As he exits, Michigan lawmaker wants to gut wetland protection, boost waste

Wetlands (stock image)

Update: Michigan DEQ staffers to Gov. Snyder: Veto bill to weaken cleanup standards
Update: Michigan House panel votes to gut ‘radical’ wetlands protection
Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

LANSING — A Senate committee could vote today on controversial legislation that would remove protections and clear the way for development on more than half of weltands in most Michigan counties and more than one-third of the state's lakes.

Supported by some business groups and developers, the proposal is drawing outrage from environmentalists and companies involved in wetland restoration. It is also raising questions about whether Michigan could lose its status as one of only two states with special authority to regulate wetlands.

Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, who chairs the  Senate Natural Resources Committee is proposing the the legislation, Senate Bill 1211.

Related: Michigan power grabs, pipelines and pot: What we’re tracking in lame duck

Among other provisions, the proposal would lift permitting requirements for property owners wanting to fill, dredge or build upon wetlands and lakes covering five to 10 acres.

“This is for the average citizen that is getting mowed right over — that has 3 acres that does nothing and isn’t contiguous to anything, and they have been treated rudely,” Casperson said during testimony last week.

The bill would remove protections to at least 70,000 wetlands across 500,000 acres and 3,771 of Michigan’s 11,000 lakes, according to an analysis by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality obtained by Bridge Magazine.

But those numbers are just the minimum, according to the DEQ analysis, which details a wider impact than has been publicly discussed.

The bill would also allow development without special permits on:

  • Wetlands connected to ponds and some other water bodies;
  • Small wetlands home to endangered species;
  • Artificially flooded wetlands;
  • Man-made lakes, ponds and streams — and the wetlands connected to them.

The deregulation of impounded lakes — those with dams or other water control structures — under the bill would encompass “the majority of developed lakes in Southern Michigan,” said Todd Losee, a former DEQ wetlands specialist who is president of the Michigan Wetlands Association.

“I don’t think people are catching on to that.”

Related: Opinion | C’mon, Michigan. Don’t get hysterical about ‘tree police’ bill
Related: Senator wants to defang the ‘radical’ Michigan DEQ. He just may do so.
May 2018: Michigan House approves bills letting industry vote on environmental rules

The DEQ has not taken an official position on the bill, though its officials have expressed reservations — including that it conflicts with parts of the federal Clean Water Act.

The agency and outside experts consider wetlands critical to many of the state’s natural resources. Wetlands serve as wildlife habitats and fish nursery grounds, and they control flooding and filter pollutants from water.

Before his 16-year career in politics, Caperson spent more than two decades in a log trucking business his family owns — an experience that helped shape his pro-industry, pro-private property rights belief that Michiganders would be better off if regulators did less regulating.

Michigan State Sen. Tom Casperson chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee and is in his final month in office after a 16-year legislative career. (Photo courtesy of MIchigan Senate)

His legislation over the years has opened Michigan to metallic mining, capped how much land the state can own and cut red tape for those wishing to groom beachfront property. This year, legislation he sponsored gave industry representatives a larger role in environmental regulation.

Casperson is term-limited and in his final month in office. As he exits, he’s proposing a flurry of deregulation that may get traction in the Republican legislature lame duck session. He is also sponsoring bills that would bar local governments from regulating tree removal and cutting; preempt local zoning ordinances that limit mining activities, and allow landfills to accept certain radioactive waste at 10-times the level of radioactivity as current rules allow.

The wetlands legislation is supported by timber industry trade organizations and some business and development groups, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Michigan Farm Bureau, Home Builders Association of Michigan and National Federation of Independent Business.

Charles Owens, a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, said Casperson’s legislation is needed to bolster property rights.

“I am appalled at the disregard for private property rights that I’ve seen in this state from a number of different areas,” he said. “The whole idea that all the land in the state belongs to everybody is misguided and disappointing.”

Opponents argue Casperson’s legislation would trigger a host of unintended consequences and even tempt the federal government to yank Michigan’s rare authority to oversee its wetlands.

Environmental groups told Casperson’s committee last week they would even encourage the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to halt the state’s wetlands program if the legislation were to become law.

The federal government otherwise regulates development on the nation’s wetlands, but it has granted oversight to just two states under the Clean Water Act: Michigan and New Jersey.

