How does making a difference get an advisor for the EPA out of bed in the morning?

Site Contamination Audit.  Not words we hear every day, but for South Australia’s planners and urban developers it will soon be a consistent part of their processes.  Three years in development, Kym Pluck says developing a guiding process to assess the potential for future health risks in residential areas “…was something I really felt passionate about and the person that I worked with at the Department of Planning, was really passionate about it as well so that lead us to have a drive” that saw us manage the inevitable challenges and “very early on I got the Board’s engagement…they could see the benefits of it”.

Site contamination is any sort of chemicals that impose a risk to human health found in the soil or ground water that register above the natural levels.  It is a contemporary problem that arose from industries using and disposing of chemicals in a way that has since been determined to pose a risk to our health. Allotments that can’t be developed until they are cleaned up include decommissioned industrial sites, petrol stations and (the one that surprised me) old drycleaning establishments that used stronger chemicals up until the early ‘80’s.  These chemical legacies place communities at risk, especially in sensitive areas such as primary schools, aged care and residential communities where it can be expected that people may be home 24/7, where kids may ‘mud play’ and families grow their fruit and veges.

4528f779-f563-42ef-86c9-63e4ec8e412e

Kym saw that Town Planners were “grappling with how to assess it – it’s not something you are taught at Uni. but it’s a really big issue and a really big problem because if you do allow someone to develop that site and it’s exposed to site contamination there can be some risky health risks from that; particularly for children…”

Even before she was a Mum and could personalise the impact of our environment on families, Kym Pluck knew that if she was going to make the difference she felt called towards for our urban landscape, health and sense of community then she would need to be involved in the decision making.  For Kym, the way for her to influence how our suburbs, communities and environments benefitted people was to study and graduate from University as a Town Planner.  With experience under her belt, and a passion for reducing environmental impact, Kym is now Principal Advisor Planning Policy and Projects for the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) in South Australia.  Her initiative, to build a site contamination audit into state-wide Town Planning processes, saw her win the Inaugural Staff Achievement Award.  This idea for an award came out of the EPA surveying their staff on what would engage them to make a difference and create a great workplace culture.  Geez, if a Government department can “get” that asking the staff what they want, may have value, why can’t other business sectors?  OK.  Off my high-horse!

The South Australian EPA’s focus for 2015-6 is to:

  • Support wellbeing and prosperity
  • Keep the public informed and engaged
  • Be an effective and trusted regulator
  • Commit to creating a high performing culture

The team working towards making the Site Contamination Audit a stalwart in development and Town Planning processes are changing the way our residential pockets are approached.  Their initiative addresses a complex issue that require the EPA and Town Planners to be proactive in their decision making around urban development, rather than reactive as has been the norm.

Kym and her team were well into developing this audit framework when the Clovelly Park toxic scare hit the headlines in 2014.  The finding of industrial solvent Trichloroethylene (TCE) toxic vapour rising from groundwater and soil saw a number of Clovelly Park residents relocated due to health risks.  Leaked by the media, the backlash from the community when it became apparent that a potential carcinogen in their back yard had been hidden, meant that the State Parliament became eager to rectify community perception and show that they were doing something about health.  With the regulatory amendment not far off now, the impact of a framework that requires Town Planners and Developers to assess previous-use impact, won’t be immediate, but the vision that Kym and her team are working towards will make a difference.

Although endorsed by the EPA and Department of Planning in South Australia, some of the setup of the Assessment for Site Contamination was done in Kym’s own time.  As a nation known for the great amount of unpaid overtime we do, I am in no way endorsing this, but it shows Kym’s commitment to the cause.

Kym tells me that “it’s an interesting and exciting time to be a planner”.  “To build a good city you have to see the long term vision and be committed to that.”  When companies are looking at how to engage their staff and retain their top performers, they need to ask:

what are we doing to provide a workplace

where employees feel they are making a difference?

Kym went into planning, not on a whim – rather, it was a conscious decision to be in a position where she could use her skills and knowledge to make a difference.  My research shows that Gen Y in particular (but don’t rule out the rest of us) are looking to brands and company cultures that contribute to a greater cause.  Thanks to the internet and “no holds barred” reporting styles, they grew up trying to make sense of 9/11, school shootings, and seeing the aftermath of unforeseen environmental damage.  They seek responsibility early, are globally networked and view contribution as a given, not a “nice to have”. Smart companies recognise the need to incorporate contribution and giving into their company values – whether that be through donation of time, skills or matching financial donations to a cause.

Some of us are lucky and, like Kym, we get out of bed every day feeling we are making a difference; but for those of us who don’t feel that way, we appreciate the workplace that shows they give a hoot.  The companies that ‘give back and give a damn’ may just have tapped into a generation of people looking, at least in part, for meaningful work.