35 Years at NHDES: perspective from staff who have helped shape the agency from the beginning

Date: May 06, 2022

In honor of NHDES’ 35th anniversary, we are asking staff who have been here since the agency’s formation to look back at their time here and what they see for our future. In this edition, we hear from Air Resources Division Director Craig Wright, who started with NHDES in 1988.

What made you want to work at NHDES in the first place?

In 1987, I was working at a small R&D [research and development] company in Waltham, MA, and was commuting three hours per day, and I knew I didn’t want to move to the big city. So I applied for a job here at DES as Air Permitting Engineer. My original intent was to stay here for maybe a year or two and then return to the private sector. But as it turned out, there were great opportunities for professional growth here at DES and I realized that the work here really spoke to me as I have always loved the outdoors and our natural environment. Working here really means something to me. Plus, I was born and raised in New Hampshire and went to UNH, and having a long-term professional career serving the State of New Hampshire seemed like something I really wanted to accomplish. It’s nothing I ever envisioned myself doing, but it’s been really a remarkable 34, almost 35 years.

How many and what types of positions have you held at the department?

My entire career at DES has been within the Air Division. I’ve had six different jobs, starting out as a permit engineer, I worked my way through the permit program, eventually becoming the assistant division director and then finally the Air Director in 2013. My career here started two years before the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, which became the catalyst for a major expansion of the air program in New Hampshire and the entire country. It has been a remarkable ride and experience.

What were the biggest environmental challenges of the day when you first started here?

Speaking from an air quality standpoint, when I first started, the biggest challenge was our failure to comply with the ozone national ambient air quality standard [NAAQS], a federal health-based standard. Ozone has historically been our biggest regulatory driver and back then, it was not unusual to have 15 or 20 days a summer when ozone levels in New Hampshire exceeded the NAAQS. Today, we are officially in compliance with the ozone standards. We still on occasion have some [exceedance] days during the summer primarily from transported pollution into the state. Another significant challenge we faced in those early days was implementing the new federal Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. With that, we needed to implement a number of air quality control programs including the federal Title V Permit program, NOx and VOC RACT, Stage II for gasoline recovery at filling stations, Transportation Conformity and reformulated gasoline.  All of these things were new to us so it was really something that we had never seen or done before, so it was a remarkable time.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen at the department over the last 35 years?

DES was formed in 1987, the year before I started, but I still remember that in those early years I worked here at DES, the Air Division was located in downtown Concord, separated from most of DES. Seeing that DES was a new agency and we were physically separated, it didn’t really seem like we were a department. We finally moved up to Hazen Drive and joined the rest of the department in 1999, as I recall, and that’s where really started to feel like we were part of a department.

About 10 years ago, we really started to embrace technology as a means to make us more efficient in our day-to-day work, and we have really seen some great advances in our data management and business processes.

During my tenure here, DES has always been a largely professional staff-based organization and in recent years we have lost a lot of long-serving, ultra-talented and dedicated people to retirements. This has presented so many challenges, but it has been great to see some of new, young talent we have attracted over the last several years, which is great for the future of DES.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the state over the last 35 years?

We know that the population of New Hampshire has increased quite a bit in the last 35 years and that puts lot of demands on our natural environment. It also seems like more people than ever like to get out and enjoy our mountains, lakes and forests, and I can’t blame them! I really think that that makes our mission more important than ever.

From an environmental standpoint, I believe we have seen remarkable accomplishments across all of the DES programs and from a core standpoint our air, water and lands are in better shape than when I started 34 years ago. We still have major challenges, but I think the last 35 years have been good overall for New Hampshire’s environment. Our air is cleaner to breathe and our water is safer to drink overall, but we still have challenges to meet.

What environmental successes have you seen or been a part of?

Since 1990, with the passing of the Clean Air Act amendments and a number of State statutes, we have seen air emissions of all the criteria and air toxics emissions decrease in the last 35 years. That represents a lot of hard work by hundreds of dedicated people through the years.

As a result, we have seen improvement across the board. We have seen steady improvement in air quality across the state, whether it’s ozone pollution generated within the state or transported into the state from upwind states. We’ve also seen improvements in our valley areas for fine particulate matter, which results from people heating their homes with wood. Wood is good, as I always say, we just need to make sure we’re burning the right wood in the right device in the right manner.

Back in the late 1990s, I was the lead permit engineer for two new natural gas-fired power plants in New Hampshire, and I didn’t realize it at the time but that was the beginning part of the transition of our power grid being based on coal and oil to natural gas, which has ultimately led to great improvements in air quality across the state.

Compared to the early days, we have seen great improvements in our ambient air monitoring program. When we used to monitor for particulate matter, [we] needed to go out to the site, collect a filter, send it off for analysis and then get a report weeks later. Now, we are able to post the current levels almost live on our website.

I think the other big success I’ve seen has been here at DES. I really believe that the three divisions and the commissioner’s office are more integrated than they’ve ever been, and I think this has resulted overall to better environmental outcomes for the state.

What are the biggest challenges you see for the next 5, 10, 15, or 35 years?

Dealing with impacts of climate change, which has widespread environmental impacts. We’ve all seen the droughts. We’ve all seen the extreme weather events. Last summer, we had western U.S. wildfires that led to unprecedented PM [particulate matter] levels here in New Hampshire. That’s thousands of miles away. I think to that end, we need to:

  • Continue to work with our local communities on planning for extreme weather events.
  • Continue to transition our power grid to cleaner forms of energy.
  • Continue to seek improvement to our transportation sector, which is our largest source of emissions today.  I think we are on the verge of seeing a major change in our transportation sector to more electric vehicles and other cleaner technologies and, hopefully, we can continue to support those efforts.

If the last five years has taught us anything, it is the challenges we all face from emerging contaminants are going to be enormous and it impacts all of the DES Divisions from an air, water and waste management standpoint.

Demands on the agency from outside forces are at an all-time high, and we need to continue to manage things accordingly. I think in the age of the internet and information availability, managing and responding to expectations put upon us is more important than ever. I know DES is up to the challenges.