Environmental chief nominee promises to `find a balance'

Business groups pleased, but Democrats cautious

February 01, 2003|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Sarah Koenig | Timothy B. Wheeler and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s choice to run Maryland's environmental agency vowed to "find a balance" between protection and economic interests yesterday, as business lobbyists welcomed her nomination and leading Democratic lawmakers pledged to scrutinize her performance in a Michigan agency long criticized by environmentalists.

Lynn Y. Buhl, a former midlevel administrator in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, echoed her new boss' views as she made a low-key debut at the State House.

Environmental and business interests "don't always have to be at odds," said Buhl, a 47-year-old lawyer who worked for Chrysler Corp. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before joining Michigan's environmental agency in 1999. "We need to get away from a confrontational approach."

As Ehrlich issued a statement calling Buhl a "business-savvy lawyer and environmentalist," he named as her deputy a former corporate executive with no experience as a regulator.

Kendl P. Philbrick, 60, of Fallston, spent 10 years as executive vice president of LMC Properties Inc., a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp.

The governor's statement noted Philbrick's experience working with regulators and said his management credentials would be "a tremendous asset as we continue to strengthen our environment."

Buhl, who has relatives on the Eastern Shore and plans to live in Annapolis with her husband, is expected to take charge of the state's Department of the Environment Feb. 10.

The Baltimore-based agency, with 1,100 employees and a $160 million operating budget, is charged with safeguarding the population's environmental health, regulating air and water pollution and cleaning up contamination.

Under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the agency took a leading role in the effort to restore Chesapeake Bay, curb summertime smog and prevent childhood lead poisoning.

Business representatives, who have long complained of being ignored by Glendening, said they liked what little they knew about Buhl.

"The reports we've received are that she takes a very balanced approach, that she listens to both business and environmentalists and weighs the pros and cons," said Michael Powell, a lobbyist for a group of Maryland manufacturers. "That description alone makes us very happy."

"These people both sound like they have a broad perspective, understanding there can be a balance between business and the environment," said Kathleen T. Snyder, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

By most accounts, Buhl was a minor player in Michigan's environmental battles. She applied for the Maryland job on the Internet and landed it on the strength of a personal recommendation from former Michigan Gov. John Engler.

But Democratic legislators were alarmed by activists' claims that the state's air and water quality suffered under her agency's governance.

"I don't know anything about her individually," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "I know she worked for a department that was a steward of the polluters, not a steward of the environment."

He warned that her confirmation was "in danger" if she shares the philosophy of her one-time boss, John Engler. Michigan activists went to court repeatedly to challenge what they saw as overly business-friendly stances by Russell J. Harding, Engler's chief of the Department of Environmental Quality.

"We need to give the woman a chance to get here, and be questioned by those of us who are pro-environment and have concerns," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Michigan activists offered few insights into Buhl's record there, saying she had not played a significant role in the state's environmental battles. She served as director of two district offices overseeing environmental quality in the Detroit area.

"She was just totally below our radar," said Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council. "One would question what experience she has for running the department - certainly not the experience she gained in Michigan. Her responsibilities in Michigan were not substantial."

Buhl said yesterday that as regional director, she worked on enhancing "brownfield' regulations - enabling redevelopment toxic industrial sites. "I thought things got better while I was there," she said.

James Clift, policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council, disagreed, saying the state's rules gave developers too much leeway in deciding what pollution to clean up. But he said Buhl had little to do with drafting the regulations.

Buhl was also involved in developing guidelines to ensure that that the burden of pollution does not fall most heavily on the poor and minorities. Activists in the "environmental justice" movement said Buhl seemed sympathetic but that her department failed to do anything.

One of the first issues Buhl may confront here is an effort by the state's giant poultry processors to overturn regulations that make them responsible for excess manure generated by contract growers.

The state took action after scientists found that excess nutrients from poultry waste fouled bay rivers and may have contributed to 1997 outbreaks of Pfiesteria, a microbe blamed for killing fish and causing memory loss among humans.

An administrative law judge sided last year with Salisbury-based Perdue Farms Inc.

The department's secretary will make the final decision. Buhl indicated yesterday that she was leaning toward siding with the poultry companies, though she hoped to help the small chicken farmers as well.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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