LANSING, Mich. — Legislation to weaken the state Department of Environmental Quality has ensnared Lansing in a spat over the agency’s usefulness, with one side insisting it tramples over ordinary citizens and the other saying it’s too lax.
The first of the trio of bills would generate a private-interest panel with veto power over the rulemaking process of the DEQ, the government entity responsible for issuing permits and other regulations to guard the environment. The other two would establish a permit appeal panel and an advisory board of scientific experts.
Over half of the voting representatives in the first committee of private stakeholders would hail from industries such as oil and gas, agriculture and manufacturing. In January, the Republican-controlled Senate backed the bills on a mostly 26-11 party-line vote.
Sen. Tom Casperson, considered a champion of deregulation, is leading the effort. He is the main sponsor of the first bill and co-sponsor of the second.
The Escanaba Republican comes from a log trucking background and is not shy about railing against left-wing conservationists. He said today’s DEQ is preoccupied with appeasing an environmentalist agenda.
“It appears to me the DEQ looks at wetlands as almost a religion,” Casperson said. “They preserve every little frog pond as if they were big, beautiful pristine wetlands.”
But amid ongoing water contamination infesting communities across the state, critics of the bill have christened it the “fox guarding the henhouse act.” The panel, they said, would favor business interests at the expense of public health and be a dangerous conflict of interest.
“The executive branch has to be the final decision maker,” said Michigan Environmental Council policy director James Clift. “They are the ones who are basically owning the decisions.”
For now the DEQ director has final say over matters such as permit conditions, and the verdicts are subject to federal and state laws. Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act commands the agency to only issue permits in the absence of a “feasible or prudent alternative.” Clift said entrusting those priorities to private interests is akin to inviting pollution into Michigan’s air and water.
“What is a feasible and prudent alternative to industries is not the same to the executive branch or the general public,” he said.
Casperson said today’s DEQ goes too far in the other direction when interpreting state laws. The department has become bloated with environmentalists overstepping the rights of farmers, miners and more, he said, and using their directive to “hold people hostage.”
One reason conservationists said the DEQ is too pro-business is because it approves virtually all permit requests. But Casperson said that number is deceptive. He has witnessed many individuals surrendering their permit bids because the process was too intrusive, he said. He believes the department must be restrained from what he said is a pattern of threatening citizens with unmanageable fees and disrespecting their right to conduct business on private property.
“The DEQ rules are moving targets that people can’t get behind,” he said. “The government took great liberty in jamming the citizen when they had every reason to help the citizen.”
Over two dozen business and industrial groups testified in favor of the Senate bills. The Associated Petroleum Industries of Michigan and the Michigan Farm Bureau both said the DEQ iced them out of rulemaking deliberations for the past decade.
“The current process is dependent on whether the director wants to engage,” said Michigan Chamber of Commerce energy and environmental policy director Jason Geer. “That is not what I call a reasonable process for government.”
Enlisting those groups in DEQ rulemaking, however, is a nightmare for environmentalists, who said the DEQ has had a slipshod track record in past public health catastrophes. This month a records request from The Grand Rapids Press found the DEQ may have stalled in response to groundwater contamination by the manufacturing company Wolverine World Wide. And the city of Flint has yet to recover from a 2014 lead poisoning outbreak that criminally implicated several ex-DEQ employees and left residents subsiding on bottled water to this day.
The idea of an industry-heavy DEQ panel rectifying a longstanding injustice against small businesses is preposterous, said Rep. William Sowerby, who opposes the bill.
“That’s an argument of somebody who is looking to capitalize on their personal business interests,” said the Democrat from Clinton Township. “It’s not about government vs. business. We have seen how that has failed with the likes of Flint.”
The anxiety over Casperson’s deregulation campaign comes in the wake of the Trump administration efforts to sap away Obama-era restrictions on the fossil-fuel industry, a reform that has alarmed environmental advocates.
Casperson’s bills now sit in the GOP-led House Committee on Natural Resources, which intends to vote on them within a few weeks after the spring recess.