No movement on new natural resources secretary

11 19, 2012 by Daily Comet

It has been three months since Gov. Bobby Jindal appointed an interim natural resources secretary, and there’s been little or no movement toward selecting a permanent replacement.

Former Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle abandoned the post in the August to make a successful run for the Public Service Commission.

In his place, Jindal appointed Stephen Chustz, at the time an assistant secretary to Angelle, to lead the department as its interim secretary.

Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates said the leadership structure remains the same today.

“Steve Chustz is doing a great job, and there is no change in his current status,” Bates said.

Chustz has served as assistant secretary of the Office of Coastal Management since October of last year. Prior to that, he was deputy assistant secretary.

Since 2009, he has likewise been the director of the Atchafalaya Basin Program, which is charged with implementing projects that enhance the floodway system.

Chustz offered no comment on his employment status, but some lawmakers, particularly coastal representatives on the House Natural Resources Committee, sound pleased with his performance.

For instance, House Natural Resources Chairman Gordon Dove, R-Houma, said he’d like to see Chustz remain in the position.

“What makes a good secretary is communication,” Dove said. “He’s knowledgeable, takes time out to be involved and always seems on top of things. He’s really doing a great job, I think, and I look forward to working with him.”

Aside from his history with the department, Chustz has performed well under great pressure, Dove said.

When he was appointed as interim secretary, Chustz was saddled with overseeing the response to a massive sinkhole in the Bayou Corne area.

Located in Assumption Parish, the sinkhole has swallowed more than 5 acres of land, forced evacuations in nearby communities, cost the state in excess of $3.5 million and is serving as a constant threat to the area because of underground methane gas.

Chustz also took over during a time when the state was negotiating a settlement with BP regarding it’s oil spill, and the oil and gas industry was navigating a new federal landscape in terms of regulations.

“He has been put though a lot,” Dove said.

The natural resources secretary oversees oil and gas activity around the state, helps craft water politics and regulates the coastal zone, among other responsibilities.

Angelle, who Jindal appointed to serve on the LSU Board of Supervisors, said the next secretary needs to have experience with communicating with the department’s various stakeholders.

“There are a lot of user groups out there, and the ideal secretary needs to know how to deal with them all,” Angelle said. “We can all coexist, but it’s up to the secretary to get everyone at the table. You’re going to want your next secretary to have credibility on that front.”

Angelle was first appointed DNR secretary in 2004 by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

He was also reappointed by Jindal, who gave Angelle a break from the job in 2010 when he appointed Angelle interim lieutenant governor.

Barring that rare and temporary promotion, Chustz’s interim term has been the longest period in recent memory — at least the past 16 years — that the department has not had a permanent secretary.

A native of Port Allen, Chustz earned a bachelor of science in geology from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

With more than 24 years of state service, he began his state career with the Department of Environmental Quality in 1987.

His experience at DEQ included work in surface water enforcement, source water protection, ground water remediation and underground storage tank issues.