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GEOLOGIST: Works to Make Ohio a Better Place to Live

Columbus, Ohio

If Vanessa Tolliver’s office north of downtown Columbus looked somewhat in disarray, it was for a good reason: The Ohio Division of Reclamation had just been combined with the Division of Mining, and Tolliver was moving into her new work space. There were papers to file and some memos to read which had been placed on the only available space in her office—her chair. No time for downtime, she had already unpacked and placed her chemistry, hydrology, and geology manuals on the bookshelf. She skimmed the memos and took phone calls while making sure her computer and printer were plugged in and ready. Tolliver is an amalgam of the modern professional and committed unionist.

Tolliver credits her father, who recently passed away, with having had a deep impact on her life. “He never told me that being a woman or being black would hold me back,” she said. “He always left his children with the impression that we could do anything we wanted. With my father, it was never a question of whether or not his kids would go to college. It was just a question of what college.”

She is quick to add that she is a product of affirmative action of the 1960’s. “I was able to go to college and get a job at the campus library because there were programs to help minorities.” Tolliver’s voice becomes passionate when she speaks about affirmative action programs currently under attack by Congress. ”To take away money from education will weaken the structure of our society, keep people down, and separate us economically. It will bring on more violence,” she said. After high school, Tolliver headed to Ohio State University, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and landed a job with the State Department of Natural Re-sources. Today, she is a Geologist III and a 16-year veteran of state service, working in the section responsible for granting permits to coal mining operators. Before she grants mining permits, she must review the geological and hydrological data to make sure the companies are in compliance with the Ohio mining laws. She also assists the operators in designing plans that will ensure minimum damage to surrounding ground and surface water, and nearby vegetation.

In simpler words, Tolliver keeps the water and land around the coal mines from becoming polluted and poisoned. She is dead serious about her work. To bolster her knowledge and expertise, she has taken continuing education courses that would amuse if not befuddle a lay person: “Pump Test Design” and “Impacts of Longwall Mining Operations upon the Hydrologic Balance” to name two. Tolliver has also taken a course on litigation so she can be familiar with lawsuits that come from environment-alists—who may think the law isn’t being enforced—or the coal companies who think the law is being administered unfairly.

Tolliver has had a significant influence on how states evaluate requirements for mining; she served on a task force with federal and state regulatory authorities from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Missouri, and Wyoming. She also teamed up with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to develop criteria for coal waste disposal sites.

Tolliver appreciates the dramatic change that has taken place in state service since collective bargaining went into effect in Ohio in 1984. She is in the scientists and technical workers unit of Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, one of eight units. Tolliver said that before the union gained a foothold in state service, politics played a major role in hiring and promotions practices. “It wasn’t what you knew that got you a job, it was who you knew. Collective bargaining has allowed the career-oriented public employee to move forward based upon experience and tenure.”

According to Tolliver, OCSEA/ AFSCME helped in other areas. “The union negotiated more coverage on health benefits for state employees,” Tolliver explained. “While other employees in the private sector were taking big hits in health care, we actually strengthened our health package. During contract talks, OCSEA/ AFSCME secured extra coverage on mammograms and pioneered preventive care measures designed to keep employees healthy.

She is as enthusiastic about her union as she is about her profession. Tolliver currently serves as the union’s secretary-treasurer, the chief fiscal officer for 37,000 members. She is also a steward of her chapter, a delegate to the Franklin County AFL-CIO Central Body, and a member of the Columbus chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

Ohio citizens would be hard pressed to find anyone who feels more deeply than she does about protecting Ohio’s precious landscape. “I’ve seen streams from the impact of mining operation that weren’t reclaimed, and it looks devastating. Vegetation won’t grow, water becomes acidic, fish life disappears,” she said.

Taxpayers in Ohio are lucky to have the hard working Tolliver on their side. This AFSCME professional is making Ohio a better place to live.

—Jim Hagan

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