Traverse City Record-Eagle


January 9, 2010

Chester: DEQ accomplished much

A year into his tenure as Michigan's chief environmental regulator, Steven Chester went to Midland for a panel discussion about dioxin pollution from the local Dow Chemical Co. plant.

He was greeted by sign-waving protesters and an overflow crowd that pounded his Department of Environmental Quality over its treatment of Dow, a leading employer and community benefactor.

"It was an early signal," Chester said dryly, "that this was going to be some rough sledding."

The path would get no smoother during his seven years as DEQ director, which ended last week as the 55-year-old attorney stepped aside to resume his law practice.

Even in the best of times, it's a daunting task to oversee an agency that writes and enforces rules setting limits on business activity and the use of private property. For Chester, doing so with the state economy in free-fall was twice as tough.

His department clashed repeatedly with business interests and critics in the Legislature over issues ranging from wetland development to livestock manure flowing into waterways near industrial farms.

Critics derided Chester and his team as power-hungry zealots who damaged Michigan's economy by being excessively strict when crafting regulations, considering permit applications and dealing with violations.

"Other states in our region have similar laws, but Michigan developed a reputation as a tougher place to do business. We had a more negative regulatory environment," said Doug Roberts, environmental policy director for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Scott Piggott, the Michigan Farm Bureau's environmental manager, praised Chester's willingness to meet with his group but said members had "lost confidence in the ability of the Department of Environmental Quality management to objectively address agriculture."

Environmental activists, meanwhile, sometimes thought Chester wasn't tough enough. They protested when the DEQ approved permits for a nickel and copper mine in the Upper Peninsula and a new coal-fired power plant near Bay City.

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