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How Massachusetts’ new DEP commissioner will bring ‘transparency and equity’ to the agency

Bonnie Heiple also plans to focus on climate effects and forever chemicals.

The state's new Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, Bonnie Heiple, said her top two priorities will be fighting climate change and PFAS.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Bonnie Heiple, the state’s new Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, has a formidable job: administering Massachusetts’ regulatory programs for air, water, and land use, all while prioritizing climate change and environmental justice.

The position will require her to juggle many issues. But equipped with her experience in energy and environmental law — and a proposed budget increase of 10 percent for the agency — she’s confident that she and her staff can manage it all.

“There is such momentum, attention and real support for these issues,” she said.

Her vision for DEP, she said, boils down to two key words: “transparency and equity.”

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“Massachusetts residents should know that they have a leader at MassDEP who will protect their communities,” Governor Maura Healey said in a statement.

Heiple said her top two priorities in the role will be fighting climate change and PFAS — “seminal environmental issues of our time.” She will also focus on efforts to adapt to climate effects like increased drought and remaking the state’s solid waste treatment plans. And to accomplish it all, DEP will hire new staff.

Background

Several Healey administration picks for top environmental posts — including Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper and climate chief Melissa Hoffer, who both worked with Healey when she was attorney general — are familiar faces in the Massachusetts climate world. Heiple, by contrast, is less of a known player.

The daughter of a coastal engineer and a science teacher, Heiple’s passion for environmental issues began at an early age.

Before her appointment this month, she spent nearly 12 years as an environmental and energy lawyer at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, a firm that has a mixed record on climate, according to the campus movement Law Students for Climate Accountability. Boston Magazine last year named her a “top lawyer.”

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“She is recognized by her colleagues as one of the premier environmental attorneys in the region,” said Tepper.

Earlier, she worked as an attorney at the firm Pullman & Comley, and served briefer stints at the US Environmental Protection Agency and Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

The new Massachusetts DEP Commissioner Bonnie Heiple, photographed in the Boston Common. Suzanne Kreiter\Globe staffSuzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

PFAS

Among DEP’s key responsibilities is managing water issues.

“Water quantity and quality are sort of the bread and butter of DEP,” said Julia Blatt, executive director of Massachusetts Rivers Alliance.

A major focus, Heiple said, will be regulating “forever chemicals,” a class of toxic chemicals called PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds — a major concern for New England water systems.

Massachusetts’ limits on PFAS in drinking water are among the strictest in the country. And earlier this month, the federal government proposed its first-ever draft regulations for PFAS in drinking water, with which states will eventually have to conform.

“We’ll be looking at the new federal proposal and re-evaluating our own existing standards,” Heiple said. “We want to keep up with the science.”

Renewable energy

At DEP, Heiple will be tasked with helping to increase renewable energy supplies in order to meet the state’s ambitious climate goals and to slow climate change.

She will have to balance those efforts with conservation and environmental justice concerns, hot topics in climate circles.

Heiple plans to encourage companies to develop energy projects on “properties in areas that have no other real use,” such as formerly contaminated sites, rather than on untouched lands, she said.

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Some highlights of her legal career, she said, were efforts to remediate polluted sites in Massachusetts and elsewhere, then build renewable energy infrastructure on them — projects that are a “win” for clean energy goals, economic development, and environmental justice, she said.

Amy Longsworth, executive director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, believes Heiple’s experience with both environmental and energy law will serve her. “To me it signals that the Healey administration is focused on the strategic relationship of natural resources management to clean, renewable energy procurement,” she said.

But Kyla Bennett, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in New England, said she’s “terrified” that Heiple will “ram through” renewable energy projects at the expense of conservation.

Bennett referred to a 2021 article co-authored by Heiple that said one offshore wind proposal was “attacked from a multitude of angles” before being abandoned. A lawsuit against the project filed by Bennett’s organization alleged that the developer’s plans would harm wildlife.

“Wind and solar, while yes, we need it ... there can be very dark sides,” she said.

The 2021 article does go on to say a “proactive approach” to community engagement can help “forestall disputes and controversy.” And Heiple said that under her leadership, DEP will be thoughtful about where to develop new projects.

“Protecting our precious natural resources and urgently increasing our clean energy sources are both critical to reaching our climate goals,” she said. “Balancing those objectives can only be achieved through strong partnerships and a commitment to a thoughtful process that takes into account community objectives and environmental sensitivities.”

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Other priorities

Among Heiple’s other priorities will be adapting to climate impacts such as drought.

Massachusetts has not been hit as hard by drought as other states like California. “But we cannot wait for those types of impacts that we’re seeing elsewhere to come to our doorstep to take action,” she said.

Also on her list: making waste management more sustainable in line with Massachusetts’ 2030 Solid Waste Master Plan.

And she will be revisiting decisions made under the Baker administration, including the greenlighting of a controversial substation in East Boston.

“We know we can do better, so we’re reviewing our options with respect to that particular project,” she said.

Managing it all

Asked how she will manage the DEP’s many competing priorities, Heiple said she will “draw on the deep expertise” of her staff.

DEP has faced major staffing cuts in recent years, but under Healey’s leadership, Heiple plans to rejuvenate the agency.

Healey’s proposed 10 percent increase to the DEP budget includes millions of dollars for water and air quality issues, waste management, PFAS standards, drought resilience, and environmental justice.

“The budget really empowers us,” she said.

Private sector experience

Until now, Heiple has spent her career in the private sector.

“Heiple’s selection from the private sector may be an effort to bring balance to the regulatory equation,” Beveridge and Diamond, a law firm that has represented both fossil fuel and renewable energy firms, wrote in a statement.

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John Walkey, director of waterfront and climate justice initiatives at environmental nonprofit GreenRoots, said his “cynical” side is concerned about the revolving door between regulators and industry, but he thinks Heiple’s private sector experience could be an asset.

“Is this somebody who’s going to know the industry so well that it’s a little bit too close for comfort, or is this somebody who knows the industry very well and knows how it could be changed?” said Walkey. “We’re certainly willing to say ... let’s see.”

Heiple noted that her experience siting energy projects, translating complex regulatory requirements, and keeping track of emergent industry trends, will serve her well in her new role.

“It all dovetails really nicely with a lot of the priorities that I’ll have here at DEP,” she said.


Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.