LANSING, Mich. (AP) – The Michigan Legislature narrowly passed a bill to create a private industry panel within the state Department of Environmental Quality on Tuesday, closing the curtain on months of resistance from Democrats and environmentalists who fear further environmental deregulation in a state still haunted by Flint’s lead-tainted water crisis.
The bill now heads to Gov. Rick Snyder after the Republican-controlled Senate gave it final approval in a 25-11 party-line vote as the Legislature met on its final day of session before summer break. Part of a three-bill package, the legislation would create an environmental rules review committee comprised of private industry representatives who would be able to weigh in during the DEQ’s rule-making process. More than half of the voting stakeholders would hail from industries such as oil and gas, agriculture and manufacturing.
The other two bills would establish a permit appeal panel and an advisory board of scientific experts.
Sen. Tom Casperson, who sponsored the rules committee bill, can check it off as another victory in his legislative war against the DEQ should the term-limited Republican governor give the legislation his OK. Casperson has long insisted that the DEQ is preoccupied with appeasing environmentalists at the expense of miners, farmers and more.
Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said the governor does not have a comment on the bills yet. The DEQ has also not given a public position on the legislation.
Under Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, the DEQ director has the final say on permit conditions and can only issue permits in the absence of a “feasible or prudent alternative.” Casperson, an Escanaba Republican with a log trucking background, has said the DEQ exploits that mandate to “hold people hostage.”
“The DEQ rules are moving targets that people can’t get behind,” he said in March. “The government took great liberty in jamming the citizen when they had every reason to help the citizen.”
His legislation would force the DEQ to listen to input from private industry stakeholders during its rule-making process — although, after considerable unrest from pro-environment groups, the current version vests final veto power in the governor’s hands.
That still isn’t enough, environmentalists maintain. They have nicknamed the package the “Fox Guarding the Henhouse Acts,” claiming it jeopardizes the DEQ’s mission to protect the environment by inviting corporate interests to the table. Though the executive branch now retains final say — unlike in previous drafts that handed that power to the new rules review committee — Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak said the “problematic bills still give polluters and special interests a powerful, unnecessary influence in deciding how many toxins can be sent up smokestacks and how much contamination is considered ‘safe’ to drink.”
Democrats in opposition once again evoked scenes of past harrowing public health concerns that have cropped up throughout Michigan, from the 2014 and 2015 lead poisoning in Flint’s water pipes to ongoing possible contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS in western Michigan .
“As communities across Michigan discover new sources of toxic chemicals in their air and water, the last thing we should do is put special interests in charge of the health of our communities,” said Rep. Erika Geiss, a Taylor Democrat.
One reason conservationists say the DEQ is too pro-business is because it approves virtually all permit requests. To them, the department that has seen former employees face involuntary manslaughter charges in the wake of the Flint tragedy already has a shoddy record in public health crises.
But dozens of business and industrial groups backing the bills said the DEQ iced them out of rule-making deliberations for the past decade. Jason Geer, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce energy and environmental policy director, said last month the chamber supports the bills because the current rule-making process “is dependent on whether the director wants to engage,” which “is not what I call a reasonable process for government.”
“It appears to me the DEQ looks at wetlands as almost a religion,” Casperson said in March. “They preserve every little frog pond as if they were big, beautiful pristine wetlands.”
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