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.

But they gave Chester mostly positive reviews, saying he restored the traditional watchdog role of an agency they considered toothless and dispirited under the business-friendly administration of former Republican Gov. John Engler.

"He got beat up -- a lot -- and was willing to take the heat and continue pushing forward to try and do the right thing," said Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter. "While we didn't always agree with his decisions, he based them on the law and science. He was willing to listen and have conversations and disagree in a constructive way."

In an exit interview, Chester dismissed his harshest critics as anti-government idealogues with a knee-jerk bias against environmental regulation. He said lax regulation hurts the economy by making people sicker, which boosts health care costs and reduces productivity.

Staff morale and public respect improved markedly on his watch and the agency became more efficient at processing permits, he said. But foes in the Legislature seized on a few controversial cases to chip away at the department's authority and budget. During the Dow dioxin fight, company supporters even tried to slash Chester's salary and abolish the DEQ.

"There were all kinds of initiatives that would try to tie our hands and limit our ability to protect human health and the environment," Chester said. "Despite tremendous challenges, I think this is going to be remembered as one of the most productive eras in human health and natural resource protection in Michigan."

Chester pointed to new guidelines for withdrawing large quantities of water from the Great Lakes or inland. Michigan also helped negotiate and joined an interstate compact limiting diversion of Great Lakes water to other regions. The state was first to prevent shippers from dumping ballast water without securing a permit to prevent spread of invasive species.

DEQ stepped up water quality monitoring and began issuing permits limiting pollution from big livestock farms, taking the worst violators to court, although some environmentalists said the agency was too timid with scofflaws.

The department cracked down on mercury pollution from coal-fired power and cement plants; developed plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions; made progress on cleaning highly contaminated sites; pumped more than $1.75 billion into brownfield redevelopment; and wrote rules for mining non-iron sulfide metals such as nickel and copper.

But the DEQ was hampered by an increasingly tight budget, which Chester said is perhaps the biggest challenge as the DEQ is recombined with the Department of Natural Resources under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm's government reorganization initiative.

When the Granholm administration began in 2003, about one-third of the DEQ's $350 million budget came from the general fund -- the state's primary checkbook. The rest was provided by federal grants and permit fees.

Since then, general fund support has dropped nearly 75 percent. Lawmakers have resisted boosting fees to make up the difference, leaving the department strapped. The staff of 1,300 is at its lowest level since DEQ was established in the mid-1990s.

Chester favors cutting permit fees while establishing a guaranteed pot of general fund money for environmental programs. Otherwise, he warned, "the emphasis will become just issuing permits, getting them out the door," while regulation and enforcement will suffer.

A healthy environment for Michigan also depends on improving the relationship between regulators and lawmakers, Chester said.

"Legislators have to trust the judgment of the department, they have to rely on science and cannot base their decisions on limited, anecdotal information," he said.

"Unfortunately, all too often it's those loud, well-heeled voices that get their attention, rather than the public at large. It's hurting us as a state. We have to do better."

Information on former DEQ director Steven Chester

NAME: Steven Chester

AGE: 55 (Born July 19, 1954)

RESIDENCE: Williamston

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in criminal justice, Michigan State University, 1977; law degree, Wayne State University, 1981.

PROFESSIONAL CAREER: Director, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, 2003-present; private law practice, Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, 1995-2002; deputy director, Office of Criminal Enforcement, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1992-95; assistant attorney general, Environmental Protection Division, Michigan Department of Attorney General, 1986-92; assistant prosecutor, Air Pollution Control Division, Wayne County Health Department, 1982-86.

PERSONAL: Married to Debra; two children.