Gov. Snyder signs Michigan lame-duck bills opposed by environmentalists

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed several environmental bills in his last days in office

LANSING — Gov-elect Gretchen Whitmer could face new obstacles in trying to deliver on bold campaign promises to clean up Michigan’s waters.

That’s after Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill into law Friday making it tougher for state agencies to craft regulations stricter than those of the federal government.  

Snyder, a Republican, also signed legislation that 82 Department of Environmental Quality staffers urged him not to: a measure they say weakens standards for cleaning up the state’s thousands of toxic sites. He also signed legislation to allow development on smaller wetlands.

They were just three of more than 200 bills Snyder signed or vetoed late Friday, clearing his desk before Whitmer, a Democrat, takes the oath of office on Jan. 1. Among them were signed measures that were most loudly opposed by environmentalists, who arguing in recent weeks that Snyder could repair a legacy stained by the Flint water crisis by vetoing them.

At the same time, however, Snyder, whose administration was found primarily to blame for the Flint disaster, signed legislation that will send $69 million a year toward toxic cleanups — to replenish a tapped-out fund. That was on top of about $20 million to address the chemical contaminants PFAS.

No-stricter-than federal

House Bill 4205 bans state agencies from creating new regulations stricter than Washington’s unless an agency shows a “clear and convincing” need due to “exceptional circumstances.”

The bill applies to all agencies, but exempts rulemaking related to special education. (The legislation also exempts temporary rules adopted during emergencies.) The Farm Bureau, Michigan Manufacturers Association and  other supporters say will help Michigan attract and maintain businesses that want uniform standards — by requiring agencies to justify their regulations.

Snyder agreed.

“The governor noted his administration has worked tirelessly to eliminate more than 3,000 unnecessary rules. It is appropriate for state agencies to take extra care in justifying regulatory decisions when adding rules,” his office said in a statement.  “These rules and regulations are still allowed to be more stringent than federal law when accompanied by the appropriate explanation and support.”

But critics call the “clear and convincing” standard a high bar to meet in court, and contended the rule would make agencies more vulnerable to litigation. And some see it as power grab in the lame-duck session that will limit Whitmer’s powers and her ability to craft unique solutions to Michigan’s problems — including the industrial contamination being found in drinking water.

On Thursday, before the bill became law, Whitmer told reporters she was “very concerned” about the bill and told Snyder as much.

She echoed her concerns in a statement Friday, saying the bill "takes away the ability of the executive branch to consider assets and challenges unique to Michigan when determining rules meant to protect our citizens."

An open question is how the bill will affect rulemaking on PFAS contamination, which is increasingly showing up in Michigan waters. A scientific panel assembled by Snyder released a report this month suggesting Michigan's cleanup criteria for certain PFAS chemicals — 70 parts per trillion (ppt) — may need tightening to protect public health.

Democrats and environmentalists see obstacles in tightening PFAS standards under the law, because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has no standards on the once-common chemicals used in a host of materials from non-stick cookware to firefighting foam.

But the bill sponsor — Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona — has said his measure will not impede state action on PFAS — or on other contaminants where there is no federal criteria, even though the bill Snyder signed on Friday does not explicitly say so.

Snyder’s office said it believed the bill will not affect rulemaking on PFAS.

Toxic cleanup overhaul

Meanwhile, Snyder signed into law Senate Bill 1244, an overhaul of state standards for cleaning up toxic sites, over the loud objections of dozens of state DEQ employees.

At issue is how Michigan regulators update toxicity values for hundreds of chemicals at some 7,000 polluted sites statewide, nearly half of which are likely “orphans,”meaning the original polluter is gone and taxpayers must pay for cleanups.

The values are necessary to determine when a site is safe, and research on health hazards of toxins is continually evolving

Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, sponsored the legislation and contends the state’s current process lacks clarity and discourages developers. The new process, he and supporters say, will return sites to tax rolls sooner and still protect public health.

The legislation requires the DEQ to use chemical toxicity values from a U.S. Environmental Protection database – unless the agency undergoes a lengthy process that includes public notices and meetings with “stakeholders.”

Industry groups including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Chemistry Council back the measure, saying it gives companies more clarity on cleanups.

But in a rare public plea for a veto earlier this month, 82 DEQ staffers wrote the bill would “threaten the health and safety of the people of Michigan” and solely benefit the polluters who are pushing the measure.

“Michigan’s citizens ... will have a false sense of security at best and at worst, their health and environment will be impaired and the cost of the cleanups in the future will become their burden as well as the burden of their children and great grandchildren,” the DEQ staffers wrote in a letter.

Wetland protections

Senate Bill 1211, signed by Snyder Friday, will remove development protections on some smaller wetlands.

As originally written, the bill would have allowed development on as many as 550,000 acres of wetlands and 4,200 of Michigan’s 11,000 lakes. But the bill underwent significant changes before it was signed by Snyder early Friday, and now fewer wetlands would lose protections (although an exact number isn’t now known.)

Sponsors say the bill would protect property owners from overzealous regulations. Opponents originally called the bill an assault on the environment, though changes prompted some conservation groups to turn neutral on the bill.

