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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Gongwer Interview with MDEQ Director Heidi Grether


New Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether is not planning any wholesale changes to the department that has been a primary target for investigations into the Flint water crisis, but she is overseeing a largely new leadership group because of retirements and a few departures in the wake of that crisis.

Ms. Grether is also overseeing review of a number of the state's key environmental regulations. And she said she is trying to position the state to take on additional responsibilities should the administration of President-elect Donald Trump move in that direction.

Though Ms. Grether is not directly involved with it, the Flint water crisis is still leaving a mark on the department.

"As director, I want to work to restore the confidence in the MDEQ and restore the employee morale," Ms. Grether said.

Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh continues to address the day-to-day issues involving Flint, a job he acquired when he was named interim DEQ director in January.

Between those pushed out in the wake of the crisis, including then-Director Dan Wyant, who was asked to resign, and a rash of retirements and other departures, Ms. Grether said she has essentially a new leadership team, both among the top administration and at the top of the various divisions.

"That is going to change the nature and face of DEQ going forward," she said.

Part of that change, she said, is a new attitude.

"We continue to be firmly focused on our mission to protect public health, protect the environment and try to find solutions to the issues coming up so we can encourage economic growth where appropriate," she said. "(But) I challenged staff in all they do to look at the big picture ... to look at the implications of their actions."

She said she is also encouraging staff to be more approachable, so interested parties feel they can come to the department.

Ms. Grether said she is working now to expand her communications staff to not only have departmental spokespeople, but to have people in place to help the rest of the staff with communications.

"We need to a better job of highlighting the work that we're doing in communities," she said. "We need to try and give staff some of the tools they need to help message and do their jobs better."

The department will also be working over the coming year on some potentially substantial regulation rewrites, Ms. Grether said.

The state's cleanup criteria, Part 201 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, have not been revised since 2002, she said. In addition to bringing them up to current standards, she said the department is working with interest groups to make them more flexible and allow easier updates in the future.

"We are continuing to meet to try to finalize a way to continue to update those as time goes on but also understand what the right science is behind some of the things we're choosing," she said.

For instance, science is indicating that some sites previously closed might need another look as some of the materials move or the sites are redeveloped.

"Unfortunately, we may have sites that we have given closure to in the past that may have vapor intrusion problems," she said.

As structured and funded, the DEQ has limited ability to address those issues. "We just don't have the capability to shift people over to that," she said.

The DEQ has been working with the Department of Health and Human Services and local public health departments on the issue, she said.

The initial goal is to develop a list of sites where it might be an issue, she said.

The state's solid waste laws will also get a new look in 2017, she said.

"At the time that was written 30 years ago, we were closing dumps and moving to engineered landfills," she said. "What we're looking at is recycling. How do we reuse things rather than just throw them away?"

The DEQ also will have a role in implementing the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission's report, she said. For instance, Michigan is one of few states that does not have a septic code, instead leaving all oversight of septic systems to local public health officials.

"We do not have the opportunity for developing or implementing new technology," she said. "We don't have the ability to do pilot projects or demonstration projects."

Ms. Grether said she would also be pushing for some changes in how those projects, and their oversight, might be funded.

A key source of funds for cleanups and other projects, the Clean Michigan Initiative bonds, are nearly exhausted, but she said the infrastructure report showed additional need for those funds.

"It isn't really highlighted, you have to dig it out," she said of mention of the need for a new Clean Michigan Initiative in the report.

And she said selling a new round of bonds to voters could be difficult because the effect of the current bonds is also something one has to dig out.

"One of my frustrations and concerns is we have not, over the life of those bonds, let the public know what those bond funds paid for," she said. "It would be a disadvantage if we were to go out today ad say we want to re-up this. Nobody knows where those funds went."

She said she has asked about putting signs on some of the sites now, but said it might be too little too late to affect public support for new bonds.

Ms. Grether is also hoping to see more General Fund in the department.

"I believe that we have an obligation to protect the resources on behalf of the citizens," she said. "Relying solely on fees to fund programs I don't think is appropriate. We should have more General Fund to support what we do.

She acknowledged that would be an uphill battle. "That's not been a popular idea," she said. "It means somebody else is not getting as much money."

Where the department is appropriately relying on fees, Ms. Grether said there is also value in looking at how those fees are structured.

"They are not tied to activity but an amount of discharge or the value of material," she said. In many cases, those amounts of discharge or materials have been reduced.

"That reduction does not necessarily equate to less work for us," she said.

The department could see more work depending on how the incoming Trump administration addresses environmental oversight.

"I would like the states to have more leeway in how we do things and less duplications," she said. The controversial Line 5 pipeline across the Straits of Mackinac, for instance, has both state and federal permits that she said could be consolidated.

She said the department is not in a position now to take on additional authority, but hoped over the next two years to prepare it for that. She expected it would take that long for any federal regulatory changes to take effect.

"I'm hopeful that what we will have is a position where we have more of a compliance target approach," Ms. Grether said of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under a Trump administration. "Leave the states and the permitted entities to figure out how to meet those."

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