worked for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Take a listen as she shares her story and they discuss what it means being an expert in the field.
Interview with Alisa Richardson – Podcast Episode Transcript
MARISA: Hi, everybody. I am Marisa Desautel. This is Environmentally Speaking. I am solo today. My cohost Clarice Parsons is doing something else. I can’t remember what the heck it was but clearly more important than this. And in an exciting turn of events, I was able to convince a friend and colleague to speak with us today, so you’re going to be listening to the two of us give you a little bit of background and then an update on some of the policies and programs at the state level and get her side of the experience being an environmental professional.
So the person that I’m talking about is Alisa Richardson. She is a professional engineer and currently working with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. She is the acting administrator of the environmental division at that agency. Prior to being at DOT, Alisa worked for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management which is where the two of us had an opportunity to work together. So hello, Alisa.
ALISA: Hey. Good morning.
MARISA: Good morning. So I just gave a little bit of background for you, but I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind providing our audience with some more information about your education and work history.
ALISA: Sure. I’m also a management professional and my work at DEM was in the water resources section which includes the wetlands and the septic system group. I focused mostly on water quality, water withdraws, and stormwater management. And now I’m helping DOT achieve consent decree goals because they got slapped on the wrist for not doing enough stormwater and now they have quite the prescribed set of goals they have to meet now. It’s been very rewarding helping them make improvements around the state water quality wise.
MARISA: Now, when you say that DOT got slapped on the wrist, what does that mean?
ALISA: Actually, it’s a little bit worse than that. Yeah. So EPA said, hey, you know, for 20 years you haven’t been doing the right – you’ve been ignoring stormwater, you haven’t been keeping with the basins, you haven’t been cleaning your catch basins, you haven’t been putting in, you know, ponds where you need to to stop [inaudible] and to keep the water quality at bay. And so they went to court and ended up in a consent decree with a judgment between EPA and DOT and they had to spend $100 million in ten years on stormwater and hence the office of stormwater management at DEM was born – DOT. I still go back and forth between them.
[0:03:05] MARISA: I know.
ALISA: But DOT was born, yeah
MARISA: I forget sometimes that we don’t work at DEM anymore. It was a good run while we were there, though.
ALISA: It was a good run.
MARISA: Yeah. So is it fair to say that you started at the Department of Transportation as a result of that enforcement action from EPA?
MARISA: And how long have you been there?
ALISA: Five years now.
MARISA: Okay. And besides working for DOT, we also do private work together, right, you and me saving the planet? Yeah?
ALISA: Yeah. [inaudible]. So, yeah, I do some – I worked as an expert a few times at DEM side and not yet at DOT but on the private side and it’s been a very interesting learning experience. I think it’s helped me at the state end, as well, sort of seeing really the whole [inaudible] develop happens. You know, it’s interesting. When I worked for the DEM, you’re immediately respected and you’re immediately listened to. And then when I work for a client, I’m the same person. I’m saying the same things. It’s just they’re kind of blanking out, sometimes board members might be.
Or I remember one time I tried to testify and I was completely ignored. I was considered like Joe Q. Public, you know, and so – or maybe Jane Q. Public. But it wasn’t until we asked you to represent this case and you had to present me as an expert until they actually recognized and I got a place at the table to actually speak more [inaudible] comments at the end. So and then all of a sudden that weight was, you know, a lot higher.
MARISA: It’s interesting to hear you talk about – the case that you’re mentioning is the Sand Pond matter in Warwick where a nongovernment nonprofit group was objecting to a project that was likely to impact the water quality of a particular natural resource called Sand Pond. And you’re absolutely right that your testimony in that case was the same whether or not an attorney introduced you to the board and whether or not you were represented by me or someone else. The subject matter of your objection never changed, but the board will not recognize an expert unless an attorney introduces that person and puts them through a mini expert analysis so the board can then formally recognize the person as an expert.
So you could stand up – I’ve seen it happen, actually – in front of other municipal boards where folks stand up and think that they can ask to be recognized as an expert and it just doesn’t work that way. So unfortunately for municipal projects, groups do have to spend the money to hire an attorney, but I think it’s worth it. I mean, having an expert witness explain to a layperson what the issues are with stormwater and water quality is – I mean, you need an expert. People don’t have that base of understanding otherwise. So talking a little bit about your experience on the municipal process, what is your perspective on how municipal boards like planning boards and zoning boards view what DEM and CRMC are saying in the municipal process?
