Environmental groups wanted say in new DEQ leader

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

At the start of 2016, with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality operating amid the fallout of Flint’s water crisis, a coalition of conservation groups sensed an opportunity.

The department had just seen the Director Dan Wyant fired and was under interim leadership. Michigan environmentalists wrote a letter asking Gov. Rick Snyder to look for certain qualities in naming a full-time director.

Those qualities, they hoped, would help restore trust in an agency whose image had taken a series of hits stemming from two years of missteps in handling Flint’s drinking water situation.

“... we believe it is imperative that the state embrace a commitment to building a national reputation as a guardian of environmental quality and the health of its citizens,” the Feb. 25 letter read. “A key first step in establishing this reputation is the appointment of a permanent (DEQ) director who has the necessary environmental and public health expertise to put (DEQ) on track to address the myriad of environmental issues currently facing our state.”

On Thursday, when Snyder announced his intention to appoint Heidi Grether, a woman who spent decades working as a lobbyist and external affairs manager for BP America, officials with those environmental groups felt they had been ignored.

And their disappointment was only exacerbated by the fact Snyder’s administration had never discussed with them Grether’s qualifications for the state’s top environmental post before making his decision. Officials with several top conservation groups said they were not consulted in any way by the governor before the choice.

“We learned about Director Grether’s appointment through a courtesy call on Wednesday, but the Governor’s Office did not reach out to discuss her qualifications prior to that,” wrote Andy McGlashen, communications director for the Michigan Environmental Council, in an email response to questions.

Officials with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters had a similar tale.

“We did sit down with the administration right after that letter was released to talk about an open vetting process,” said Jack Schmitt, the league’s deputy director. “But after that, we didn’t hear from them again until the selection was made...

“We would really have liked to see a more transparent and open process.”

For the past year, Grether has worked as deputy director of the Michigan Agency for Energy. 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 announcing the appointment. Reaction to that announcement was swift, with most environmental groups panning the choice.

It is unclear whom Snyder looked to for advice on filling the DEQ’s top post. When asked who provided input in the process, a representative for the governor provided no details.

“The factors in the governor’s decision-making on who to add to his cabinet are not public,” wrote Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton, in an email response to questions.

Officials with the Sierra Club this week called on Grether to recuse herself from any decisions dealing with oil pipelines. Like other conservation groups, they were not contacted about Grether by Snyder’s administration.

David Holtz was not surprised by Snyder’s approach. The chairman of the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter was disappointed, however, particularly in light of damage done to the DEQ brand in recent years.

“It wasn’t a surprise when, after he was first elected, the governor went into this mode of appointing people to these top positions who were part of the business or corporate worlds,” Holtz said. “ ... This time around, I would have thought that the Sierra Club or other environmental groups would have been approached for input, suggestions or ideas given what has happened in Flint ...

“I think he could have done a much better job than appointing an oil industry executive.”

JLynch@detroitnews.com