As Jacqui Barker, the new community involvement coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Montana office, says herself, “I know I have big shoes to fill.”
Those big shoes belong to her predecessor, Robert Moler, who left the agency nearly a year ago after a productive and eventful tenure in the Helena-based position.
During her first visit to Butte in the official capacity on Wednesday, Barker told The Montana Standard, “I have a lot to learn, but the strategy is to follow in his footsteps.”
Only on the job since Monday, Barker acknowledged that many community activists were sad to see Moler go. He won the hearts of many who fought against EPA decisions for decades.
Barker wasted no time in getting to know Butte.
She arrived in the Mining City with Andrew Mutter, the Denver-based director of communications and public involvement for EPA's Region 8. Mutter introduced her to individual community members, Restore Our Creek Coalition and members of the press.
Fritz Daily, long-time Superfund watchdog, said by phone Wednesday that his advice to Barker is that she should not be shy.
“Robert was the first person in EPA to really reach out to me in my 35 years. She needs to find out how the community really feels and what is going on,” Daily said.
Chris Wardell, a community involvement coordinator also based in Denver, has been filling in since Moler left the job. But community members in both Butte and Anaconda have complained directly to EPA and at various public meetings about the lack of a Montana-based community involvement coordinator over the past year.
Rose Nyman, long-time Anaconda government watchdog, said having someone on the ground on a regular basis for EPA is "critical.”
Barker comes to EPA with 25 years of public affairs experience with the U.S. Navy. Born in Kalispell, the 46-year-old is relocating from Panama City, Florida, for the job.
Barker had just gone through Hurricane Michael, a category 4 storm that caused at least 11 deaths on the Florida panhandle last October, when she got the call that she had the job with EPA.
“I think the cosmos is telling us something. I think we need to go home,” she said she told her husband.
Barker’s husband is also a Kalispell native. They were friends in high school and have two children.
During her career with the Navy, Barker worked in the Bill Clinton White House, capturing video of Clinton for radio and television news.
“I chose to pursue an opportunity with our commander-in-chief and the office of the president," she said Wednesday. "It had nothing to do with politics."
Barker has bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism and organizational communication.
Mutter said EPA wants to give Barker time to understand the complexities of the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Superfund site. While she still “has training wheels on,” Wardell will continue to be the community involvement coordinator for Butte.
But Barker said that “anywhere Nikia (Greene) goes, I’ll be there.”
From the get-go, she will have Anaconda as part of her portfolio, along with most other Montana Superfund sites.
Mutter said he drove Barker to Texas Avenue Wednesday morning so she could see the area hotly contested as a potential starting point for the man-made creek some community activists hope will someday meander past the Civic Center and through the center of Butte.
Speaking of Wardell and his distance to both Butte and Anaconda, Mutter acknowledged that “the distance was tough.” But, he noted, Barker is a native Montanan who will be living just up Interstate 15, in Helena, and who has the commitment the job requires.
“She is passionate and wants to make a difference,” he said.