Division of Archives and Records Service

ARO Spotlight: Department of Environmental Quality Records Team

Renee Wilson
October 16, 2023

Over the several years that I’ve been a RIM specialist at the State Archives, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many different State departments. The Department of Environmental Quality has consistently reached out to State Archives over the years, and is always just delightful to work with, so I wanted to recognize them for that. Instead of highlighting a single person, I decided to highlight the whole Department Records Team.

Meet the Department

The Department of Environmental Quality has an excellent records program, headed and implemented by a stellar records team. The Department’s purpose is to safeguard and improve Utah’s air, land, and water through balanced regulation. They implement State and federal environmental laws and work with individuals, community groups, and businesses to protect the quality of Utah’s air, land, and water.

DEQ Divisions

Meet the Divisions of the Department and their records officers:

Division of Air Quality (DAQ)

Tanner Lemer

Division of Drinking Water (DDW)

Andrea Thurlow

Division of Environmental Response & Remediation (DERR)

Elisa Smith (18 yrs), Jennifer Nelson (8 yrs), Linda Gould (10 yrs), Seini Siala (1 yr)

Division of Waste Management & Radiation Control (DWMRC)

Alyssa Stringham (2 yrs), Jordan Kerns

Division of Water Quality (DWQ)

David Pierson

Executive Director’s Office (EDO)

Brenda Johnson – 1 year (“Eek, I’m a newbie!”)

AG Office – Environmental Division

Shane Bekkemellom

What is your favorite part of the job?

Brenda Johnson (EDO): We have a monthly Records Officer Roundtable that I facilitate.  I love learning from all of the other records officers.

Elisa Smith (DERR): When someone calls, I love that I can make their day by helping them locate something they thought was going to be really hard to track down.

Jennifer Nelson (DERR): I love exceeding the expectations of the requesters by responding usually within one day, if not the same day, to their requests; and providing them with the records they are looking for, or referring them to the proper place. 

Linda Gould (DERR): It embraces her introverted nature. (Me too, Linda!)

Seini Siala (DERR): Sometimes you find out some random, cool information regarding the request you are searching. It can be fun! 

Alyssa Stringham (DWMRC): I really enjoy it when record searches feel like a puzzle clicking into place and I feel confident I’m getting as much as I can to provide to the public, or when I find something that was difficult to locate. I’m also a little bit nosy and enjoy reading and learning some of the stories about the agency’s earlier years and the facilities we regulate through their correspondence (and I guess I’m just weird enough to find environmental regulation of waste and radiation fun like it could be juicy gossip). I also get to read some hilarious staff emails on occasion. Don’t get me wrong, though, I take my position and State records very seriously!

What are some records success stories and challenges?

DERR: The DERR has a very large Superfund project with records dating back to the early 1900s. This means historical records galore. There was a request submitted by another State agency where they need records that we have in the office bound in three hard cover books. This would have taken a very long time and become very costly to copy and/or scan (if not nearly impossible for DERR staff). The same challenges would have faced staff from the other State agency had they wanted to come into our office to view the records. Working closely with the other agency, we arranged the Utah Correction Industries (UCI) to digitize the books for us. This gave both agencies a digitized copy to work from, and also to better provide to the public. UCI was able to complete the task under budget and in a record time frame. Since this was such a success, the DERR will now be looking into utilizing UCI for other historical records scanning, saving the DERR time and money. 

DWMRC: Our biggest successes have been implementing templates to make responses as consistent as possible while being compliant with the GRAMA law, specifically our Property Address Only Response. Since our Division records are not maintained by Property Address or Parcel Number, this response gives requesters a way to start their own research and return to us for more information once they know what they’re looking for in more specific terms, and it provides denial and appeal language as required by the GRAMA law. Our return/repeat customers have adapted, and we have adapted as well, to providing and responding to much more specific and direct requests and to actually get at the records of most interest.

Another big success is that we have developed a skeleton procedure through trial-and-error for processing and classifying huge email records requests (we’re talking thousands of responsive records), and we’ve somehow managed to complete a few of them with minimal bloodshed.

Our biggest challenges are that many of our records before 2005 are not digitized, and that represents a huge chunk of our regulatory and facilities’ histories. This puts an additional scanning burden on requests for older records. Similarly, we get the occasional large-scope request for email records, which is a huge additional burden on the records officers to convert, format, and compile records, and on the AD and AGO to provide classification or legal assistance regarding some of the trickier email records. 

What is your advice to other records officers?

Elisa Smith (DERR): Get as many records available online as possible, as it makes it easier for you and the requester. Also, have more than one records officer, and attend regular trainings. 

Jennifer Nelson (DERR): Don’t make things more complicated than they need to be. Follow the KISS method (Keep it Simple Stupid).  

Linda Gould (DERR): Make sure employees old and new understand the basic premises of GRAMA and their role in making records available to the public. This helps records from slipping though the cracks in some obscure folder the records officer doesn’t know about.

Alyssa Stringham (DWMRC): I really recommend that the key to balance, especially in processing a large volume of records requests or a particularly gnarly request to parse out, is to work on one piece at a time. Consider all of the tasks at hand as a first come, first served issue, break out what you can do now, devote your full attention to one piece/step at a time and take it as far as you can go before moving on to the next item (whether that be the next part of a huge request or the next request altogether). Take detailed notes or journal while you’re doing it (in whatever medium is most comfortable and memorable to you, for me that is handwritten, but I know others prefer other methods), and it gets easier the more practice you get. Plus, then you have evidence of your search and a reminder of what you’ve already completed. ALSO–address problems when you come to them! Don’t let them sit or become forgotten. I’ve learned (and am still learning) the hard way that it’s better to ask “silly questions” than to let an issue snowball into an even bigger problem.