Aspen’s environmental health director stepping down
December 9, 2011
ASPEN – Lee Cassin, director of the city of Aspen’s Environmental Health Department, plans to retire in early January.
Cassin has been working locally in the public environmental health arena since January 1979. She started out as a specialist for Pitkin County and then worked for both the city and the county when their environmental health departments merged in 1980.
In 1999 the departments split again, and soon she was named director of the city entity. In 2009 she took on the added responsibility of director of the Aspen Public Health Agency.
Cassin, who turns 61 soon, said it’s simply time to retire.
“There’s a lot of things I’d like to do,” she said. “I’ve been with the city a long time, and so I thought it was time to do some other things that I enjoy.”
Cassin serves as a volunteer for the Bureau of Land Management’s Colorado Natural Areas Program, helping the federal agency monitor threatened plant and animal species, among other duties. She also enjoys gardening, reading and rock hunting.
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A native of Midland, Texas, Cassin moved to Littleton with her family when she was in high school. She later attended the University of Colorado, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics. She holds a master’s degree in neurophysiology from the University of Colorado Medical Center in Denver.
“I think I’ve always been interested in doing something where I could make a difference or help improve some situation,” she said. “And I’ve always been interested in environmental issues to some extent.”
Cassin’s work has involved a host of issues, with air pollution being one of the top concerns.
“Air pollution is one issue that used to be a much bigger problem in Aspen than it is now,” she said. “It used to be that you couldn’t go outside at night; your coat and your hair would just reek of wood smoke.
“The city and county were willing to take some tough steps to deal with that problem. We’ve done a lot of things to improve our air quality over the years.”
Various measures gradually helped to improve local air quality. The city’s paid parking program worked as an incentive to get residents to ride buses. HOV lanes and carpool programs were introduced. Officials also passed a law to limit the number of fireplaces and wood-burning stoves.
“In Aspen there used to be one fireplace in every condo room,” Cassin said. “Now there can only be two per building, even if the building has 100 condo units. That really cut down on wood-smoke pollution.”
The Environmental Health Department even tackled climate-change issues until the city founded its Canary Initiative in 2005 with the goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions locally.
“For a long time we tracked temperature records and noticed that temperatures were warming,” she said. “And then the city developed the Canary program, and that was really important.”
She credited her department’s success to a dedicated staff.
“All three of the professionals in this department are the kind of people who are passionately committed to what they do, and they just take programs and run with them,” Cassin said.
In recent months, the department has been extremely active, creating a program to promote Aspen tap water as an environmentally friendly alternative to commercially sold water in plastic bottles and working with the City Council to prohibit the city’s two grocery stores from supplying customers with plastic bags at checkout.
But there’s a lot more to the Environmental Health Department than those high-profile activities. Cassin mentioned public health projects, such as restaurant inspections and ongoing pollution monitoring, as part of the department’s routine tasks.
Her department is working toward creation of an ordinance that would require people who plan to use pesticides on their property to notify their neighbors. Another option being explored is a ban on certain types of pesticides that have known health risks.
One of the biggest challenges over the years, she said, has involved trying to get residents to change their habits by recycling, cutting down on energy consumption and the like.
“It’s hard for us all; it’s not easy to sacrifice,” she said. “But we are all responsible for taking steps to reduce our impact. It’s a lot easier to think we ought to just make somebody else do something when we know we have to do it ourselves.”