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New "commander" of MDEQ's beleaguered drinking water division hopes to boost morale

Sep 21, 2017

There’s a new guy running the drinking water division at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Eric Oswald served 12 years of active duty in the Air Force. He spent the last five years as a commander at the Air National Guard Base in Battle Creek.

Oswald is not a drinking water expert.

“My background is not from drinking water, I’m a civil engineer, but I’m veteran of the United States Air Force. I’m an Air Force officer. It's not a normal path into DEQ. My engineering background and my experience in infrastructure kind of lends itself well to the current circumstances," Oswald says.

Oswald says his new job at the MDEQ is to make sure the roughly 150 experts who work under him can do the job of ensuring safe drinking water. He says he's got the skills to get that done.

“Well, it’s leading people. And it’s inspiring people and that’s what you do as an Air Force officer. You don’t really do the things yourself but you lead people,” he says.

This division has taken the brunt of the blame for the Flint water crisis. Four employees facing criminal charges are on paid leave. A fifth, Liane Shekter Smith, the person who once held Eric Oswald’s job, was fired.

Since the Flint water crisis, three other long-time MDEQ employees led the state’s drinking water division. So Oswald is now the fourth director in less than two years.

“There has been a lot of turnover. I’ve only been on the job four months. So for me to say what’s happened to the DEQ in the last two years, I can’t really speak to that,” Oswald says.

“But I’ve talked to my folks and I know the turmoil that’s gone on. My concern is that, are people in the field afraid to make a decision? Are they looking over their shoulder? And to the extent that I can assure them, you know I want them to make the best possible decision in the field based on the facts. The bottom line is, what’s in the best interest of the public and protecting public health? It really is.”

Oswald also acknowledges that at this point, public trust of the MDEQ is at a historic low.

"Once trust is broken, which is where I think we are, it takes a long time to build that back and I understand that."

“I mean, if people aren’t trusting what your people are telling them, it’s a huge deal. And it doesn’t matter if the facts are right. It doesn’t matter. Perception is reality. It’s hard to get around that,” Oswald says.

“But it takes time. Once trust is broken, which is where I think we are, it takes a long time to build that back and I understand that."

Oswald has other priorities for the Department of Environmental Quality too. He thinks the agency is understaffed. He wants a technology overhaul, so his engineers don’t spend so much time entering data by hand.

At a gathering of water system operators and industry insiders earlier this month, he stressed the importance of each water system having an updated asset management plan.

Plus, his division is supposed to help a work group come up with ways to strengthen Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule. That’s the rule that’s supposed to prevent lead from leaching into tap water. Major changes could affect water systems across the state.