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April 14, 2003
Profile: Environment is a priority for Wise, says new DEP chief

By Ken Ward Jr.
STAFF WRITER

When Stephanie Timmermeyer listened to Gov. Bob Wise’s second State of the State address in January, she noticed the same thing many others did: not one mention of the word “environment.”

Timmermeyer, then the state’s chief air-pollution regulator, wasn’t discouraged. “I don’t think that indicated any lack of interest in environmental issues,” she said later.

Last month, Wise named Timmermeyer secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection. The $85,000-a-year job puts her in charge of an agency with nearly 800 employees and a nearly $150 million annual budget.

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In the post, Timmermeyer will be the administration’s lead person on environmental issues at an agency that is a frequent target of criticism both from citizen groups and industry.

From where Timmermeyer sits, the Wise administration is strongly pro-environment. The DEP, she says, is doing a good job protecting the state’s streams, mountains and public health. Under her watch, she hopes the agency does even better.

“Governor Wise sees, as all citizens of West Virginia do, that where West Virginia goes from here, and West Virginia’s economic outlook depends on our environmental health,” Timmermeyer said.

“Anyone who was in this state in the 1970s can look out the window and see that the environment is in a lot better shape now.”

Timmermeyer pointed out that Wise is chairman of the Natural Resources Committee of the National Governors Association, where he will help mold that group’s position on various Bush administration initiatives.

In a recent interview, she also clarified previous comments that neither Wise nor his staff had discussed specific environmental issues they hoped the DEP would work on.

“On the big picture and policy issues, we do have discussions,” Timmermeyer said.

First woman in charge

Timmermeyer is the first woman to serve as West Virginia’s chief environmental regulator. And at 33, she’s also the youngest person.

Less than a week before Wise appointed Timmermeyer, the state’s major environmental groups urged the governor to pick a different candidate. They favored longtime environmental lawyer Patrick McGinley, who has been teaching at the West Virginia University College of Law since 1975.

Timmermeyer says she knows that her previous jobs — as an industry consultant and, briefly, an industry lawyer — have drawn criticism.

After she graduated from law school in May 2001 and until she joined the DEP as air quality director seven months later, Timmermeyer worked for the Charleston-based firm Spilman Thomas and Battle. Among other things, she represented DuPont in matters concerning pollution of Parkersburg-area air and water with the toxic chemical C8. At the DEP, Timmermeyer says she has recused herself from C8 issues.

Timmermeyer said she doesn’t want to focus on her former role as an industry advocate. “I’m sure everybody is tired of hearing about my background,” she said.

Good in math and science

Timmermeyer grew up in Bryans Road, Md., a town of about 5,000 people south of Washington, D.C.

Both of her parents were in the military, before retiring from the service to teach school.

Timmermeyer says she was good in math and science and influenced by her parents’ stories of their time in the military.

So, she went off to study electrical engineering at the Coast Guard Academy. That didn’t work out, though.

“I just felt like that wasn’t for me,” she said. “You just basically had nine years of your life planned out for you.”

Timmermeyer says she also felt like she was missing the natural sciences — and the outdoors. She recalled several weeks she had spent on the Chesapeake Bay during the mid-1980s studying agriculture’s effects on the watershed.

“We looked at the way some of the Amish farmers worked naturally, with no pesticides and things like that,” she said. “But they can cause problems, too, because they farm on one area for a long period of time.”

At the time, Timmermeyer’s brother was already in forestry school at West Virginia University in Morgantown. The University of Maryland didn’t have a forestry program but had an agreement that made it easier for Maryland residents to attend WVU.

Timmermeyer enrolled at WVU and eventually graduated with a degree in forestry.

Trimming the trees

After that, Timmermeyer spent six years as a forester for American Electric Power.

At first, she oversaw AEP crews that cleared brush and trees from the utility’s transmission lines. She decided which lines needed sprayed with herbicides and which didn’t, and where to send cutting crews to remove trees.

Later, she did essentially the same job with the smaller distribution lines that run through residential neighborhoods.

Both roles involved their share of controversy, she said. Some rural residents hate herbicide spraying. Folks in town sometimes go overboard trimming trees they think are in the way of power lines, she said.

“Some people just like to lop them off so they look like a coat rack,” Timmermeyer said. “There’s a better way to do it so the trees are less likely to be susceptible to disease and look better.”

During her time at AEP, Timmermeyer said, she became more and more interested in environmental policy-making.

That interest led her to take a job with Terradon, a Charleston environmental consulting firm that later changed its name to Potesta & Associates. There, she helped companies that were applying for water pollution or air discharge permits from the DEP.

Timmermeyer said she learned a lot about how the DEP works and about industry complaints that getting permit approval takes too long.

“I had some case-by-case problems with that, but I found the permit engineers very dedicated, talented and good at what they do,” Timmermeyer said.

Timmermeyer said she’s also convinced that industry complaints that West Virginia’s environmental rules are more stringent than other states’ simply aren’t true.

“I certainly haven’t seen any data or evidence to really back that up,” she said. “I’m not sure what their agenda is with that.”

Private property rights

Timmermeyer said that going to law school was a natural progression in her environmental career.

“I like forests, and I like walking around in the woods,” she said. “But I really liked the legal aspects and the public-policy aspects.”

While a law student, Timmermeyer wrote a law review article about mountaintop removal and a ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II to limit the practice.

In the article, Timmermeyer argued that any move to deny coal companies mountaintop removal permits could require the government to pay those companies for a “taking” of private property. The article was called “So You Want to Ban Mountaintop Mining? You may have to put your money where your mouth is.”

Today, Timmermeyer says that the article was more about doing legal research than arguing for such a policy.

“Law school is about research and a topic in my constitutional law class that interested me was private property rights and takings,” Timmermeyer said.

“That issue just interested me. I don’t have an answer to it, and certainly it is a ridiculous concept that the state would have to pay for every regulation that it passes.”

Timmermeyer said that she hasn’t visited a mountaintop removal operation, but has flown over several in the DEP’s helicopter.

“It was obvious from the helicopter,” she said. “It has an obvious, noticeable effect on the terrain.”

Timmermeyer paused, and then added, “That’s probably an understatement, isn’t it?”

Public involvement

On a bookcase in her office, Timmermeyer keeps a framed copy of a “Scowl” that the DEP air office received from the Gazette in early 2002.

The DEP had issued a news release that cautioned the public not to worry much about the results of a new federal study on toxic air pollution. The study, the release said, was based on out-of-date information and inaccurate modeling.

Although the DEP downplayed the federal study, the state agency refused to release the actual report.

Today, though, Timmermeyer says that one of major goals is to improve the way the DEP makes information available to the public.

That process will improve greatly, she says, when all the DEP divisions in the Charleston area move into a new Kanawha City office in fall 2004.

“For citizens and for industry, the FOIA process is going to run a lot smoother,” she said. “The way we keep files and make them available to the public is something that I would like to see improved.”

Timmermeyer said she also wants to improve the public hearing process, so that the public doesn’t think permit approval is a done deal by the time a hearing is held.

Along with that, she said, she wants the DEP to provide more and better information about not just whether a proposed project meets state regulations, but about what its actual impact on the environment and public health will be.

“People want to know ‘What effect does this have on me?’” she said. “Those are the kinds of questions people are asking.

“It’s not something that we have had the experience to handle, but I definitely want to move the agency into that direction.”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.

Photos

Stephanie Timmermeyer has moved up the DEP ladder from director of air quality to become the state’s youngest-ever secretary of environmental protection.
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