Letting the fox guard the henhouse: Michigan bills propose anti-DEQ oversight panel

A set of bills passed last Wednesday, April 25, In the Michigan House of Representatives Committee of Competitiveness aims to give crucial decision making powers and rule writing to industry representatives. Senate Bills 652–654, allowing industry to deregulate the environmental review and business permit process, passed through the committee last week, and there is little telling in how fast its corporate and big business minded stakeholders expect to move them through the House.

The package was passed out of the Michigan Competitiveness Committee on a party line vote of 6–3 on April 25th. Voting in favor were Representatives Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), Jim Lilly (R-Grand Haven), Triston Cole (R-Mancelona), Hank Vaupel (R-Fowlerville), Daire Rendon (R-Lake City) and Jason Wentworth (R-Clare).

Voting against the bills were Representatives Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn), and Tenisha Yancey (D-Harper Woods).

Several amendments from the Democratic representatives were proposed at the April 25th hearing that would have prevented lobbyists and non-Michigan residents from serving on the review board. All the Democrat-led amendment proposals were rejected by the majority Republican panel.

The first legislation, S.B. 652, introduced by Senator Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), heavily amends and essentially overhauls many aspects of the Administrative Procedures Act. It proposes having an alternative body, independent of any Michigan state agency, to review, amend, deny and approve the rules process superseding the Michigan Department of Environmental quality.

The 11-member oversight board committee as outlined in SB 652, is comprised of mostly industry representatives and includes one unspecified ‘member of the general public.’

The second bill in the package, SB 653, sponsored by Senator Darwin Booher (R-Evart), calls for the establishment of a board that would challenge permit denials based on “scientific” review. Likewise, SB 654, introduced by Senator David Robertson (R-Grand Blanc) and Booher, seeks to amend the 1994 “Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act,” by reestablishing a supervising bureau to hear scientific environmental evidence and provide recommendation on that evidence to the Governor, per a 90’s era Michigan law repealed in 2007.

Yet the appeals to “scientific evidence” and review will allow for close cooperation between the governor and their appointees to conduct the ‘independent’ inquiry. This selected environmental rule review committee would not be under oversight of the Michigan Legislature, and cannot be state employed or a recent former state employee. The bill does not outline restrictions on candidates with ties to any companies, lobbies or interest groups, opening the doors for the largest, and potentially more harmful, private enterprises with political connections and industry leverage, to foresee legislation that affects land, air, and water quality.

While the bills stressed their commitment to transparency and ‘accountability,’ the amendments seek to remove prior legislation that established stronger limitations to industry control of environmental protections. Under the pretext of eliminating bureaucracy, the bills only further the MDEQ’s existing problems of administering too little oversight over polluting industries.

An April 18 letter issued by many of the lobbying stakeholders sought to hasten and put pressure on Members of the House Michigan Competitiveness Committee, whom the letter was addressed to, shortly before the April 25 Senate Natural Resources Committee vote. The letter, signed by lobbyists from the agricultural industry including the Michigan Farm Bureau, urges members of the committee to support SB 652–654 for the sake of ‘economic growth’ and ‘increased transparency and accountability from the MDEQ.’

There is little support for the notion that the bill package would be economically beneficial. Facilitating the corporate takeover of the environmental review and repeal process threatens Michigan’s large tourism industry, which generated $40.7 billion in total business sales in 2016. In total, the Great Lakes commercial, recreational, and tribal fisheries are collectively valued at more than $7 billion annually, with nearly 700,000 jobs established in its many sectors.

Furthermore, the environmental disasters that ensue from poor enforcement and lack of environmental accountability are never cost effective nor profitable in the short term or long term. The Flint water crisis has already cost the state $60 million with the impending, long term costs expected to reach nearly $400 million considering the costs of long term health and societal effects of lead exposure.

The bill package claims that stakeholder oversight over the DEQ is needed for the sake of transparency. The agency’s current problems, in fact, arise from a lack of safe regulation and overbearing influence from large corporations with an extensive and horrible track record of economic, environmental, and community health degradation caused by their influence on the rule-making process.

It was the MDEQ that announced that Flint’s water had been “restored,” forcing a halt of assistance and water delivery to Flint’s most affected, many of whom have had contaminated water for four years. The MDEQ also granted permit approval to Nestle to extract 400 gallons per minute at virtually no cost to the company. This all happened under the oversight of Snyder appointee Heidi Grether, an oil and gas lobbyist and PR manager of BP during the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV) Executive Director Lisa Wozniak said in a statement last week that more was needed from the DEQ to prevent environmental disasters, referencing Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 oil pipeline in drawing parallels to the deregulatory effects proposed in the bill package.

“At a time when drinking water across the state is contaminated with toxic PFAS and 65-year-old Line 5 continues to pump millions of gallons of oil underneath the Straits of Mackinac each day, we need a robust, independent DEQ, not one beholden to corporations,” she said in a recent statement.

There is a consensus amongst Michiganders on the shortcomings of the DEQ, and a common call to ensure all have equal access and opportunity to understand and input in decision making impacting the future of our environment. This comes not by loosening the reins further on polluting industries over the rule-making process, but by strengthening the MDEQ in order for the agency to do its job effectively. S.B. 652–654 only moves things in the opposite direction, posing the fox right in front of the henhouse.

To take action, please urge your State Representative to vote ‘NO’ on SB 652–654 to help protect Michigan’s environment and small businesses: https://p2a.co/uhpRczq