LANSING - The recently appointed director of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality told her Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday that there is "paralysis" at the agency in the Flint drinking water crisis, as some employees feel their colleagues have been criminally charged for doing their jobs.
Some employees have refused to work on Flint issues because of the potential exposure, and other good employees are actively looking for other jobs, Heidi Grether told the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
"There is some paralysis," Grether testified. "People are afraid to make decisions. They are afraid of by what standard they will be judged," because "they feel that some of their colleagues were doing their jobs and now have been criminally charged."
So far, Attorney General has charged eight state employees with felonies in connection with the lead contamination of Flint's drinking water. Five of those charged are current or former employees of the DEQ.
"I have no control over the judicial process, but have offered suggestions to staff to have them feel more secure in their decision-making," Grether testified.
"There is exposure that people are not comfortable having," and "it's very important for people to feel they're supported."
The state recently restored pay for charged employees who had been suspended without pay and has also been covering criminal defense fees, which it is not required to pay, in addition to civil lawsuit defense fees, which it is required to pay.
Before raising the paralysis issue, Snyder's controversial choice to head the DEQ in the wake of the Flint drinking water crisis sought to ease public concerns about her background in the oil and gas industry.
Many environmentalists and activists were angered in July when Snyder named Grether, a former oil and gas lobbyist who worked for BP, to head the DEQ as the department recovers from the Flint crisis and is about to make important decisions about the Enbridge Line 5 pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac.
Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, said Wednesday that when she first read about Grether's appointment, she thought it must be a satirical article from the Onion. "I was outraged," said Shariff, adding she doesn't trust Grether to safeguard Flint's interests in the wake of the Flint drinking water crisis, which involved lead contamination of the city's drinking water, largely as a result of DEQ errors.
"The situation in Flint has improved very little," she said.
In her opening statement to the committee, Grether said: "I understand that my appointment has raised concerns in some quarters and I hope to allay some of those concerns today."
The committee is not expected to hold up confirmation of Heidi Grether's appointment, despite opposition to the choice from several environmental groups.
Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, the chairman, who adjourned the meeting after about one hour after hearing from Grether but none of the many witnesses who wanted to speak, said the committee is not required to hold a confirmation vote and may not do so. He said after the hearing he has no concerns about the appointment.
"What I'm hearing is, some people are judging her based on a position she's held," Casperson said. "I think it's more important to judge a person on who they are."
Asked about Grether's comments about DEQ paralysis, Casperson said people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but "I don't think departments need to be worried as long as they're doing things appropriately."
Shariff said she was very disappointed that she and others who traveled to Lansing to speak at the hearing were not allowed to testify.
Casperson said there wasn't enough time to hear testimony from anyone other than Grether.
Grether described herself as a lifelong Michigan resident who, except for a brief time on the Gulf Coast, has spent her entire life in Michigan, growing up as the daughter of a Michigan United Conservation Clubs board member who loves the outdoors and remains an avid bird watcher.
While she loves nature, "I live in the real world," and "we have to think about economic prosperity and jobs," she told the committee.
She said her main job at BP was acting as "a translator" between the company and state legislators and regulatory agencies and helping to find common ground between them. She said the two years remaining in Snyder's final term is not much time to change the culture at the DEQ, but she wants to put in place staff who understand the importance of being creative and not doing things the way they have always been done.
"I want to build a DEQ that the public trusts and respects, that will be transparent and make good decisions," she said.
Activists from Clean Water Action, Flint Rising and other groups held a news conference outside the Capitol ahead of the 12:30 hearing in a nearby office building.
"This is more of the same from Michigan Republicans, choosing the interests of corporate polluters over the well-being of citizens," said Sam Inglot, deputy communications director at Progress Michigan.
Grether, who since June 2015 has served as deputy director of the Michigan Agency for Energy, worked in a variety of lobbying, management and communications roles with BP America and the BP Gulf Coast Restoration Organization between 1993 and 2014.
She earlier worked in the Michigan Legislature and for the Michigan Manufacturers Association.
Grether holds a bachelor's degree in political science and public administration and a master's degree in natural resources economics and policy, both from Michigan State University.
Some activists say that if Grether is confirmed, she should recuse herself from pending decisions on the future of the Enbridge Line 5 pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac.
"Protecting the Great Lakes shouldn’t fall to someone with such close ties to an industry whose profits will be directly impacted by her decisions as a public official," David Holtz, chair of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, said when Grether's appointment was announced in July.
Snyder said Grether's "expertise in delivering good customer service from a large organization will be of great value as we continue working to reinvent the department and act more proactively to address issues that arise."
(2016 © Detroit Free Press)