Former DEQ director looks back at his public career

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) had a short life: former Governor Engler split it off from the Department of Natural Resources in 1995, and now Governor Jennifer Granholm has recombined the departments as the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (MDNRE).

Between 1995 and 2009, MDEQ had only two directors. The first was Russ Harding, who helped Engler engineer the creation of MDEQ.

When Granholm came into office, she made Steven E. Chester the director, starting in January 2003.

Chester is an attorney with a solid background in environmental law. While he acknowledges that he might feel similarly if he had been an engineer or research scientist, he states, "I truly do believe that having a legal background is extremely helpful...

"The director and staff are working at the intersection of science and law, and understanding the legal aspect is critical in establishing environmental policy."

Hailing originally from Muskegon, he received his B.S. in Criminal Justice from Michigan State and his J.D. from Wayne State University Law School.

He worked in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as an assistant prosecutor for Wayne County, and in the Michigan Attorney General Office, after private practice with Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone.

He resigned his MDEQ post at the end of 2009, shortly before the transition to MDNRE was completed. (Jim Sygo was, very briefly, the interim director.) Now the recombination is a done deal, the former Department of Natural Resources Director, Rebecca Humphries, will direct it, about which Chester says he "couldn't be more pleased."

MDEQ was plagued with the problems caused by decreasing coffers in the state, compounded by the antipathy some legislators felt towards environmental regulation.

But Chester feels he accomplished a great deal in his time, and, not surprisingly, much of what he is most proud of is administrative in nature.

"I inherited a department with extremely low morale, which had been pretty much demeaned. My first agenda item was to restore the morale - despite the budget constraints."

Chester feels he achieved that, and even brief conversations with rank-and-file MDEQ employees supports his claim.

"The other thing I wanted to do was ... I realized the department wasn't respected by all stakeholders, and I wanted to create a department of openness and transparency.

"I held regular meetings with the business community and regular meetings with environmentalists. I believe we restored the respect of both."

Indeed, on Chester's retirement, Anne Woiwode of the Michigan Sierra Club said, "Steve has served this state well... While not always making the decisions we thought he should make, Steve has been open to the public, accessible and willing to make sure his staff knew it was his expectation that they follow the law."

He says the Michigan Manufacturers Association staff shared a similar sentiment, respecting the integrity of his decisions even when they disagreed with them.

One of the worst complaints heard from the business community in 2003 was how slow the MDEQ was at issuing permits, and Chester said they had streamlined that process to a much more satisfactory level.

In fact, MDEQ sent out surveys to users on both sides of the philosophical spectrum in 2008, and the overwhelming results were that the department had changed its image and was viewed positively.

Legislatively, Chester lists such accomplishments as the passage of the Great Lakes Compact and two bills covering water withdrawal (one of which has a scientifically-based assessment tool) which are unique in the United States.

He is also proud of the role he played in passage of aquatic invasive species legislation which requires stricter treatment of ballast water than the Federal legislation, and is an object of interest from other Great Lakes states.

The mining legislation recently passed touches on another of Chester's proudest actions.

The MDEQ pulled together all the stakeholders from the mining companies to the National Wildlife Federation, and they hammered out "what is probably the toughest nonferrous mining law in the nation."

To his delight, all the groups with very divergent interests agreed on the law, which made it easy to pass, mandating that mining companies go through a number of steps to ensure that they will leave as little contamination as possible.

In terms of administrative rules, the former director was very pleased by decisions allowing the state to regulate Confined Animal Feeding Operations, limiting the amount of pollution they may emit.

During his tenure, he helped negotiate a solution to the suggestion that, for budgetary reasons, MDEQ would turn over the wetlands regulation program to the EPA, which both business groups and environmental groups opposed.

MDEQ worked with such senators as Patty Birkholz and, ultimately, the state retained the program.

Finally, Chester is proud of the Michigan Climate Action Council he pulled together in 2008.

The group included unions, auto companies, environmentalists, the utilities and more; he worked closely, in an excellent model of interdepartmental cooperation, with the Michigan Public Service Commission.

The consultant hired, Center for Climate Strategies, told them that the group's work on creating a climate plan for Michigan, with agreement on 54 recommendations, was the most cooperation they had ever seen.

The recommendations set a 20 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emission by 2020 (below 2005 levels) and 80 percent by 2050.

Chester says during that process he had a sort of epiphany about the connection between energy, environment and the economy, what he thinks of as the 3 E's.

He hopes eventually there can be a department reflecting that integral, positive connection.

Chester's regrets?

He was unable to make the legislature understand the huge benefits offered by a well-run and fully-funded environmental regulatory program.

The budget cuts, which are expected to continue, were false savings, Chester feels. He had hoped to advise the legislators on the prosperity of states with good environmental regulation, and to be given a chance to demonstrate how that might work in Michigan.

He still hopes that Humphries and the new MDNRE will succeed at that daunting task.

Chester is in the last rounds of negotiation with a law firm to return to private practice.

In the meantime, he is not letting any grass grow under his feet. The aforementioned Center for Climate Strategies has now hired him to spearhead a climate plan for the state of New York.

Published: Thu, Mar 18, 2010

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