By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has fired two top officials at the Department of Environment and Conservation, while a third has announced his retirement.
The department said in a statement Friday that the changes are “designed to streamline our structure and build management efficiencies.”
Changes are to include the creation of a single water resources division encompassing the department’s pollution control, water supply and groundwater management programs, according to the statement.
The fired officials are Mike Apple, head of the department’s solid waste management division, and Paul E. Davis, who was in charge of water pollution control. Meanwhile, Mike Carlton is retiring as director of Tennessee state parks.
The Tennessean newspaper first reported the TDEC shakeup on its website Friday afternoon. Apple told the paper he had been called in to the office of deputy commissioner Shari Meghreblian earlier this week, and that he was given no explanation for the firing other than that “they wanted to make a change.”
The governor’s office deferred questions about the changes back to the department.
John McFadden, executive director of the Tennessee Environmental Council, said he is taking a wait-and-see approach to how the department proceeds.
“My biggest concern would be that we continue to have these resources that this agency is responsible for protecting and conserving and taking care of,” he said. “We know that we’ve got significant degradation that ties back into our quality of life, our communities and human health.”
TDEC was a frequent target during the Republican gubernatorial nomination race in 2010, though Haslam was the least aggressive in his criticism of the agency. But complaints about environmental regulations have been a recurring theme as the governor has met with business groups around the state, and Haslam has promised changes to make the department more business-friendly.
For example, the governor in December pledged to speed up the time it takes for TDEC to process animal waste permits for poultry farms, saying his goal is for the state to strike the “right balance between our stewardship responsibilities and making certain we’re providing product and providing jobs.”
The changes at TDEC follow similar changes at the Tennessee Department of Transportation last summer, when the chief administrator and the top environmental officer left the agency and the existing engineering chief was promoted. The department has since replaced the two positions, but the new top environmental officer is placed at a lower rank. TDOT also abandoned its green logo for a new red one.
TDOT Commissioner John Schroer in September denied that the changes signaled a retreat from an emphasis on environmental and community concerns under former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Bredesen declared during the 2002 governor’s race that TDOT was “out of control,” and ran campaign ads pledging to clean up the unpopular agency that had been the target of outside lawsuits and frequent TDEC fines.
See also the Chas Sisk report, which begins thusly: The Haslam administration has shaken up the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, removing two top officials, combining several divisions and cutting more than 150 jobs… TDEC also plans to roll three divisions that deal with water into one, and it will consolidate the solid and hazardous waste division with the division that deals with toxic cleanups.