MDEQ 'polluter panels' bills making their way to Gov. Snyder's desk

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A package of bills that has Michigan environmentalists hopping mad seem to be on their way to being signed.

Senate Bills 652, 653, and 654, now making their way to the desk of Gov. Rick Snyder, have been described as gentle, common-sense reforms of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. As Richard K. Studley of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce puts it, the legislation constitutes “good-faith attempts at reforming DEQ processes” and is “designed to increase transparency and accountability at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for all stakeholders”



How would that happen? The legislative package, which has also been called “The Fox Guarding the Hen-house Act of 2017,” would give boards stacked with business members final say over who gets permits.

And contrary to Studley’s smooth patter suggesting the bills comprise just a meek reform that wouldn’t change much in the end, you should have heard the remarks of state Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), the legislation’s lead sponsor. Sen. Casperson sounded anything but meek when he complained that the DEQ has too often based its decisions on what’s good for the environment, or what scientists have to say. “Environmental groups’ voices, and that of their scientists, seem to dominate the process,” Casperson told the Detroit Free Press.



Just last fall, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof sent a letter to Gov. Rick Snyder signed by a majority of the state’s GOP legislators. The letter claimed its signers saw “a pattern of unreasonable overreach [by the DEQ] when it comes to implementation and enforcement of laws and regulations that is alarming, and it seems that this concern has become more evident over the last couple of years.”

The department does reject some permits, but available figures illustrate that most permits are approved. The most recent MDEQ scorecard shows that, in fiscal year 2017, out of 7,481 permit applications received, 99.55 percent were approved. In fact, the statistic lends credence to some environmentalists’ contention that MDEQ is a “rubber stamp agency.”

No, DEQ is not an agency that easily rejects permit applications or bows to public pressure. Its recent decision to approve Nestlé’s increased water takings in Osceola Township flew in the face of the 99.9 percent unfavorable comments it received from the public. A few years ago, after neighbors of Detroit’s trash incinerator showed up in force to demand DEQ do more than slap the big burner’s owners on the wrist, DEQ did not alter its fines a penny.

The department, in fact, was created by the Michigan GOP’s pro-business governor, to separate out regulatory function from the DNR and make these stewards of nature work in partnership with corporations.

It’s headed by Heidi Grether, the same woman who ran PR for British Petroleum during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.

In other words, you have an agency that, as Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation’s Peggy Case puts it: “They never deny a permit. That's the job of the DEQ is to permit.”

So now the state’s GOP, aligned with the state’s Chamber of Commerce and Farm Bureau, say they just want to tweak those rules a little bit so that the agency truly reflects the opinions of everybody — pumpers, plunderers, and polluters included.

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