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Mich. environmental agency’s deputy director to retire

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s chief deputy director plans to retire at the end of the month as a set of new leaders takes over a state agency rocked by the Flint water crisis.

Jim Sygo, a 34-year veteran of the DEQ, plans to retire on Aug. 31, department spokesman Michael Shore said Tuesday.

Sygo, 67, will be replaced by Bob Wagner, a 31-year veteran DEQ program director. Sygo’s retirement was not caused by the Flint water crisis, Shore said.

“He’s got 34 years of public service, four grandchildren and is 67 years of age — more than enough reasons to retire,” Shore said.

Last week, Heidi Grether became the department’s new director after seven months of interim management under Keith Creagh, who returned to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Grether’s appointment has drawn criticism from some environmental groups because she used to be a lobbyist with the oil giant BP America. Grether was most recently deputy director of the Michigan Agency for Energy.

Wagner, whose background is in environmental remediation and redevelopment, will oversee all regulatory programs and offices, Shore said.

Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Creagh to run the department last December after then-director Dan Wyant resigned in the wake of revelations that the DEQ failed to require Flint to add corrosion controls to its Flint River water.

The lack of corrosion-controlling chemicals is blamed for lead leaching from pipes, joints and fixtures and contaminating Flint’s water supply, setting off a state of emergency that remains in effect.

DEQ emails show Sygo played a minor role in the department’s handling of Flint’s water woes, mostly working on the subsequent fallout.

Sygo, who has been a DEQ deputy director since 2003, was interviewed March 1 by a Michigan State Police investigator as part of an administrative probe of the department’s misinterpretation of regulations for treating corrosive river water.

In the interview, Sygo defended former Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance chief Liane Shekter Smith and municipal water regulator Stephen Busch, who he said had done a “terrific” job for the department.

“He felt there was politics involved with the Flint water issue,” Lt. Lisa Rish wrote in a state police report first obtained by The Detroit News. “Mr. Sygo said he felt that Ms. Shekter Smith was ‘thrown under the bus’ and Mr. Busch ‘was probably there, too.’ ”

Shekter Smith and Busch have since been charged criminally for botching regulation of Flint’s water treatment process and then allegedly covering up their mistakes.

Attorney General Bill Schuette has slapped three other DEQ employees with criminal charges as well as three employees in the state Department of Health and Human Services for allegedly concealing test results showing elevated levels of lead in Flint children.

Shekter Smith is the only state employee who has been fired as a result of the Flint crisis. When Wyant quit in December, his communications director, Brad Wurfel, also resigned.

The DEQ recently hired Shore as its new communications director. He previously worked at the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

Twitter: @ChadLivengood