Can Midwestern ingenuity fix economy, environment?

  • By Jennifer Slosar
  • Environment Reporter
  • January 29, 2009 @ 12:15 PM

Henry Henderson says moving America toward a globally competitive economy that doesn’t rely on oil will require old-fashioned Midwestern ingenuity.

“If a guy like Sam Insull, or Thomas Edison or Henry Ford were around today they wouldn’t just slump into a protectionist fetal position [and] suck their thumbs," says Henderson.

Henderson, director of the Midwest Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, pauses to look out his office window at the opera house built by the utilities magnate Insull, who pioneered Chicago’s first electric grid.

“They’d say these are opportunities for reinvention and reinvestment,” he says. “The Midwest has always been a center of economic invention.”

A native of the steel town of Granite City, Ill., Henderson touts the opportunities that abound in “creating a new energy economy” as he oversees campaigns to curb global warming, foster sustainable development and protect natural resources in eight Midwest states.

Henry Henderson / By Jennifer Slosar

Colleagues and acquaintances say he effectively combines a creative, analytical mind and a hard-charging litigation style.

Henderson tucked two master’s degrees in theology and a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis under his belt before leading the city’s environment department from 1992 to 1998.

As the department’s first commissioner, Henderson worked closely with Mayor Richard M. Daley to lay the groundwork for some of Chicago’s flagship environmental programs.  Among his enduring accomplishments is the Chicago Brownfield Initiative, which rehabilitates abandoned and contaminated industrial sites for redevelopment.

Bill Abolt, district manager at Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure, Inc., worked under Henderson at the department before taking over as commissioner.

“He’s an aggressive litigator when he needs to be, but also knows how to craft out-of-the-box programs,” says Abolt.

He goes on to describe how Henderson not only cracked down on “fly-by” dumpers who bribed city officials to let them foul low-income neighborhoods, but proceeded to develop a new regulatory structure for recycling.

“A lot of regulators and lawyers that came before him said you couldn’t do it, it’s just part of the city environment,” continues Abolt. “Henry said ‘that’s ridiculous.’”

Since joining the NRDC in 2007, Henderson has focused on protecting the Great Lakes, including the threat from invasive species dumped into Great Lakes ports when ocean-going ships release their ballast water.

Last summer his office won an important victory when it beat back a shipping industry court challenge to a Michigan ballast water regulation.

Now it’s preparing litigation aimed at limiting federal permits issued to dischargers.

“He has an ability to see patterns and new things in incredibly complex facts,” says David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.

“Certainly, that’s an asset in environmental litigation, which can be quite complex.”

Ullrich adds that Henderson’s “long, demonstrated track record in the environmental arena,” and the respect he’s earned in the city helps ensure good relations when the NRDC gets into “serious litigation mode.”

For Henderson, innovative energy policies are key to connecting the dots between economic growth, protection of resources and environmental justice. 

It’s time to make “a new reality out of cheap energy,” by investing in wind and solar, says Henderson.

One of the first steps in that direction, he says, should be replacing Chicago's two coal-fired power plants. They're outdated, unreliable, and a significant source of air pollution, he says.

And retrofitting buildings and constructing giant turbines for the capture of the wind that is so plentiful in the Midwest are jobs that can’t be easily shipped to China, he notes.

Henderson sees energy efficiency itself as a huge resource.

He lobbies officials in Illinois and other states to craft California-style regulations that will reward utility companies for saving energy and tapping renewable sources, rather than simply for selling more energy.

When not lobbying and litigating, Henderson plays bridge builder, finding ways to create affinities with business. 
That can prove difficult, given that business operators are sometimes leery of environmental initiatives that cut profits.

But Henderson says there's plenty of room for collaboration.

“We’re not an extremist organization,” says Henderson. “But we are a determined organization.”


Jennifer Slosar is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She covers environmental issues for the Daily News