Ehrlich picks Mich. official as state environment chief

Buhl was deputy chief in department that gained notoriety among activists

January 31, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said last night that he is nominating a former Michigan official and Chrysler Corp. attorney to lead the Maryland Department of the Environment, triggering an immediate volley of criticism from activists worried about a weakening of the state's environmental laws and regulations.

The nominee, Lynn Y. Buhl, was most recently a deputy chief at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, an agency that receives abysmal marks from advocacy groups there who say public input has been quashed and corporate polluters have gone unpunished in recent years.

But Ehrlich and top aides say Buhl brings the right mix of skills to the job and should be given a chance to succeed.

Her selection, the governor said, heralds a new direction for a department that got much attention under the previous Democratic administration, but that drew the ire of some groups - such as farmers and watermen - that supported Ehrlich's candidacy.

"There's no doubt about it: Our Department of Environment is going to be somewhat different than Parris Glendening's," Ehrlich said yesterday. "Our agency is not going to be in permanent `gotcha' mode."

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele described Buhl as "out of the box - not someone who is old-school."

"She brings the environmental piece, as well as the corporate piece to the table," Steele said. "She's got the business piece as well as the regulatory piece."

Although Buhl is not widely known in the state in which she worked - she was head of a regional office for the Michigan department - the agency has become infamous among the environmental community in the Midwest.

Eighteen Michigan environmental groups - including Clean Water Action, the Lake Michigan Federation and the Michigan Land Use Institute - have issued a series of reports that they say details "the failure of the state Department of Environmental Quality to protect clean air, clean water and public health."

Among the complaints: The agency sided with General Motors and let large amounts of pollutants remain along the banks of the Saginaw River, and it allowed the volume of trash imported from Toronto to double.

"She works for an agency that was incredibly destructive to the environment," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. "From the people I've talked to in Michigan, she never did anything to stop that. She's virtually unknown in the environmental community, but the policies of the agency are well-known."

Buhl's previous boss, former Michigan environmental chief Russ Harding, is "the Darth Vader of environmental stewardship," said Keith Schneider, program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute.

If Harding's policies and leadership styles are duplicated in Maryland, Schneider predicted an outcry.

"If I cared about the environment, wetlands, the Chesapeake Bay, quality of life, quality of water, I'd be very concerned," said Schneider, referring to Harding's reputation. "If I were a Realtor, home builder, pavement maker, exploiter of the environment, I'd celebrate."

Although Buhl could not be reached for comment last night, she said in an interview this month - when her name first surfaced as a candidate for the post - that she considered herself more moderate than Harding.

"I am a lawyer by training. I look for compromise solutions and common-sense results," she said. "I think the state government needs to be customer-orientated."

Before joining the Michigan agency in 1999, Buhl worked for 11 years as an environmental lawyer for Chrysler Corp. Before that, she worked with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington and Chicago.

Buhl said she was interested in water-quality issues such as those affecting the Chesapeake.

"I think Maryland is perceived as a leader in environmental issues," she said. "I know the former governor touted Smart Growth quite a bit. I've never really had that explained to me in detail, but I think clearly land-use decisions have a big environmental impact."

During that interview, Buhl said that she was planning to move to Annapolis with her husband and that her parents live on the Eastern Shore.

Former Republican Michigan Gov. John Engler called Ehrlich and recommended Buhl for the job.

But Schneider and others say concerns about Michigan's environmental policies led voters to turn to a different party, electing Democrat Jennifer M. Granholm to the open governor's seat in November.

Ehrlich has said frequently that he has different environmental priorities than Glendening, who developed something of a national reputation in the field. Ehrlich has proposed spending more money on repairs to sewage- and wastewater-treatment plants, and he wants to consider easing laws that regulate nutrients allowed to run off farms.

He has said he would consider merging the state's Environment and Natural Resources departments, but such a move would be at least a year away.

Asked about those who worry about the appointment, Steele said: "You know what I say to them? Stop the whining. Stop the complaining, and prepare to work with us to solve the environmental problems of the state."

"You don't know anything about her; you don't know anything about the governor's plan," he said. "Let's wait a year and then we can assess how she does."

Staff writers Alec MacGillis, Sarah Koenig and Tim Craig contributed to this article.

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