Michael R. Deland, former EPA administrator and key player in Boston Harbor cleanup, dies at 77
When Michael R. Deland was appointed in 1983 to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency’s New England office, he predicted some of his decisions would rile the business community, environmentalists, or both.
“I have a deep-seated belief in protecting the environment,” he told the Globe that June, and added: “I will listen to the views of all constituencies, but there will be times when I will have to stand up and be counted, and I won’t be able to please all those constituents.”
Mr. Deland, who was 77 when he died Tuesday of complications from pneumonia, played an instrumental role in the cleanup of Boston Harbor — significantly by filing a lawsuit on behalf of the EPA in 1985 that added federal heft to efforts to address what was then one of the nation’s most-polluted waterways.
“Mike Deland is without question the most aggressive environmental law enforcement official in the nation,” Armond Cohen, then an attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, told the Globe in 1989, when Mr. Deland was about to be appointed chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, one of the most influential environmental posts in the nation.
Indeed, Mr. Deland wasn’t afraid to sharply criticize the EPA, his once and future employer.
He was a lawyer in the agency’s Boston’s office in the early 1970s, and then joined a consulting firm before being named New England EPA administrator. While away from the agency, he didn’t pull punches when assessing what happened to the EPA during the early years of President Reagan’s administration.
In “Disarray at the EPA,” a column for the American Chemical Society journal, he wrote about staff reductions and a precipitous drop in cases referred “to the Justice Department for formal enforcement action.” Such moves, he added, “prompt the question whether the agency can continue to be a viable factor in environmental protection in the 1980s.”
That essay, he later wrote in the 20th anniversary report of his Harvard University class, may have cost him a chance at becoming the EPA’s regional counsel. “As more and more of the pollution within the EPA becomes public, I am glad that my ‘ideological impurity’ prevented my rejoining that once proud and productive agency,” he added.
Rejoin it he did, however, when US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Ruckelshaus named Mr. Deland to direct the agency’s New England operations.
“There is a new EPA,” Mr. Deland said at a news conference a few months later, in December 1983.
In June 1989, President George H.W. Bush named Mr. Deland to chair the Council on Environmental Quality, which coordinates environmental policy for the White House. At the time, Mr. Deland said, he shared Bush’s commitment to “resuscitate” the council, which had little clout during the Reagan administration.
In both of those key environmental posts, at the regional and national level, Mr. Deland “had a deep and genuine respect for public service and for public servants,” said David Struhs, who served as his executive assistant in New England and as his chief of staff in Washington, from 1986 through 1992.
As a political appointee, Mr. Deland knew he had to balance many often conflicting interests among environmentalists, developers, and economic advisers, Struhs said.
Nevertheless, “he never ever approached any issue without first consulting with the experts in the agency,” Struhs added. “I think he gained their respect because he got their opinions first.”
Mr. Deland “was a very good leader,” said Andrew Card, who was Bush’s deputy chief of staff when Mr. Deland chaired the council. “Mike was not bombastic, but he motivated people to do better than they would have done otherwise.”
Throughout his career, Mr. Deland coped with back ailments that first prompted him to use a cane, then crutches, and finally a wheelchair, though the last decision was in service to his responsibilities. When he couldn’t get to meetings quickly enough on crutches, he switched to the more expedient wheelchair, his family said.
“Viewing the workaday world from the vantage point of a wheelchair has heightened awareness that equality, whether of access or opportunity, will not be achieved by statutory mandate alone,” Mr. Deland, a former president of the National Organization on Disability, wrote in 1988 for his 25th Harvard class report.
He “was just an inspiration,” Card said. “And he had such a good conscience to do the right thing.”
Born in Boston in 1941, Michael Reeves Deland was a son of F. Stanton Deland Jr., a prominent attorney and former president of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, and Susan Reeves Deland, who was active in organizations, including supporting the Arnold Arboretum.
Mr. Deland grew up in the Brookline part of Chestnut Hill and spent summers in Marion, where he became an expert sailor. He kept racing after his walking mobility was limited. Sailing in competitions with his wife, Jane, he twice won a national Shields Class championship.
The family’s Marion home was so dear to Mr. Deland that he returned to live there in his final years.
He graduated from Noble and Greenough in Dedham, and in 1963 he received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard. Then he served in the Navy for two years, stationed in Japan. Returning home, Mr. Deland graduated in 1969 from Boston College Law School.
In 1973, he married Jane Slocum, whom he had met when they were introduced by a mutual friend.
As New England EPA administrator, he is most remembered for his key role in the harbor cleanup and tireless advocacy for its completion. A lesser-recognized decision had national implications, however.
Mr. Deland overruled an Army Corps of Engineers permit for developers to fill in 32 acres of wetlands, known as Sweden’s Swamp in Attleboro, and build a mall. That helped establish an “avoid first” approach that meant developers had to first attempt to find acceptable alternative sites — options other than filling in wetlands. The case was appealed to the US Supreme Court, where Mr. Deland’s ruling was upheld in 1989.
While Mr. Deland was in his Washington council position, some environmental activists criticized his support of Bush administration policies that they said ran counter to his New England record defending the environment.
“I hope when the dust settles,” Mr. Deland told the Globe in 1992, “there would be a recognition that there has been substantial accomplishment, but more importantly that Mike Deland has been true to those who care about the environment and true to himself.”
A service will be announced for Mr. Deland, who in addition to his wife leaves his son, Michael Stanton Deland of Malibu, Calif.; his twin daughters, Melissa Reeves Deland of West Roxbury and Holly Louise Deland of Santa Monica, Calif.; a brother, Frank S. Deland III of Manchester-by-the-Sea; a sister, Susan Deland Livesay of Brunswick, Maine; and three grandchildren.
“We had the great privilege of witnessing our Dad’s perseverance, humor, and steadfast loyalty and determination on a daily basis,” his family said in a statement. “He was an inspiration to all of us, never complaining, ever present at all of the big and small life events.”
His family added that Mr. Deland’s “hearty laugh, broad smile, and always positive outlook on life will be greatly missed.”
Mr. Deland counted among his milestones accompanying Bush to Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where the president signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — “the terms of which, ironically, the United States has yet to meet,” Mr. Deland noted in his 50th Harvard class report.
He added, however, that his “most lasting accomplishment” was leading a six-year campaign to add a statue of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “seated in his wheelchair at his memorial in Washington.”
“Happily, it is a statue around which children gather to be photographed,” he wrote, “often asking me, in my wheelchair, to sit next to FDR in his.”