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Legislators' expectations, plans to break it up leave department between a rock and hard place

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - A collapsed walking path in Olympia, Wash., shows damage from the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. Oregon's Department of Geology and Mineral Industries is facing an uncertain future as lawmakers try to decide its mission and fate.SALEM — It took an article in The New Yorker this month about the likelihood of a catastrophic Northwest earthquake for some Oregonians to discover one of the state’s lesser-known agencies, the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.

“We’ve been providing a lot more information to the public in the last couple weeks,” said Ali Ryan, a spokeswoman for the agency.

But if The New Yorker article brought home the terrifying events Oregonians would experience in a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake, it’s less clear what role state geologists are supposed to have in preparing for it. Lawmakers asked the agency to do some soul-searching about its core functions and priorities, and report back in February 2016.

There is also talk to dissolving the agency and moving its scientists and regulators into a different division of state government.

Legislative expectations

The Department of Geology and Mineral Industries tracks tsunami, landslide and other geologic risks and also regulates mining and drilling for oil, gas and geothermal wells in Oregon. At a meeting Friday, July 24, in Bend, the agency’s governing board decided to start a six-month process to identify specific priorities and initiatives it will present in Salem next year.

“This is the fundamental problem, that we do not have an actual mission,” interim State Geologist and Executive Director Ian P. Madin told the agency’s governing board. “We don’t know what the state actually expects us to do. So what we really need to get from the Legislature, from the governor’s office, (is) what is it you really expect this agency to do, other than function as a state-subsidized consulting firm, which is pretty much what we are.”

The department receives much of its money from federal grants and specific projects for counties and other local governments. State lawmakers approve matching funds the geologists need to secure specific grants, such as to gather data on historic landslides, but Madin said, “they’ve just given us this mechanism to do whatever we can.”

For example, Madin said one employee at the agency handles work related to the Cascadia subduction zone and that person works, at most, half time on the subject. “Clearly it is one of the most important issues we deal with,” Madin said, but the agency does not have money to devote more time to it because the grants and contracts that pay for many of the geologists are focused on different subjects.

Agency turnaround

The agency also faces other financial and administrative challenges. It had to get help from accounting employees at other state agencies earlier this year to answer basic financial questions such as how much money it brings in and how much it spends. After the agency discovered a budget shortfall, the Legislature approved $800,000 from the state general fund so the department could pay its bills through June 30.

Former State Geologist and Executive Director Vicki McConnell resigned in early 2015 to take a different job, and the agency is beginning the process to hire a permanent replacement.

Lauri Aunan, interim natural resources policy adviser to Gov. Kate Brown, attended Friday’s meeting and said Brown had a “quick meeting” a couple weeks ago with governing board Chairman Larry Givens regarding the geology agency’s future.

The governor is focused on “agency turnaround,” specifically hiring the next director and getting the agency on firm financial footing, Aunan said.

Givens and Aunan said Brown expressed interest in the agency working on earthquakes and other natural hazards.

Madin said “everything is on the table” for the future of the agency, but the idea of dissolving the agency has been repeatedly proposed, vetted and rejected over the years.

“Quite frankly, I’m not very interested in the option of breaking the agency up and moving it into other agencies,” Madin said.

Lisa Phipps of Tillamook, vice chairwoman of the agency’s governing board, said the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries should not be dismantled but the board and employees must present a strong case for lawmakers and the governor to keep it.

“We need to be able to explain to those folks that want to break us up why it isn’t better,” Phipps said.

Hillary Borrud is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.

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