- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 10, 2016

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan’s newly named top environmental regulator said Wednesday that she is not defined by her past as an oil and gas lobbyist and will make decisions with no “particular bent” other than protecting the environment and human health.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointment of Heidi Grether to lead the Department of Environmental Quality in the wake of fallout from the Flint water crisis has drawn criticism because of her ties to BP, the company responsible for another environmental disaster - the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

But Grether, who began the job last week, told The Associated Press in an interview that “who I am is a whole lot more than just my last job.” She said it is “unfortunate” yet understandable that people “make assumptions.”

“I would hope that folks would give me a chance to see how actually I plan to run this agency, what kinds of decisions come out of it and how we make those decisions,” Grether said. “This is an important job. I’ve taken an oath of office for it. Notwithstanding my past, that oath of office is what drives me to follow the law, follow the rules, be responsive to concerns that are raised, be fair, try to get all the information to make good decisions and to move forward.”

She added: “I hope that people will see and understand that I am not coming at this as a particular person from a particular bent.”

The 1,110-employee agency has been reeling ever since the Republican governor’s own task force deemed it primarily responsible for the lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water. Director Dan Wyant and his communications director resigned in December. Five employees, including one who was fired, have been charged with crimes by the state attorney general.

Grether said her biggest tasks are restoring the DEQ’s reputation in the eyes of the public and addressing what she characterized as low morale within the department.

“Employees are hesitant to make decisions or move on certain things because they don’t know what that means for them,” she said. “To be quite honest, it’s hard to have your colleagues facing criminal charges for what people may think is doing their job.”

Grether said she knows no details of the legal cases other than what other DEQ employees have told her, but she said a key goal is quickly filling positions that opened due to the crisis and retirements.

Snyder has said that some DEQ actions, such as failing to require anti- corrosion chemicals at the time of Flint’s 2014 water switch, lacked “common sense.” Grether said she will review processes across DEQ divisions to see if there are “lessons learned” but cautioned against painting employees with a “broad brush.”

“You want people to use common sense. They have to feel empowered to do that. … There’s a lot of people making really good decisions every day in this department, and that’s gotten lost in the Flint stuff.”

Before joining the DEQ, the 58-year-old Grether was deputy director of the Michigan Agency for Energy for more than a year. She previously worked at BP for about 20 years, mostly as state government affairs director, before managing external affairs in the Gulf after the oil spill. She formerly was a staffer in the Michigan Legislature.

Grether acknowledged that she “paused” when top Snyder aides Rich Baird and Mike Zimmer asked her to consider heading the DEQ at a time of crisis. Yet she ultimately decided “that I could make a difference.”

Grether, who lives in Williamston near Lansing, said she retired from BP in 2008 but returned in 2010 when the spill occurred - first on contract and then as a full-time employee.

“I’ve been through a horrific crisis. I’ve helped manage that horrific crisis,” she said. “I’ve helped try to be fair, honest; improve people’s positions and lives; and help them. That’s where we are here. That’s important because we still have to get on with the business of protecting the environment.”

Grether said the DEQ continues to have regulatory authority in Flint, which remains under emergency declarations and whose residents are using faucet filters or bottled water. Yet she will not be directly involved much with Flint matters. Rather, Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh - who directed the DEQ on an interim basis after Wyant’s departure - will remain a major point person.

“We talk to each other every day,” Grether said. “I am aware of what’s going on, but I’m not getting into the weeds on Flint stuff because it’s in his very capable hands.”


Follow David Eggert at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/david-eggert

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