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Veteran regulator prefers to say 'yes'

Getting to “yes” is a mission for Jim Sygo, the deputy director of the Department of Environmental Quality. It's an answer, he believes can help Michigan’s environment and its economy.

And it is a fundamental reason why Sygo is still on the job after nearly 30 years of state service that has taken him from Saginaw and Roscommon to the pinnacle of responsibility of a state department in Lansing.

Sygo, 62, was eligible to retire early in 2010 as part of the state’s efforts to cut costs. He considered it, but recounts, with obvious pleasure, that he was asked to stay on and work with the new DEQ director, Dan Wyant.

Since state workers most often labor in relative anonymity, such a request made an impact on him. “I was thrilled someone asked me. I got to feel that’s a little bit of recognition,” he said, as acknowledgement he was someone who could solve problems and who had a vision of what the state’s environment could look like in 10 years.

Protecting the environment is Sygo’s goal, but to do so in a way that encompasses a partnership with the people the state regulates -- a result that also can help the state’s economy. “People clearly want to pin the economy on the environment in many situations, and I don’t think you need to, I think you can find a way around that,” Sygo said.

Regardless, “you have to do right by the environment,” he emphasized.

As the numerous photos around his Lansing office attest, Sygo is a graduate and proud supporter of the Universityof Michigan, getting first his bachelor’s degree in meteorology and oceanography and then a master's in chemical oceanography. 

After some time in both the private sector and local public life, Sygo joined the state in 1982 ... with the Michigan State Police. They needed someone to help with radiological defense planning, and that was in Sygo’s skill-set.

In 1984, Del Rector, a former top Department of Natural Resources official, hired Sygo to DNR to work in hazardous waste management in Saginaw. By 1989 he was in Roscommon as the DNR’s regional director, responsible mostly for waste management.

In late 1992, Sygo was moved into the Capital City as a deputy division director. Ten years later, he moved over to DEQ.

At the end of 2009, as the DEQ and the DNR were about to be re-merged as the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, the director left and -- for about three weeks -- Sygo was DEQ director.

When the merger was complete, he filled the post of deputy director of the new department, where he stayed until he contemplated, but declined, retirement.

Even as the state’s economy has struggled, Sygo said the public has still generally supported the preservation of its resources -- until recently.

The new push on environmental regulation has been that state standards should not exceed federal standards. Supporters of that concept believe it will make Michigan more competitive for business. All well and good, Sygo says, but there are areas where there aren't any federal environmental standards.

(Quiet settles over environmental debate at Capitol)

One good example is phosphorus. For several decades now, Michigan has had a standard of 1 part per million in the Great Lakes. Many states do not have such standards; neither does the federal government. Discussions are ongoing among those entities on standards, but what if, Sygo posed, the ensuing federal standard is less stringent than Michigan’s?

“Does that mean we should not continue to maintain our phosphorus levels? And the answer in my mind is, absolutely not, we should maintain those levels. That’s an argument we don’t need to go through.  Is it more restrictive than what the feds are doing now, we don’t really know because the feds haven’t set the standards yet.  But we expect we’ll be under whatever they’re going to set, and we’ll be that much further ahead in terms of protecting the Great Lakes,” he said.

It is clear Sygo has both a scientific and regulator’s respect for evidence and process. But he also understands the political reality of regulating environmental protection, where business interests often complain the state is too stringent and the environmental protection advocates think the state is not stringent enough.

In his off-time, Sygo says he enjoys fishing the Michigan waters he's charged with helping to protect, football and "reading things other than regulations."

James Clift, who heads the Michigan Environmental Council, has had his share of disagreements with Sygo, but characterizes him as a "straight shooter" whose deep knowledge of regulatory issues is an asset for the state.

Sygo's extended tour with the state may allow him to clear one big issue off his desk.

For more than a decade, the state and Dow Chemical have worked on reaching an agreement on cleaning up Midland, the Tittabawassee River and environs. While these particular cases date back about a decade or so, Sygo explained that he has pretty much been assigned to monitor Dow since he first started in public service.

Now, though, he is hopeful these issues can be resolved, and he said both sides are finding concurrence on matters that could lead to some resolution.

“I’d like that one put to bed,” he said.

Editor's note: This story was produced in a collaboration between Bridge Magazine and the Gongwer News Service.

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