By NASH NUNNERY
Dallas Baker developed a deep connection with nature growing up in the Oxford area. He loved the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing, and became environmentally conscious virtually in the hills of his own backyard.
“As a kid in the 1970s, there seemed to be illegal dumps everywhere, at least around where I lived,” he said. “Just a few feet from our house, with the trash and discarded objects I could see in the gullies. I knew environmental policy was becoming an important issue”.
Becoming an environmental engineer seemed like a natural career trajectory to Baker, and he stayed true to his dream.
In January, Baker joined Neel-Schaffer as director of environmental services after spending nearly a quarter of a century with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. At DEQ, the Lafayette County native served as the state’s air director and chief of the Air Division, and was responsible for maintaining National Ambient Air Quality Standards and policy affecting statewide programs that control air pollution.
So far, the new position with one of the nation’s most respected engineering firms has exceeded expectations, he said.
“I knew (Neel-Schaffer) had a great reputation and their leadership was second to none,” Baker said. “Leaving DEQ was not a slam dunk decision. This was a unique opportunity to build trust with industry, cities and counties, and to help the firm make an impact in ways it wasn’t known for previously.
“Neel-Schaffer wants to become the hub for all things environmental. The time was right after asking myself, ‘do I stay (at DEQ)’?”
As director of the firm’s environmental division, Baker manages a staff of nearly a dozen engineers, geologists and environmental technicians that provide a wide variety of services to clients in 38 offices in the southeast.
“At DEQ, we worked hand-in-hand to protect our natural resources but we were also very conscious of economic development in the state of Mississippi,” said Baker. “I became more ‘green’ than I ever dreamed I’d become.”
Though he enjoyed his time at DEQ, Baker said the opportunity to expand his work beyond Mississippi was enticing.
“We would solve problems working with Mississippi industries in the Air Division,” he said. “When I left, all 82 counties were in full compliance and that’s a testament to the air quality program in our state. I liked the idea that our division operated as the ‘checks-and-balances’ to make sure industry was on board.
“My goal here at Neal-Schaffer is to partner with our clients across nine states and see what we can offer long-term, build a team and become a full-service firm – that’s Mr. Neel’s vision.”
Asked what effect the confirmation of new federal EPA director Scott Pruitt may have on his work at Neel-Schaffer, Baker remains optimistic.
Pruitt said in an interview with The New York Times last month that he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming, a statement that contradicts the public stance of the EPA, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“I think what Pruitt was saying is that he intends to re-evaluate all the regulations that were established during the Obama years,” said Baker.
“What I’m most concerned with is if Congress were to start scaling back programs on the state level. My concern centers on curbing heavier pollutants from industry that affect our populations, especially children.”
Baker, who earned a Master of Science in Environmental Engineering from the University of Mississippi, serves as secretary of the Ole Miss School of Engineering Advisory Board and president of the Mississippi Energy Coordinators Association.
He also served a stint as president of the Air & Waste Management Association, becoming the first-ever member elected from the Deep South, Baker added.
“I traveled and communicated with people all over the world,” said Baker. “It was great to be an ambassador for the environment and represent the state of Mississippi.”