LANSING, Mich. — Despite Senate Bill 652, which aims to create oversight for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), heading to the house, it isn’t moving forward without strong opposition from environmental groups. 

In favor

The 38th District’s State Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) made his case for why these bills would be an asset to the MDEQ. He cited an example where the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality may have too much authority, in one case with a farmer and a small parcel of wetland. 

The farmer had a consultant come out and take a look at his fields, one area in particular, roughly a three-acre parcel that was determined to be a wetland, Casperson said. 

“If you go look at the rules as they exist today, if it’s five acres or less and it’s not continuous with a navigable piece of water and it’s out there on its own, you don’t need a permit,” he said. “You can remove the vegetation and you could actually use it as farmland.”

In this case, however, the department had gone out and assessed it themselves, Casperson said, with the field manager determining the parcel to be 5.8 acres, not three. 

“I will tell you my eyebrows went up because it was like, wait a minute, isn’t that ironic that it just got over five acres?” he said. “The rules gives them discretion. If they believe there’s harm to be done to the natural resources, I guess they believe they can go beyond what the rules actually say in the name of saving the environment.”

In reviewing maps on websites for both the MDEQ and Environmental Protection Agency, Casperson said the parcel showed up as about three acres.

Now the debated parcel is a problem for the farmer, he said, because he’s found to be in violation of the rules.

“This is one example of overreach and actually using rules that we would argue is almost making it up as they’re going, in fact, disregarding their own maps,” Casperson said. “The citizenship shouldn’t have to deal with something like that.”

An oversight panel would be comprised of people who have an understanding or a background in the environmental sphere, like an environmental engineering background.

There are experts amongst the MDEQ, Casperson said, but they are not the only experts in the environmental field. By including others, it’s bringing more input to the table.

“We’re not going to accept the fact that only the department has experts in that field with those types of degrees; other people are experts as well,” he said. 

Additionally, in regards to the failed amendment of panel or committee members being allowed to be from out of state, Casperson defended the idea that more than likely anybody serving on these oversight committees or panels would be from Michigan.

“My objection to the amendment was the fact that if there was somebody that was extremely talented in this sphere, they happened to be from another state and they were available to be on the panel, I just didn’t want to tie their hands and say you couldn’t do it,” he said. “There was no intent to try to get people from outside of Michigan coming to make up our rules for us, it was simply don’t tie our hands when we’re looking for talent that have an expertise in this.”

Others in support of the bills, Casperson said, included the Farm Bureau, Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and more.

“It was clear to us that this was something that clearly just the environmental groups were going to oppose, but anybody else on the other side of the equation was going to support,” Casperson said. “We kind of knew that going in.”

He said he was hopeful environmental groups would join in with their support, but he said it was unlikely due to their close relationship with the MDEQ and their process.

“They’re kind of on the inside track of that, so they would feel their odds are better there than to do it the way we’re doing it,” he added. 

Against

The Michigan Environmental Council doesn’t see things the same way as Casperson. 

“We really see this as putting the fox in charge of the hen house,” said Sean Hammond, deputy policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

These bills will set up panels full of representatives of industry that write their own rules, he said.

“We think that’s going to lead to a lot of problems in regulations and permitting,” Hammond said. “We see this as taking what’s already a robust regulatory and permitting process and giving it over to these industry-dominated panels where business interests will trump common sense environmental regulations.”

The worry is that companies that are involved in these panels can vote on regulations that may affect their industry or closely related industries with a profit motive, Hammond said, which is a conflict of interest.

The Michigan Environmental Council doesn’t have a problem with having something in place above the DEQ as long as it’s advisory in nature.

An advisory panel would be acceptable because of issues like the massive failing in Flint, Hammond said. Somewhere citizens can raise issues with an oversight board would be great, but not one that takes away regulatory and permitting authority from the DEQ.

“We think it’s perfectly fine for these panels to advise the DEQ and raise concerns like the Flint water crisis, however, what we’ve done here is essentially demoted the governor,” Hammond said. 

The governor’s appointments could now be removed for any reason and replaced with a board that is stacked with industry representatives that cannot be removed except for cause, he said.

“So really you’re not just demoting the DEQ, you’re demoting the third branch of government,” Hammond said. 

A major concern is the idea that panel members could be from out of state or even from another country, he said, as there are no stipulations that a panel member would have to be from the U.S.

“You could let a Canadian company in to write Michigan rules that apply to Michigan residents and they have no stake in the Great Lakes,” he said. “They don’t know what it was like to be raised and grow up here and the great natural resources that we have. And they’d be allowed to write the rules for us.”

“The list goes on and on, Exxon Mobil, Monsanto ... companies that have spotty environmental track records nationwide, could be not only invited in, but write rules that pertain specifically to Michigan, despite not having a presence here beyond a profit motive,” he added. 

In order to try and stop the bills or get them rewritten, the Council has tried to get the message out, meet with members of the House and work with the governor. Hammond is hopeful that their message resonates with lawmakers, that the process in place now works, overall.

“This is essentially letting not just industry, but out-of-state industries write rules that are meant to protect Michiganders in our unique natural resources,”  Hammond said.

The Sierra Club is also opposed to these bills. 

Neutral

The MDEQ’s stance is one of neutrality on this and working with lawmakers on all three bills, according to an official statement from Tiffany Brown, public information officer for the MDEQ.

The statement reads:

“The DEQ is continuing its review of the bills (SBs 652-654) and will continue to work with the legislature and stakeholders on them. DEQ staff has recently met with stakeholders who are encouraging the passage of this package of bills to gain a better understanding of the intent of the legislation, the perceived issues the bills are focused on addressing, and to have our questions answered. At this time, the Department does not have a formal position on the bills but will continue to be actively engaged throughout the legislative process if and as these bills move forward.”