MDEQ Director Heidi Grether shares her wisdom at Environmental Ladies Tea



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

“Environmental Ladies Tea” sounds kind of quaint, but the very modern women who participate are treated to some up-to-the-minute information in their field.

And while they tour or listen to speakers, they engage in old-fashioned, face-to-face social networking.

Though not all of the women who attend are attorneys, many are, holding positions from corporate counsel to  associate to partner.

And a key participant is  Barnes and Thornburg partner  Tammy Helminski, who co-founded the West Michigan counterpart to the Environmental Ladies Teas held on the southeast side of the state when she moved to Grand Rapids. One of the other women who had attended on the east side, Jennifer Quigley, moved from the Detroit to the Plainwell office of the global environmental services firm GHD. They joined with Lisa Locke of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum at the time to start a West Michigan Tea.

Helminski is a member of B and T’s well-respected Environmental Law Department, and the Co-Chair of the Remediation, Corrective Action and Voluntary Cleanups Practice Group. Her clients are municipalities, institutions, manufacturers, and individuals, whom she advises on such environmental issues as environmental compliance and permitting; stormwater, wastewater, hazardous waste, TSCA and FIFRA issues; and environmental management systems.

The original Ladies Environmental Tea was also started by an attorney,  Beth Gothelf of Butzel Long.

On occasion, the two groups meet jointly, as was the case Monday, January 8, at the Lansing Board of Water and Light (LBWL) REO Depot, when the distinguished guest was Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Director Heidi Grether.

After Helminski asked everyone in the group of about 60 to introduce themselves — “Wonderful! STEM Power right here,” she commented, referring to the number of women in  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields — Grether noted that it was interesting to speak to women arrayed across the career spectrum from beginning to established.

Asked to focus specifically on her experiences as a woman professional, Grether started out reviewing her own background both in terms of her gender and of the growing environmental field. She said that when she enrolled in the cutting-edge Natural Resource Economics and Policy masters program at Michigan State University, she was often the only woman in the room, “but I didn’t think much of it.”

While there, her eyes were open to the potential to spend her life working in the policy field, and when she got  her first position as Policy Advisor and Committee Aide in the Michigan Senate, she says, “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

She explained, “This was at a time when environmental issues were being developed. My masters research was cutting edge, though now it’s sort of taken for granted. We were trying to determine how to value resource services, species of animals, things that it was difficult to put a dollar value on — trying to explain pollution in terms of externalties.

“Some of us were saying years ago, if we put it into the market, we can regulate it, but we’re still not there.”

Grether went from a series of similar jobs in the 1980s and 1990s, including as Vice President, Environmental Affairs, for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, to several positions in the oil and gas industry. Her final responsibilities there were working for BP on the Deepwater Horizons spill response. She started at MDEQ in August of 2016.

A humorous and relaxed speaker, Grether spoke of such incidents as being asked to sign up for office kitchen clean-up duty when a male who held her exact position was not.

She added, “With Amoco and then BP they did a pretty good job of trying to move women into positions of authority, into leadership roles. Unfortunately one of the things that would happen was that women would get into a C3 position and then they would say, ‘I’m out of here’ and quit, because of dealing with the old boys club that was still there. It was just not much fun.”

However, Grether prevailed, and she attributes that in part to learning from every job she had, even from negative experiences.

She concluded,  “I sort of grew up  as far as environmental philosophy and policy-wise when I worked for [former Congressional Representative] Vern Ehlers. He was a fabulous mentor. The bottom line with him was to leave it better than you found it. I believe that’s incumbent on us in both helping other women and with the environment.”

In response to questions and earlier in the conversation, Grether said that she was spending a lot of her time working on the Wolverine pollution situation. (See Grand Rapids Legal News   12/6/17.) She noted, “Tomorrow the new EPA Region 5 director is going to come in and visit with us to talk about PFOS. I need to ask, how do we work with EPA, what can EOA help us with and how can we not step all over each other?” she said.

“We are a robust, old old environmental organization. It’s not like we just fell off the turnip truck. I think that understanding our capability is really important, all around,” Grether added.

Afterwards, groups excitedly gathered and continued to talk into the evening, until the LBWL closed at 7:00.

A tour of the LBWL co-generation facility next door was the focus of a previous Environmental Ladies Tea, as were visits to the Meijer Garden Christmas Trees Around the World,  meetings with ArtPrize artists, talks on restoring the rapids to the Grand River and on remediation success stories, and a presentation by the City of Grand Rapids on green infrastructure.

The informal group’s first meeting was in 2012 at Barnes and Thornburg, whose office is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified. Since then, the list of invitees has grown to over 200, who represent industry, legal practice, agencies and advocacy groups.

“The goal was community and conversation,” Helminski notes. “We see each other in professional capacities often and this was a way to network on a more personal level.”

There are no dues; costs are covered by organizations that host the individual meetings. To get involved, contact Helminski at Barnes and Thornburg.