GOP senators say Michigan environmental agency is ‘overzealous’

rick snyder mackinac policy conference

A majority of Senate Republicans sent a letter to Gov. Rick Snyder complaining about the agency. DEQ’s director says the agency will review business practices.

LANSING — Republicans in the state Senate say Michigan's environmental agency is harming residents and small businesses through "overzealous" enforcement, costing them time and money, particularly related to environmental permits.

They are asking Gov. Rick Snyder to step in and restore what they called a "customer service mindset" to the department. A majority of Senate Republicans last month sent a letter to Snyder, asking for his help in improving customer service practices in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in light of constituent concerns.

The Sept. 6 letter, which drew an incredulous response from a leading Democrat, was sent on letterhead from Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof's office.

"While we can appreciate the role of the DEQ, we see a pattern of unreasonable overreach 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," senators wrote to Snyder, also a Republican. "It is not representative of the customer service mindset that you established for the departments."

Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said via email "the governor has asked DEQ to refocus on customer service by reviewing and improving protocols.”

The senators listed several complaints with DEQ staff:

  • A "heavy-handed enforcement mentality";

  • "Significant" fines they claim have hit $10,000 per day, in some cases for issues that are questionable violations;

  • Requiring permits for circumstances or events that have never before required one, and

  • Delayed action on applications and approvals, including for permits.

The legislators said they plan to amend parts of state law to address the apparent problems and asked for Snyder's help in the short term. All but two of the 27 Republican senators signed the letter. The two that didn’t were Sens. Patrick Colbeck, of Canton Township and a Republican candidate for governor, and Tory Rocca, of Sterling Heights, said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans. Neither Colbeck nor Rocca could immediately be reached for comment.

"The caucus has expressed general frustration with the DEQ for years," McCann said in an email. "In particular, Senator Casperson has been a vocal critic of the department and the challenges experienced by (Upper Peninsula) residents when trying to work with the DEQ.

“Complaints and concerns are not limited to the northern part of the state. Many senators relay concerns and irritation from constituents when attempting to work with the Department to conduct business or use land."

Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said he wants to see more common sense infused into the department's processes for setting rules how government agencies implement laws that legislators pass. No one is arguing the environment should be less protected, Casperson said, but it can seem as though the department's default position is to delay or reject a request rather than try to help a resident or a business owner make something work.

He said he was prompted to call for changes this summer, after the DEQ required permits to operate a dam on the Michigamme River in small Republic Township in Marquette County for an annual fishing tournament. A member of the Republic Sportsman's Club said the DEQ never had required a permit in 26 years of running the derby, which is a big fundraiser for the nonprofit club and a moneymaker for local businesses. Attendance dropped to slightly more than half of the 500 anglers it can draw in a good year.

"Instead of trying to get to yes, they did everything in their power to get to no, and I've had enough," Casperson said. "I've said all along since I've been in Lansing it's not their role to make law. They're to enforce the law, not make it, and when they use that discretion with what the rules give them, I can make an argument they're making law."

In a statement provided by a spokeswoman, DEQ Director Heidi Grether said: "The department appreciates hearing the concerns raised from its legislative partners and assures the Senators that the issues raised do not fall on deaf ears."

Grether promised to make DEQ leadership “more accessible for legislative feedback.”

Democrats and conservation groups questioned the Republicans' portrait of the DEQ as an agency that is overly protective of the environment. 

"The environment should never be too burdensome or too expensive to protect," Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said in a statement. Citing the Flint water crisis and the agency's much-criticized response to it, Ananich added: "On the heels of the worst manmade environmental disaster in our country's history, I find it disturbingly out of touch that some are calling for fewer, weaker regulations, while there are still folks in my city drinking bottled water."

Charlotte Jameson, government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said the lesson of the lead-poisoning crisis in Flint is that safeguarding public health and natural resources are, and must be, DEQ's primary missions. 

All agencies, DEQ included, can and should be better at helping Michigan residents and community leaders understand the regulatory process and what events or circumstances require permits, said Jameson, who has not read the Senate Republicans’ letter in full.

But she said her perception is that the agency has “bent over backwards” to find compromise or get input from interested parties.

The Legislature’s own task force, established after the Flint water crisis emerged, recommended creating an oversight commission to manage the agency. Lawmakers have authority to pass bills on this and other matters to address concerns, Jameson said.

“There’s a little bit of a double-talk happening here, in terms of … who needs to take action,” she said. “There’s a role that the Legislature should be taking around being proactive and making sure that the agency is putting in place solid reforms to help get the job done, as opposed to sort of railing against heavy-handed enforcement ‒ which I can’t say that I’ve actually seen.”

Casperson said the GOP's criticism of the agency should not be read as "somehow you hate the environment and you want to just let everyone do whatever they want. That's so unfair, and not true."

Rather, he said he is looking for a "common-sense" solution that respects residents' and businesses' property rights while still protecting the environment.


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Richard Scott
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 8:45am

Wish the letter posted or the issues upsetting individuals posted. Appreciate a legislator trying to help constituent. And feel bad for angler's club, but controlling dam flow into rivers shouldn't be at the whim of someone who wants water nearby. In times of heavy rainfall those down river need protection . I would hope the reason for wanting someone to be licensed to control dam flow is not based on a whim. But the complaint a bit too vague.

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 1:21pm

Lets be specific here. What examples are too restrictive? Who has been harmed? How is the environment being too conservatively protected. Republicans will always want fewer regulations. That's WHY we have a DEQ in the first place. Common sense is protecting the environment for future generations. Wolverine dump in Rockford, the specific example I give.

