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Controversial MPCA Chief Sheryl Corrigan: Did she jump, or...?

When Sheryl Corrigan announced her resignation as head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency late last month, political observers and environmental activists alike were left to scratch their collective noggin and ask why. And: Why now? The official story—that Corrigan wanted to spend more time with her family before returning to the private sector—may have been correct; then again, that line or one like it is almost always invoked when a high-ranking political appointee abruptly resigns.

This much is known: Corrigan's tenure at the MPCA was defined by controversies and, as Gov. Tim Pawlenty heads into a bruising re-election campaign, Corrigan was a political liability for an incumbent who wants to position himself as eco-friendly. So did she jump, or was she pushed?

"It is weird timing," offers Marie Zellar, state director for the nonprofit advocacy group Clean Water Action Alliance. "I think Pawlenty is trying to green-wash himself, trying to use the environment as cover. Corrigan is not the best cover." Clean Water Action, it so happens, was a major player in one of Corrigan's higher-profile missteps: the disclosure that MPCA officials met with representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, power companies, and other business interests while the agency was drafting a plan to reduce smokestack mercury emissions. At the same time, Zellar points out, Clean Water Action was entirely excluded from the process—not even allowed to review the draft proposal. Only later did they learn that the draft regulations had been significantly weakened following the meetings with industry officials.

At a Senate hearing held last year to investigate the matter, Corrigan denied any impropriety and contended that the MPCA was legally bound to meet with "stakeholders." While that may true, the excluded environmentalists responded, they too should have been considered stakeholders. In the wake of the flap, Pawlenty signed mercury reduction legislation that imposed much of what environmentalists originally hoped for. In the view of many activists, that act was motivated by a political need to save face.

When Pawlenty originally tapped Corrigan to lead the MPCA, he characterized her as an "environmental watchdog with [a] business perspective." But Corrigan's tenure was punctuated by recurring complaints of misplaced deference to business interests, wrapped in can't-we-all-just-get-along rhetoric. "At first," Zellar remembers, "[Corrigan] was very well received by lots of folks on both sides of the aisle, just because she was so friendly. We've had commissioners that rubbed people the wrong way. She was the opposite. A very likeable person.

"When she took this job," adds Zellar, "she said, 'Industry is not the bad guy. We are all polluters.' That's great. But I'm sorry, 3M is a polluter. That's why they have to get permits under the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. And it's not the MPCA's job to grow the economy."

That sentiment is echoed by Clyde Hanson of the North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. "She was the Mark Ray of the Pawlenty administration," Hanson says, in reference to the former timber industry lobbyist who went on to head the U.S. Forest Service. It's not hard to see why Hanson draws the parallel. Before Corrigan became the state's chief environmental watchdog, she worked as an environmental manager at one of the state's biggest manufacturers, the 3M Company. While previous MPCA commissioners have also come from industry, Corrigan's background proved unusually controversial. That's largely because 3M is the leading producer of a family of synthetic chemicals called PFCs. In recent years, PFCs have become a growing source of concern among scientists and public health advocates who worry about the chemicals' unusual persistence and ubiquity.

As commissioner, Corrigan declared that she recused herself from all matters involving 3M and PFCs. However, the former coordinator of the MPCA's emerging contaminants program, Fardin Oliaei, has publicly alleged that Corrigan actively discouraged her research into PFCs and that other MPCA managers also tried to subvert her work. Oliaei's efforts to push the PFC issue ultimately led to her ouster from the agency. (See "When Good Science Is Bad Politics," CP 3/29/06.) This past February, the agency agreed to pay Oliaei $325,000 to drop a whistleblower lawsuit she filed in federal court.

In Oliaei's view, the timing of her former boss's departure raises flags. While she concedes she is not impartial in the matter, Oliaei insists that many of her ex-colleagues at the MPCA share her suspicion that "this resignation is fishy, that it's not a normal resignation." She believes that the commissioner's involvement with the PFC issue and the 3M Company is likely to come under further scrutiny.

State Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville), who chairs the Senate's Environment and Natural Resources Committee, says he hopes to hold another round of hearings on PFCs, the MPCA, and 3M. Marty says he has no firsthand knowledge about the circumstances that led to Corrigan's resignation, but has little doubt that people in the Pawlenty administration came to see her as a liability. "I think they realize that she was in hot water for being too blatant," Marty says.

Kris Sigford, the veteran water policy coordinator for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, regards Corrigan's tenure as heavy on public relations and light on accomplishment. She points to Corrigan's signature issue, clean water. "I think she was quite effective at raising the profile of impaired waters and our need to address and reclaim our polluted water bodies," Sigford observes. "But raising the profile isn't getting the job done."

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