Michigan has a storied history when it comes to protecting the environment, dating back to the late 1800’s, but in recent years the mission of the state agencies charged with this task appears to have become obscured.
Our place in the annals of environmental programs and laws has generally been driven by our citizens, starting with the Michigan Sportsman’s Association’s push for over a decade for creation of state game wardens back in 1875. Then in the early 1900’s there was the push to preserve forestry from decimation by the lumber industry that lead to the creation of the first forest reserve, and the work of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) in 1948 to strengthen pollution laws.
The late 1960’s and into the 1970’s were marked by voter approval of clean water bonds, and another push by MUCC and citizens for the bottle return regulations. And then there was creation, during Gov. William Milliken’s administration, of the historical Michigan Environmental Protection Act, along with wetlands protection and restrictions on phosphorous pollution.
But the tide seems to have turned in the last decade where the state appears more concerned with the growth of the business sector, oftentimes at the expense of the environment. Part of the blame for this shift in emphasis falls to the current administration of Gov. Rick Snyder, who came into office in 2010 and announced that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) would be would be “working in partnership” with the business community. That sent a message for DEQ personnel and served as a green light for anti-environmental forces in the state legislature to push ahead with some legislation that frankly would have been vetoed by past governors. Add to that mix the message sent from Washington D.C. with our current administration to roll back any protective orders from the past administration and that serves as more red meat for the Republicans in Lansing to think they are on the right track.
The shift in emphasis helps explain two pieces of legislation that are currently moving in Lansing that illustrate my point.
The first is a package of Senate bills sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Casperson from the 38th District that encompasses most of the Upper Peninsula. Casperson would be best described as a Tea Party member who has gone over the edge. His clarity of thought was best displayed when he attempted a congressional run years ago and was part of the birther movement that claimed President Obama was not born in this country.
Casperson’s legislation (S.B. 652, 653, 654) would create an Environmental Rules Committee that would oversee all rule-making by the DEQ. I know, it is a long-standing complaint of some conservatives that all government environmental regulators are guilty of overreach when it comes to generating rules to implement legislation passed by state lawmakers, but the devil is in the details when you look at the Casperson proposal.
The 12-member committee comprises the directors of the DEQ, Department of Health and Human Services and the chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corporation. These three persons or their designees would be non-voting members. Each would be able to select a qualified science advisor to work with the committee.
The remaining members would include representatives from the following industries: solid waste management, small business organization, public utilities (electric), oil and gas industry, medical profession, and a statewide agricultural group. The last spots would be filled by a rep from a statewide environmental group, local government and then a rep from the general public. No more than six members appointed by the governor could be from the same political party.
Rules generated by the DEQ for enactment of legislation that have a potential impact on business would have to be approved by a majority of the nine voting members of the committee.
Also created would be a permit appeal panel and an advisory board off scientific experts.
This legislation was passed at the end of January by the Senate on a party-line vote of 33 yeas, 26 nays. In case you are wondering, local Senators Marty Knollenberg (R-Birmingham, Bloomfild Hills, Rochester Hills and Rochester) and Jim Marleau (R-Bloomfield Township) voted in favor of the bills which have now moved to the Michigan House and could face a vote before lawmakers go on summer recess.
I won’t belabor the issue, but I think the current system of rule-making and legislative override works relatively well. The proposed new system is clearly designed to allow business to have an inordinate say over what rules will be written, which I don’t think serves the public well. Macomb County Senator Stever Bieda (D) probably said it best when he compared the new system to “putting the fox in charge of the hen house” while tipping “the scales of justice in favor of biased special interests.”
As an interesting side note, the Environmental Justice Work Group – created by Gov. Snyder to make policy recommendations to “further increase the quality of life for all Michiganders” – has recommended that he veto these bills if they reach his desk.
The second example of legislative intent to ease restrictions on business is House Bill 5638 sponsored by Representative Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis) that would basically make it easier for business to withdraw water of 100,000 gallons or more daily by bypassing the current DEQ modeling tool as part of the permit process. Applicants would be allowed to provide their own report from their own experts to attest that streams and aquatic life would not be impacted.
Currently those hoping for a permit have to submit information for an interactive online evaluation by using a Withdrawal Assessment Tool developed in 2008 by scientists at Michigan State University, University of Michigan, U.S. Geological Survey and the state of Michigan.
Under the Miller proposal, applicants can find their own expert and if they determine there is minimal or no impact, then a permit is automatically granted. The DEQ can, within two years, contest a withdrawal at which time results of five pump test would be submitted so the department can determine the impact. Just the opposite of what should be happening when any permit is issued that could have environmental impact.
Oh, I almost forgot. In the case of permits for withdrawals for agricultural operations – the largest user of water in the state – all information as part of the permit approval process and operating records would be exempt from the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. So the application process would be secret, in essence cutting out the public for being involved in the approval process or any method of monitoring ongoing withdrawals and related impact problems. Framers of this bill claim that the secrecy is necessary for homeland security due to possible “terrorist” threats.
I am not convinced that communicating with local lawmakers in Lansing will do much good, but I provide the email addresses regardless to the senators and representatives for our area:
Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R), firstname.lastname@example.org; Sen. Jim Marleau (R), email@example.com; Rep. Mike McCready (R), firstname.lastname@example.org; Rep. Tim Greimel (D), email@example.com.
Personally, I plan on writing directly to Gov. Rick Snyder (firstname.lastname@example.org) to ask that both of these legislative efforts get his veto if they reach his office.
Hopefully, some of you, as you have done in the past, will take the time to do the same.