Jim W
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 5:00pm

Bridge Magazine, here is your chance to do the investigative reporting you claim to support. Much of this just sounds like last year's campaign rhetoric against the EPA. Do some digging; has the DEQ ever actually fined an individual $10,000 a day? I bet not. That is the maximum fine allowed by statute, and a letter from the DEQ notifying someone of an offense will note that a fine of up to $10,000 per day could be levied. If they didn't include that information, then the legislators would complain about that.

Do your job and investigate the claims, don't just print what someone wants you to believe.

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 8:30pm

"too restrictive" give me a break. from pollution from every source, tainted drinking water, permits not enforced, etc. Looking at the activity of Senator Casperson and the bills he has introduced, I can only say he may represent his district well but he is very parochial in his outlook.
P.S. he seems to dislike the rest of the state.

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 10:21pm

There two fundamental flaws in the environmental agencies and other regulatory/enforcement agencies. The first is that all regulations have the starting point of ensuring the ease of enforcement. The purpose of the regulation writers is not to improve the performance of those they regulate, it is to make it easiest for Compliance officer to be able to find a violation and fine the organization. This forces regulations to be prescriptive and to avoid performance regulations. A prescriptive regulation is one that stipulates how to do the task, command [letter of the rule] and control [fines]. A performance regulation is one that is a source of knowledge for all that are regulation by identifying the elements that have proven effective by the most organization with the best performances. Prescriptive regulations are based on past practice, decades old, and are extremely hard to change. Performance regulations are designed to place the responsibility on organizations to ensure that their activities are effective and allows them to continually update them to stay current with changing technology.

The other flaw is that the compliance officers are in an I 'gotcha' role not a 'knowledgeable person' to help organizations with ideas to improve their performance .
There rare exceptions.

Robyn Tonkin
Wed, 10/04/2017 - 8:11am

I am not a customer. I do not want customer service. I am a citizen, one of millions of owners of the natural resources of Michigan. I don't want obsequious bend-backward-pleasing. I want environmental watchdogging. I live in the UP, and this is the first I heard of an ad-hoc, people-pleasing dam being allowed, however transiently, on a river, for no reason other than yet another outdoors fundraiser. Fishing is going the way of hunting--no matter how they massage the figures, and talk optimistically, and produce TV shows, Americans are turning their backs on fishing and hunting in big numbers, so how long ago was the "good year" of 500 anglers? When you want things all your own way in the woods, call Mr. Casperson, he feels that way too. As for the tournament, maybe it's time to schedule a bog jog or fun mudder like everybody else is doing.

Doug L
Wed, 10/04/2017 - 8:35am

Why are the democrats quoted going on about the Flint water issue? Am I the only one that understand the problem of lead in Flint water has NOTHING to do with the environment? It is a combination of improper treatment of the Flint River water, combined with old lead pipes. Not an environmental issue.

mary fox
Wed, 10/04/2017 - 9:51am

Let's poison Michigan, said the Koch Brothers as they piled slag on the River.

David L Richards
Wed, 10/04/2017 - 6:41pm

I have no problem with the DEQ being customer friendly. But the DEQ needs to keep in mind that the customer is the public, not private special interests.

Charles Buck
Sun, 10/08/2017 - 12:26pm

Casperson's concerns are overblown and have a wag-the-dog taint, or should I say wag-the-fish. The DEQ's FY2016 MIScorecard Performance Summary shows the department denied 20 permit applications while granting 8,862 permits, under Grether's leadership. Where's the justification in granting a grandfather-in exception and shield from regulation century old dams that are weakening over time? That makes no sense. Michigan had three dam failures last year. Casperson's other enforcement concerns attempt to misguide and portray DEQ procedure as a sealed vessel devoid of due process review when there are in fact administrative hearing protections to appeal orders and civil judicial venues available to hear anyone who believes their rights under the law have been given short shrift by the department.

C. Ries
Tue, 10/31/2017 - 11:01am

I am a property owner on this river. The dam issue in Republic has been going on for many years and the problem is much bigger than just the Fishing Derby. The Fishing Derby this year was only the catalyst that brought this issue to where we are now. The dam has existed for well over 100 years and the reservoir is (or was) a beautiful resource. It was the life blood of the Township. Where the river once had large open areas of water with shallow bays and lots of weeds, it is now more like a creek with muddy flats and shorelines making the area an eyesore. This past year the DEQ threw every road block in front of the township to stop them from operating the dam, effectively making the complete waterway unnavigable. They dragged their feet and denied the permit for a different reason every time it was submitted until basically the end of Summer. They basically said to the Township that there was a permit required that should have been in place and paid every year but oops they missed it. There are 100s of property owners along with many residents of the township who have been negatively impacted by the DEQ and their heavy handed practices. Property values have decreased considerably. Businesses have closed. The beach is shut down. Fish habitat destroyed. Wetlands destroyed. Basically this waterway is now unusable. This is not a conservative or liberal issue. If the people who have been criticizing Senator Casperson and the other Senators had a place on this river they would be singing a different tune. DEQ has done nothing but push Republic Township and their residents around. I have personally spoke to Mr. Ryan at DEQ in MQT and he was quite the rude and a condescending individual. I thank Senator Casperson and all the other Senators for trying to do the right thing and help this small town get the water they deserve. The solution is to put a spillway in so all the residents have the water they deserve and have had for hundreds of years.