Some came for the live, up-close-and-personal displays of aquatic critters that usually stay hidden at the bottoms of nearby streams and rivers. Others came for the chance to win a free rain barrel, to view the DEP Falcon Cam live on the big screen, or to hold and examine equipment used to detect radiation and air pollution. But what the staff of DEP’s North-central Regional Office (NCRO) heard the most from visitors to the office’s Earth Day Open House was, “I came to learn more about what you do!”
With those hundreds of face-to-face, one-on-one interactions at the April 23 event, the staff of DEP’s Williamsport office kicked off “DEP Connects,” a new venue to help residents of Pennsylvania explore how DEP fits into their daily life.
DEP Connects is a new opportunity for Pennsylvanians to engage with DEP in their own backyards through events like the Open House. Each of DEP’s six regional offices will host a variety of in-person programs featuring topics of local interest around the state.
Mark Stephens, a Groundwater Geologist who represented the Safe Drinking Water Program at the NCRO Earth Day Open House, said DEP Connects events will help the public to better understand DEP’s many functions. “The majority of the general public are not part of permitted entities, engineers, or professional consultants, and the people I interact with sometimes start with the perception of DEP as a ‘black box,’” said Stephens. “At the Open House, we had a good cross-section of people, including the very young, students, seniors, and even local elected officials. At our table, we had a chance to discuss the importance of well caps, protective casing construction, and regular water quality testing with them.”
Citizens were welcomed to the regional office to talk one-on-one with DEP staff representing all of the agency’s specialized programs. This event was the first general, region-wide open house offered by NCRO since 1995, when the office moved to its current location. “We thought an open house was the perfect way to invite everyone back to our home to engage with DEP as we prepared to roll out the new DEP Connects program,” said Regional Director Marcus Kohl.
DEP Connects is designed to be flexible and dynamic, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Each DEP regional office will hold at least three events each year, but the topic, format, and location for each event will change, because each DEP Connects event will be designed to address local issues and needs.
“DEP wants to meet you in your community to discuss our work, showcase examples of environmental innovation and leadership, and hear your questions, concerns, and ideas,” said Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “DEP Connects is an accessible way for the public to engage directly with DEP on the environmental challenges and opportunities facing our communities.”
Events may include including open houses such as the April 23 event, plus project site tours, panel discussions, DEP staff presentations, guest presentations from other agencies, and more. Once each year, DEP will select a statewide priority issue, and all regions will hold coordinated DEP Connects events addressing the same theme, but filtered through the local lens.
“This new program reflects our commitment to proactively engage with Pennsylvanians and seek better ways to work together to more effectively carry out DEP’s mission, which is to protect our air, land, and water and provide for the public’s health and safety through a cleaner environment,” said McDonnell.
To sign up for the DEP Connects program, all Pennsylvania residents are invited to visit the DEP Connects website and complete a brief survey, including your name, contact information, and topics of interest. DEP will use this information to contact participants when an event of interest is planned in their local area. Bookmark and check the page regularly, because DEP will also post recaps of DEP Connects events around the state as they take place.
The DEP Connects program replaces the previous Regional Roundtable program, which originated in the 1980s and was still operational in some regions. The new DEP Connects program will continue to embrace the local stakeholder organizations that were represented on the Roundtables, but has been expanded to be more inclusive of all sectors of the community.
DEP plans to survey attendees at DEP Connects events to gather feedback to make the program as effective as possible. A post-event survey of attendees to the Earth Day Open House revealed that all respondents said the Open House met or exceeded their expectations. Attendees noted their appreciation of the chance to talk individually with DEP staff, learn about the breadth of DEP programs, and pick up informational handouts to bring home.