Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced on Monday that Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Environment Horacio Tablada will succeed current Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles starting June 1.
Grumbles is leaving to become executive director of the Environmental Council of the States, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan association of state and territorial environmental commissioners based in Washington, D.C. Grumbles has served as the environment secretary since Hogan took office in 2015, making him the longest serving environment secretary in state’s history, according to a Hogan administration news release.
“Horacio Tablada has committed his career to serving the public and protecting the environment and public health,” Hogan said in a statement. “He will lead MDE’s ongoing work to protect and restore the environment, including the Chesapeake Bay, boost jobs and our economy through the safe redevelopment of brownfields, and help the state achieve its climate goals through partnerships.”
This change comes as Hogan wraps up his second term as governor next January and an increasing number of high-ranking administration officials begin to move on.
Tablada has worked for the Maryland Department of the Environment for the last three decades, starting out in the department’s environmental regulatory programs in 1985 and later as the director of the department’s Land Management Administration and then eventually as deputy secretary starting in 2015.
“I look forward to serving the citizens of Maryland and continuing to advance the science-based policies that have resulted in cleaner air, a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, sustainable and restored properties and protection of our children from lead poisoning,” Tablada said in a statement.
Tablada is a native of Nicaragua who came to the United States in 1975. He and his wife live in Elkridge. They have three grown children and four grandchild.
Grumbles has been the Hogan administration’s leading ambassador to the environmental community, though they have not always seen eye-to-eye. He recently faced criticism from environmental advocates and lawmakers for his department’s enforcement and understaffing issues, following concerns about the state’s drinking water systems and a backlog of expired water quality permits.
Last month, the General Assembly passed sweeping climate change legislation that sets a goal for the state to reduce its carbon emissions to 60% below 2006 levels and be carbon neutral by 2045. This goal will be partially met by requiring owners of large buildings to significantly reduce their use of fossil fuels starting in 2030.
In response to the backlog of so-called “zombie permits,” referring to the period after a permit expires and before a new one is issued, the legislature also passed a bill requiring MDE to clear the backlog of these permits by 2026 and inspect each facility that is in significant noncompliance with its water quality permit once a month starting in July. The agency will also be required to inspect facilities operating under “zombie permits” once every 90 days.
Kim Coble, the executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters and co-chair with Grumbles of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, said she has “full confidence” in Tablada’s ability to run the Department of Environment, as he has “great command of the technical issues” and knows the agency’s history.
Coble said she hopes Tablada builds on the General Assembly’s work addressing climate change, which made clear with the passage of Climate Solutions Now that climate is a priority and an urgent issue in the state — and that the Department of the Environment has a big role in implementing the bill, Coble said.
“It’s a big, big job, and it’s going to take real leadership from the governor and from the agency to make sure that [implementation] happens,” Coble said.
Coble said she also hopes the Department of Environment will prioritize enforcing water quality permits and have enough staff, which is funded by the governor’s budget, to be able to fulfill its mission.
Victoria Venable, the Maryland director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said she hopes the agency can more quickly to update state regulations around methane pollution released in landfills. In 2017, the department held its first meeting on what new regulations could look like, but has stalled in the process, Venable said. Methane has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.
Last year, an environmental group revealed that MDE had greatly underestimated the amount of methane coming from landfills in the state, reporting four times less than the amount actually emitted. The state department of the environment said this was due to mathematical and data-based errors.
Suzanne Dorsey, assistant secretary for the Department of the Environment, will take Tablada’s place as deputy secretary.
In Grumbles, the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) gets a veteran regulator who has worked in government and has headed a nonprofit, the U.S. Water Alliance. He has also been director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, assistant administrator for Water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and senior staff counsel to two congressional committees.
“We are delighted to have a visionary leader of Ben’s caliber step into the role of ECOS executive director,” said Myra Reece, director of the South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control, who was the ECOS search committee chair. “Not only does he know the association inside and out, but he has an unparalleled depth and breadth of policy knowledge.”