Money for cleanups

Whitmer’s incoming administration, however, should avert a funding crisis for toxic cleanups. That’s after Snyder signed into law part of a budget deal that will create a $69 million “Renew Michigan’ program to tackle that challenge and bolster recycling programs.

It comes as the state’s chief funding source for toxic cleanups — a $675 million bond voters approved 20 years ago — has run dry.

Under the new law, $45 million each year will flow to toxic cleanups, and $24 million will go to recycling and landfill oversight, which Snyder hopes will boost Michigan’s worst-in-region recycling rate.

Separately, Snyder signed into law a $1.3 billion supplemental budget that included roughly $20 million to address PFAS. That includes funding for drinking water infrastructure, mapping contaminated sites and conducting public health investigations.

“As we continue to build a stronger foundation for Michigan’s future, it’s critical that we invest in improvements to our environment and infrastructure,” Snyder said in a statement.

Like what you’re reading in Bridge? Please consider a donation to support our work!

We are a nonprofit Michigan news site focused on issues that impact all citizens. In an era of click bait and biased news, we focus on taking the time to learn both sides of a story before we post it. Bridge stories are always free, but our work costs money. If our journalism helps you understand and love Michigan more, please consider supporting our work. It takes just a moment to donate here.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments

Erik Johnson
Fri, 12/28/2018 - 10:52pm

There is an awful lot of fake news in this article.

john chastain
Sat, 12/29/2018 - 8:54am

Ignorance can be a heavy burden, perhaps you should shed yours. Or perhaps its the Michigan chamber and the chemical councils self serving and duplicitous statements of support for allowing more poisonous waste to be generated and remain behind that you find “fake”? When it affects you personally will it be “fake” still? That’s the thing about environmental protection its loss doesn’t respect political boundaries or opinions about the accuracy of “news”.

duane
Thu, 01/03/2019 - 1:27am

John,

If we could only turn your ignorance into electricity, we could power Michigan for the rest of the century.
You don’t grasp the limited knowledge the regulators have, without the collaboration of the private businesses [those who must apply the regulations everyday] there would be no protection in Michigan.
Do you understand how infrequently new regulations are written or old ones revised, the state cannot develop let alone maintain the necessary expertise to write regulations. When the issue is chemicals that requires toxicology, do appreciate the education and experience it takes to be an effective toxicologist?
Each regulation is to regulate everyday activities, there is no way the regulators [compliance officers and regulations writers] can learn the everyday practices they are regulating without the knowledge of the private companies.
You are so quick to condemn private businesses, and yet the worst polluter in size and severity is the US government [see DoD sites]. In2015 with the million gallon toxic spill in Animas River, from an EPA site, the Head of the EPA and DoJ showed their disregard for the environment and their own laws. The government made no effort to protect the towns and their drinking water systems as the spill went down stream. No matter what you think of Enbridge, they did cleanup their spill to the tune of a billion dollars, the EPA violated laws [were never prosecuted] and paid for none of the cleanup.
I agree ignorance is a heavy burden and you repeatedly show how that weight prevents you from thinking,
We need regulations, they should be performance driven not control driven, they should be driven by knowledge and understanding not emotions and headlines [how much science/chemistry education do reporters have?] and they should be a collaboration of regulators, the public, and those regulated.

Stephen C Brown
Sat, 12/29/2018 - 4:08pm

Please elaborate-otherwise your statement is pointless.

Janet Wagner
Sat, 12/29/2018 - 7:55am

What about Tom Casperson's proposal to limit small wetland protection and allow more radioactivity in dumps? Did they pass? I hope not.

Alex Sagady
Sat, 12/29/2018 - 6:01pm

SB 1195/1196 to allow higher amounts of TENORM radioactive wastes in
ordinary Michigan landfills both passed.

SB 1211, the wetlands destruction bill, also passed. SB 1211 eliminates
protections for wetlands less than 5 acres that are provided in present law
upon a finding by MDEQ. Because of changes to the definition of "wetlands"
in SB 1211, the bill eliminates protections for certain types of forested wetlands
that do not have hydric soils and that are no longer listed as critical wetland types.

SB 1211 chains Michigan's wetland definition to Federal Clean Water Act definitions
thus eliminating presently protected wetlands types. New revisions proposed by
the Trump Administration to federal CWA definitions of waters of the United States
will also eliminate protection to wetlands areas now afforded by current Michigan
law before SB 1211's passage and signing by Snyder.

SB 1211 contains a provision likely to interfere with MDEQ wetlands enforcement
actions by restricting such enforcement activities and providing for awards of
costs for expert wetlands consultants to petitioners to MDEQ.

SB 1211 added new definitions of impaired or degraded wetlands, and other
wetlands amendments in HB 5854/5855 (which were signed by Snyder) will potentially conflict with Section
404 of the Clean Water Act.

Janet Wagner
Sat, 12/29/2018 - 7:59am

Exactly what in this article do you claim is "fake news"? If you can't substantiate your claim, then you're just creating more "fake news"!

Mary
Sat, 12/29/2018 - 10:16pm

What is it about clean air and water and a sound environment that Republicans don't like? Neither water nor air are inert. Republicans are never concerned about these things unless it affects them directly.

Scrooge McDuck
Thu, 01/03/2019 - 8:05am

Snyder passes the PFAS over people bill.