Legislation passed by the state Senate last week that would substantially revamp the Department of Environmental Quality has sparked a clash between the business community and environmental groups.

The three-bill package would take away the DEQ’s authority to create new rules and regulations and put that power in the hands of a committee dominated by industry. A second committee would handle appeals when a land-use permit is denied for proposals that would impact the air, waterways, coastlines or wetlands. Critics say the proposed system would be “like the fox guarding the henhouse” on pollution matters.

“The individuals appointed to these boards will represent business interests that directly profit off the discharge of pollutants into Michigan’s air and water,” said James Clift, the Michigan Environmental County (MEC) policy director. “Individuals representing companies like Enbridge Energy would have the final say in how much oil they have to clean up when things go wrong.”

The 11-member Environmental Rules Review Committee would include one member from the environmental community, one from a land conservation group, and one from the general public. The rest would represent industries such as manufacturing, waste disposal, agriculture and oil and gas.

Rules panel members would be appointed to 4-year terms by the governor and subject to Senate approval. The DEQ would play an advisory role but would not have a vote on the committee. The permit appeal board members would be selected by the DEQ director.

No dog in the fight

The author of the legislation, Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), has said that the DEQ staff that handles rules and permits often makes arbitrary, unreasonable decisions that burden the business community.

In a recent interview with Michigan Radio, Casperson argued that environmentalists, some of whom want to “turn everything back to the way it was before man got here,” hold too much sway over the DEQ process.

“I would argue that some of the critics that are coming from the environmental groups have no dog in the fight whatsoever,” he said. “So, with them having no skin in the game, they don’t care what these things cost when we impose a rule on somebody. They don’t even talk about the cost, because it’s not even a concern of theirs. So, we have to find a way to balance this out.”

The MEC’s Clift asserted that the bills offer no balance because they put industry in the forefront. Unlike the DEQ director, who serves at the will of the governor, the committee members could only be removed for just cause.

The Senate-passed measure has no requirement that panel members reside in Michigan, Clift said, giving “outside special interests” the power to shape the state’s environmental regulations and cleanup standards. In addition, the legislation contains no conflict-of-interest provisions that would prevent a corporate representative from voting in favor of a rule or permit sought by his or her company.

One of the leading proponents of the committee system, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, believes the legislation would “strengthen and improve” the department’s rulemaking.

“This reform legislation will change rulemaking from a bureaucratic process to a more open process with participation by a wide range of stakeholders,” said chamber president and CEO Rich Studley. “It’s time to reinvent the top-down regulatory culture at the DEQ and we believe this legislation will get the job done.”

Cooperative solutions

The Michigan Farm Bureau, another backer of the bills, said the adversarial approach by the department needs reform.

“Our members want a stronger focus on cooperative solutions so we maintain environmental protection without creating undue regulatory burdens,” the bureau said on its website.

But Lisa Wozniak, executive director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said industry has not demonstrated an interest in protecting the environment.

“Decades of hard-learned lessons taught Michiganders that we cannot trust polluting industries to put public health and the protection of our air and water quality ahead of their own financial interests,” Wozniak said. “The last thing we should be doing is handing over authority for Michigan’s environmental protections to unelected, unaccountable individuals who have a financial stake in the very industries they would be charged with regulating.

“It is unfathomable,” she added, “that while our state is facing a growing crisis of confidence in our drinking water, Michigan leaders keep passing bills like these designed to weaken protections for our families and environment.”