[0:07:18] ALISA: Yeah. So that also was very enlightening having started to, you know, work as an expert in private cases. When a project comes before the board – and so there’s sort of two bubbles happening that aren’t communicating. There’s the cities and towns and then there’s the DEM or CRMC and they’re not always – and the go between is the developer or the consultant and some consultants – not all of them but some of them are very good at playing, you know, mom against dad, I guess, you know.
ALISA: And so they’ll be very selective in the information they provide to the city or town and vice versa. They won’t tell the DEM that they’re having all kinds of zoning issues or planning issues, or. And then on the other side, they won’t tell the [inaudible], you know, DEM was asking a lot of questions about the setbacks or wetlands, you know, or the size of the project or the size of the development. And so but the other big thing is is that there are different rules for the boards and the towns and for DEM. They’re different areas of responsibility. So the DEM and CRMC are all about like the wetlands, but planning and zoning are about what is your community like, what does your community want to be like.
And so DEM will say, okay, this footprint building goes here and you’ve set it back far enough the wetlands. You did your stormwater. That’s fine, but they don’t care what goes in that building. They don’t care, you know, how many trucks go in and out of that building. They don’t care about what hazardous materials might be coming in and out of that building. That’s not their jurisdiction. That’s not their responsibility. They don’t care if the building’s super high and it’s a giant tower. They don’t care. That’s not under the – you know, or is it a – you know, was it the biggest building you could put on there, or did it have the right amount of parking. All of that is not under DEM. So you just can’t go and walk into the [inaudible] and say, well, it has DEM approval, so this is the project. That’s not fair.
MARISA: But that’s what happens, right?
ALISA: Exactly what happens, yeah.
MARISA: Yeah. In my experience, and I’m sure yours, as well, in appearing and testifying before the planning board and the zoning boards of the various municipalities in Rhode Island, developers and consultants when they get to the environmental discussion about a project will often say, town, you can’t have an opinion on this because DEM or CRMC at the state level has approved it, so you should defer to them and just don’t even do your own analysis and let’s move on to the next issue. And I don’t think that’s appropriate and it sounds like you agree.
[0:10:38] ALISA: I do agree. Again, there are so many nuances to a development. You know, what if it’s a McDonald’s drive-through right in your backyard and you’ve got all these lights everywhere [inaudible] doesn’t care. That’s not – so you do have something to say about it.
MARISA: Yeah. So instead of that deferential treatment, let’s call it, what would you as an expert and someone who cares about the planet – what would you like to see happen to that DEM and town process?
ALISA: Yeah. I’ve been saying for a long time that communication to be a lot better. I think they tried to do that with the new regulations and it’s partially there. Mostly it’s more than DEM is now going to require – with these new regs they’re going to require your master planning approval documentation. Sometimes they’ll go into DEM before they get master plan approval and then say, this is it. I mean, then I suppose – I don’t know. So it’s not like in stone. Oh, it has to be this way because DEM said okay. So, yeah. But it’s not quite probably as thorough of communication as I probably would have liked to see, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.
MARISA: And when you say new regulations, what are you talking about?
ALISA: Yeah. So January – I mean, July 1st the new regs for freshwater wetlands and CRMC are coming out and it’s going to change a lot of – it’s going to change the permitting process dramatically and also how the reviews are done and how things are submitted, so it’s a pretty big overhaul.
MARISA: Do you think the changes that you’ve talked about are going to make the process more confusing with the cities and towns?
ALISA: Oh, yeah. [inaudible] confusing for everybody right now. I mean, but, you know, for consultants there are going to be mistakes. I mean, it’s just when you make that kind of a change, you know, everybody’s wet behind the ears for that – wetlands are going to be wet behind the ears for a good, I don’t know, six, eight months, a year maybe even trying to exactly figure out how to go about it. I mean, they’re training their own staff. They have to train their own staff. I mean, some of the reg writers were – I remember at DOT ten years ago they were starting to rewrite these regs and there were meetings on a weekly basis. I mean, you can’t – you know, for five years you can’t, you know, have that much going on and that much discussion all of a sudden just pop out and have everybody get inside [inaudible] that quickly, you know.
[0:13:35] MARISA: On the private side as an expert, are you anticipating having or working with clients that you’ll have to provide testimony to the municipal boards on what the new regulations actually say because they’re going to look to you, right? You’re the expert, so.
ALISA: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I’m more on the engineering side than the wetlands side. I think before in the regs it would have been easier for me to testify in terms of this is the wetland flag and this is the distance you should be set back from the wetland flag, but now you will need a wetland biologist as an expert because it probably is going – because the setbacks are now based on is it a swamp fen, 40 percent bog of cedar swamps. I don’t know. Like there’s so many different variables to these setbacks.
