Taking the lead to clean the bay

Three experts take over key positions in the fight to improve the environment

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer

John R. Griffin
John R. Griffin

JOB: Secretary of natural resources.
RESPONSIBILITIES: The Maryland Department of Natural Resources manages the state’s forests, parks, fish and wildlife. DNR has 1,400 employees and is headquartered in Annapolis.
EXPERIENCE: Held same position from 1995 to 1999, adviser to former Gov. Harry Hughes.

Shari T. Wilson
Shari T. Wilson

JOB: Secretary of the environment.
RESPONSIBILITIES: The Maryland Department of the Environment deals with air pollution, water pollution, drinking water quality, hazardous waste cleanup and more. MDE has 900 employees and is headquartered in southwest Baltimore.
EXPERIENCE: Environmental lawyer, former MDE employee.

Jeffrey L. Lape
Jeffrey L. Lape

JOB: Director of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program.
RESPONSIBILITIES: The bay program coordinates the various efforts to clean up the bay. It is headquartered in Eastport.
EXPERIENCE: Sixteen years with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

They have some of the toughest jobs in government around here, leading the charge to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, make our air safe to breath and protect our wildlife. Their successes and failures are chronicled publicly, and scores of passionate stakeholders scrutinize their every move.

But three new Chesapeake Bay leaders say they’re ready for the challenges they face, including the lofty goals for cleaning up the bay by 2010. Today, we introduce you to Shari T. Wilson, Maryland’s secretary of the environment; John R. Griffin, Maryland’s secretary of natural resources; and Jeffrey L. Lape, the director of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program.

Opportunity of a lifetime

Shari T. Wilson is a soft-spoken lawyer with big ideas for improving the Maryland Department of the Environment. She’s spent her career in the environmental field, both in and out of government, including an earlier stint at MDE. Most recently she served as the chief solicitor for land use for Baltimore City. When her Baltimore boss, Martin O’Malley, ascended to the governor’s mansion, he convinced Ms. Wilson to come along, too.

“For someone who has worked in this field, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” Ms. Wilson said.

But with opportunities come challenges. Ms. Wilson acknowledges that MDE has a lot to do with limited resources. Take, for example, inspections — one of the core responsibilities for MDE. On any given day, MDE oversees about 70,000 permits for things as diverse as medical radiation machines and sewage plants. There are just 132 inspectors to check on them.

“There’s a general agreement the department has been underfunded, but we need a clear picture of it,” Ms. Wilson said. To that end, she’s leading a top-to-bottom review of the agency. She wants to make sure the agency’s top priorities are indeed being focused on — protecting public health and restoring the Chesapeake Bay.

The financial and organizational review will be finished by the end of the summer. Ms. Wilson hopes most of the resulting reorganization can be done internally, though she may have to go the General Assembly next year to approve some changes.

When Ms. Wilson previously served in MDE, she worked on issues such as smart growth and cleanup programs for contaminated sites. She said knowing the agency has helped her “hit the ground running.”

Plus, she said, she appreciates the work her employees do, because she’s been in their position before. “It’s a great opportunity to make a difference with the help of 900 other individuals,” she said.

A ‘grand challenge’

In John R. Griffin’s mostly empty office at the Department of Natural Resources, the computer screen saver scrolls across, “Welcome Back!” Though Mr. Griffin is the new boss at DNR, he’s been here before, serving in the same post under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening. After his first stint, he went on to work for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and a private engineering firm.

Initially, he rebuffed suggestions that he join the O’Malley administration in his old job. “My initial inclination was the old adage, ‘Never go back,’” he said.

But the more Mr. Griffin thought about it, the more he realized that leading DNR was the most enjoyable job he’s had. He said it’s the mission — protecting the state’s natural resources — that makes the job so desirable.

Mr. Griffin said that under his leadership, the DNR will focus on restoring the Chesapeake Bay, getting a handle on growth and dealing with the looming threats of global warming.

He calls those issues “the three legs of the stool of the grand challenge that lies ahead of us.”

Though it’s hard to find many people who disagree with the mission, it’s quite easy to find people with differing ideas on how DNR should handle the mission. DNR is one of the state’s most closely watched agencies, with watermen, fishermen, business leaders, environmentalists and more offering criticism. The DNR’s public meetings often turn contentious.

Mr. Griffin knows he can’t please everyone. But he hopes to prove that his staff will listen to and weigh all the various opinions and suggestions when making decisions.

“We have to give all stakeholders and interests confidence that we’ll hear what they have to say,” he said.

Mr. Griffin said he knows it will take awhile to get people to believe that their voices are really being heard.

“The only way we can work here is to build trust,” he said. “It’s hard to build and easy to lose.”

‘Fresh perspective’

Jeffrey L. Lape’s environmental career began back in the early 1970s, when he majored in environmental science in college and completed a senior project on testing water quality. And though he has worked on the environment his entire career and lived in the Chesapeake Bay watershed for more than 25 years, he’s never had a job focusing on the bay itself.

“The one thing I bring to the table is a fresh perspective,” he said. “My weakness is I don’t know the bay. My strength is I don’t know the bay.”

Mr. Lape has been on the job at the Chesapeake Bay Program for less than a month. But he already sees some things that need to be done if there’s any hope of meeting the much-publicized 2010 goals in cleaning up the bay.

“This is not about the feds and the states getting it done. It’s about energizing a broader base to get things done,” he said.

Mr. Lape wants to get local governments, small nonprofit groups and regular folks to become more involved in bay cleanup. While there’s plenty of passion among top government officials, academics and big nonprofits like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, he said that’s not enough.

“Despite all the passion, I’m not sure that passion exists in the average person on the street,” he said.

Mr. Lape hasn’t worked out a plan yet to engage people who live in the watershed, but says it’s vital. It may take major changes in strategy to get people involved and to make more progress toward the 2010 goals. That said, Mr. Lape acknowledges that there’s a long way to go and not much time before 2010 rolls around.

“I don’t think anyone thinks the current pace is adequate,” he said.

Mr. Lape said 2010 isn’t the end of the road for bay restoration. Even if the 2010 goals were met, there would be just another round of goals and a new deadline established.

“2010 is just another marker in time,” he said. “The challenge the day after is not that different than the day before.”

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pwood@capitalgazette.com

(Revised April 2007)