Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder’s decision to appoint a former oil industry official to head Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality has drawn a chorus of condemnation from conservation groups around the state.
Heidi Grether of Williamston will replace interim DEQ Director Keith Creagh on Aug. 1. Creagh will return to the Department of Natural Resources as director, according to the governor’s office.
Grether’s currently works as deputy director of Michigan’s Agency for Energy, where she’s been charged with managing the state’s compliance with federal carbon pollution regulations.
She was a registered lobbyist for BP America in Lansing from 1993 to 2008, state records show. From May 2010 to March 2014, Grether worked on external communications for BP America’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill accident response and restoration in the Gulf of Mexico, according to her LinkedIn profile.
“Heidi has decades of experience in environmental quality issues, and has effectively served during times of crises and recovery,” Snyder said in a statement.
BP did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.
The DEQ has been under intense scrutiny since October when state officials admitted Flint had a lead contamination problem in its municipal water supply because the city’s water hadn’t been properly treated with corrosion controls.
Grether’s appointment drew further criticism for the state Thursday from officials at the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. Lisa Wozniak, the group’s executive director, immediately targeted Grether’s background.
“Our coalition articulated that this critically important agency is in need of someone who has the background and experience to be a strong advocate for the health of our communities and our environment,” Wozniak said in a statement. “Today’s announcement seems to fly in the face of that vision.
“While we are committed to working with Ms. Grether in this new role, we do question the governor’s priorities in appointing someone with deep ties to the oil industry to the task of rebuilding Michiganders’ trust in our state environmental protection agency. After the Flint water crisis clearly demonstrated there were cultural problems within the DEQ, this appointment is a concerning development.”
The Sierra Club Michigan Chapter took an even stronger stance, calling on Grether to recuse herself from influencing any decisions related to pipeline issues in Michigan.
“Heidi Grether’s ties to the oil industry should disqualify her from taking part in important decisions involving oil pipelines in the Great Lakes,” said David Holtz, the chapter’s chairman, in a released statement. “Grether should make it clear she will recuse herself from being involved in the state’s evaluation of Enbridge’s Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.
“Protecting the Great Lakes shouldn’t fall to someone with such close ties to an industry whose profits will be directly impacted by her decisions as a public official.”
An official with Clean Water Action, Clay Carpenter, called Gerther’s appointment “a slap in the face.”
State Rep. Andrea LaFontaine, R-Memphis, however, supported Grether’s selection. The legislator recalled meeting Grether twice over the years — once at a roundtable discussion hosted by former DEQ Director Dan Wyant and, later, at an energy panel.
“My first impression ... was that she was amazing,” LaFontaine said. “She came across as very intelligent and really seemed to know how to work a group dialogue. ...
“Her leadership skills are obvious. So when I look at her background and see that BP oil was on there, I look at how she was able to manage that crisis. And that’s a good skill set to have at DEQ. I can’t think of a better person for the job.”
Creagh has been running the department since late December 2015 when Wyant resigned as DEQ’s failures in Flint’s water contamination crisis became more evident.
Snyder thanked Creagh for his service in his statement issued Thursday announcing Grether’s appointment.
“He stepped into this role during a very challenging time and has worked tirelessly to improve internal operations as well as share his expertise on the ground in Flint to aid in water quality improvement,” Snyder said. “I will always be grateful for his leadership.”
Creagh will continue to have a role in the state’s response to Flint’s water crisis, Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said.
Bill Moritz, who has been serving as interim DNR director, will go back to his previous position of deputy director, Heaton added.
Chris Kolb, director of the Michigan Environmental Council, co-chaired a task force that found systemic problems in the DEQ’s oversight of Flint’s use of Flint River water for 18 months without treating it with corrosion control chemicals.
The Snyder-appointed Flint water task force’s criticism of the DEQ prompted Wyant’s resignation.
“We are aware of Director Grether’s professional background,” Kolb said. “She now works for the people of Michigan. We will do everything we can to ensure that her focus and that of the department is on making Michigan’s environment safe and healthy for all residents.”
Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich of Flint is urging the Republican leadership to hold at least one hearing on Grether’s appointment, which is subject to advice and consent of the Senate.
In Flint, where the state’s handling of the water crisis eventually led to the shakeup at DEQ’s highest levels, Snyder’s selection of Grether was panned by some Thursday.
“I am infuriated but not shocked that Snyder chose to appoint someone who had a hand in one of the worst man-made water disasters and cleanup failures in history to head the MDEQ,” said Melissa Mays, a member of the groups Water You Fighting For and Flint Rising, in a released statement.
“We have spoken with residents who are still affected by the BP disaster and they expressed concern that Flint water will also not get cleaned up properly. As we sit here in Flint, still unable to safely use our water, reading about who Snyder handpicked to run the MDEQ, we see those fears are more likely to be realized.”
Progress Michigan, a group that has been harshly critical of Snyder’s performance on Flint issues over the past two years, was equally critical on Thursday.
“Tapping a former executive of the fossil fuel industry, which has been the chief engine of climate change denial and the degradation of air and water quality in our country and around the world, is not what Michigan needs at the head of the MDEQ,” said Lonnie Scott, Progress Michigan’s director in a release Thursday.
“Michigan is facing serious problems because of irresponsible and greedy oil companies, including rampant pollution in communities of color and environmental destruction from devastating oil spills. This is another example of Snyder choosing his corporate donors over the well-being of Michiganders and the communities where they stake their livelihoods and futures.”
Grether holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State University. She worked in the Michigan Senate in the late 1980s and did a stint as legislative director for then-House Speaker Paul Hillegonds in 1993.
Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.