ALISA: There could be a difference of opinion. No, I think it’s more than 40 percent fen and it’s this much bog, or. You know, I’m sure I’m using the wrong term, so if you’re a wetland biologist please – I’m an engineer. I defer to you, so to speak. So I do see in the future at least when you’re negotiating setbacks from these what could be wetland opinions about what kind of wetland this is it could mean the difference of 15 to 20 feet, but that could be where your pool goes or your stone wall or a, you know, 12-bedroom house versus a three-bedroom house, you know, so.
MARISA: Yeah. So are you thinking that the new wetlands regulations won’t necessarily impact your scope of expertise, or will they?
ALISA: No. I don’t think so. I think once the setbacks are set that – so there’s going to be two phases. Like before it was just so simple, isolated wetland zero, combined wetland 25 feet. You know, if it’s a ten-foot-wide river, you know, 100 foot larger than ten or 200 feet and that’s it. You were done. Now there are buffers. There are setbacks. There is a buffer zone. There’s a jurisdictional area. Like, I mean, once you decide what the wetland is and what those buffers are, then the engineering part of it is pretty straightforward and the stormwater part is the same. So, you know, I think the argument is going to be a little bit on those buffers now.
MARISA: Okay. So that’s the takeaway. Know your buffers.
[0:16:08] ALISA: Yeah. Know your buffers. That is my big takeaway. Another thing I wanted to mention – oh.
MARISA: Go ahead. Go ahead.
ALISA: Yeah. Something I want to mention about being an expert, another experience I found that really surprised me is that if the board or even the court reading that Sand Pond judgment – which we won, by the way. Congrats – if you didn’t have opposing experts — it’s almost like the experts are on a weight on a scale and they cancel each other out. So for the judgments that we didn’t have an opposing expert, it’s almost like they kind of rule in the other side’s favor. But when you had two experts saying different things, which seems kind of difficult, but it does, it almost like weighted out. And, you know, so you can see why like these large developers have so many experts on their side because if it goes to court the judge says, okay, they’re the expert, and it just takes that one opinion and it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. It doesn’t matter what the public says. It doesn’t matter. It was pretty revealing.
MARISA: Yeah. Yeah. And, frankly, as an attorney I love that because I have a very well respected – including you, Alisa – network of professionals that I bring in for my environmental cases because I’m not a technical expert. I know a little bit and I prefer to make sure that I’ve got the resources on my client’s side that we need to explain to anyone that we’re appearing in front of why a project should or should not go forward. And it’s a wonderful tool because there’s so much technical information associated with the environment that a lawyer is just not – I mean, my role is very different from what a subject matter expert is discussing. So it can be frustrating, sure, that this expert says yes, this expert says no. They cancel each other out, but that just means you have to get the more qualified expert in my opinion which is why I like working [inaudible].
ALISA: And you have to find the holes.
MARISA: What’s that?
ALISA: And you have to find the holes in the other –
ALISA: — in the opposing argument. That becomes – if they understand them, if the board understands it and the judge understands it that’s –
MARISA: Yeah. That’s another topic.
MARISA: So, Alisa, any last thoughts here or advice that you might have for someone appearing before a municipal board?
[0:18:56] ALISA: Yeah. I would say, first, I’m kind of like an educator. Like that’s kind of like my natural tendency to want to teach them about stuff and that I really saw wasn’t fruitful. And so not that I – you know, so it ended up being – really try to be simple, clear, maybe factual and if analogies help sometimes — you know, we had a few phrases we coined, you know, like what happens to Sand Pond stays in Sand Pond, you know, some things that sort of ring true.
ALISA: It’s just, yeah, stick to the facts and then look for the holes. But, yeah, be confident and – but I don’t know.
MARISA: Don’t be stupid.
ALISA: And don’t try to use words that are your natural vernacular and technical. Like you can, but maybe I think the more intelligent person can actually explain it – can explain things in more common words.
MARISA: Right. Yeah. All right. Well, I appreciate all the references to Sand Pond. That was a good case to work on with you and I hope that you consider coming back maybe in the future if our audience has any follow-up questions, so maybe keep that in mind. And thanks for your time this morning. If anyone has any comments or questions for Alisa, you can reach out to us at Help@DesautelESQ.com. And we are available on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. And, yeah, I really appreciate your time, Alisa, and I hope the audience got a good understanding of what it’s like working in the environmental field from your perspective.
ALISA: I hope so, too. And thank you, Marisa. It’s always a pleasure working with you and, you know, I consider you – keep fighting the good fight. Appreciate it.
MARISA: Same. You, too. All right.
ALISA: All right.
MARISA: Thanks, Alisa. Bye, everybody.
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