“If Michigan legislators choose to show that they no longer care about Michigan’s wetlands and no longer want to protect them, then Michigan shouldn’t be regulated. We can give it back to the federal government,” said Jennifer McKay, policy director for the Petoskey-based nonprofit Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.

Developers and environmentalists have for years sparred over the scope of Michigan’s wetlands program, and even debated whether the state should continue spending tax dollars on state enforcement rather than letting the Army Corps of Engineers issue permits — likely leaving developers to wait longer for permissions. In 2009, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed to end the state program to shave $2 million from budget, but the idea did not gain traction.

The EPA has flagged deficiencies in Michigan’s program in recent years. In 2016, EPA Region 5 found state permitting exemptions for a several activities — including for drain maintenance, livestock access and utility line installation, for example — fell short of Clean Water Act requirements.

Casperson’s legislation could put Michigan further out of step with federal requirements, environmentalists say and a DEQ official confirmed in committee testimony.

“If we can’t implement [the program] consistent with federal law, that constrains the federal government’s ability to let us operate as an independent state,” said Aaron Keatley, DEQ’s chief deputy director.

Casperson said he was skeptical that President Donald Trump’s EPA would remove Michigan’s permitting authority, saying he’s had some “very encouraging conversations” with officials in EPA’s regional office in Chicago.

The lawmaker bristled at environmentalists’ suggestions that he doesn’t understand, or care about vital wetlands.

“We agree with a lot of the people that oppose this that we got to protect wetlands, Casperson said last week. “I just disagree that it’s got to be every inch of soil at the expense of everybody’s property rights.”

The language in Casperson’s bill may change as it moves through the Legislature, but it has already sent ripples through one industry: Michigan’s growing wetlands mitigation banking system.

Michigan requires developers who affect wetlands of a certain size to create and maintain wetlands elsewhere. To speed permitting and ease that burden, developers can pay wetlands mitigation bankers to do the work.

Keatley of the DEQ said the bill could harm that market and “greatly increase the cost of mitigation in the state.”

Steven Niswander, who leads the consulting firm Niswander Environmental, said Michigan has 25 such banks — an industry worth as much as $100 million — and most have formed since 2010.

Niswander called his firm the biggest such banker, and Casperson’s legislation caused it to immediately halt two projects worth about $1 million each.

“We already have seven employees and their positions are dependent on us doing banking, Niswander told Bridge Magazine. “It is the majority of our income for our business. This would be pretty catastrophic.”

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Beet Wompfler
Tue, 12/04/2018 - 8:23am

Fuck Casperson and his weaselly legislation. He wants to deregulate mining in townships when there are millions of tons of mining waste poisoning Lake Superior? Smart guy.

Tue, 12/04/2018 - 8:22pm

thanks, Beet - sometimes F*** is the only appropriate response

Tue, 12/04/2018 - 9:15am

So typical of today's Republican Party: destroying the environment to help polluters and those who give them big bribes, er, 'campaign contributions'
Evil, short sighted and stupid are the only way to describe this kind of stuff.

Tue, 12/04/2018 - 10:00am

There are group of Republicans, hopefully way less than a majority, that have been working very hard to change Michigan's motto from "Water Wonderland" to "Water Below Average Land".
This proposal is not surprising from Casperson. The only questions are if there enough Republican legislators with a similar anti-environment ideology, and if, so will Gov. Snyder want this to be a part of his legacy.

Tue, 12/04/2018 - 12:08pm

What ? have they being "drinking? Flint water? or "Nestle"? on what grounds ? climate change? floods all over america?is michigan NexT.
cannot believe thisStop stop . !

Tue, 12/04/2018 - 1:34pm

Makes a good case for eliminating term limits and lame duck sessions.

Tue, 12/04/2018 - 1:59pm

A real UP conservationist, sheesh

Tue, 12/04/2018 - 8:11pm

Not all of us in the UP are so stupid! The guy is slime and always against anything for this area that might be for the good of the people, state and UP.

Sabrina Gross
Tue, 12/04/2018 - 2:35pm

Decades ago, under Republican administrations, Congress established the EPA, passed the Clean Air Act & set up the Superfund program.
Why are Republicans opposed to conservation & protecting water resources, and wetlands that aid in flood control and runoff? Enforcement of laws has become a bad idea under their majority, and stripping away protections has become the Republican mantra.
Environmental organizations routinely used to endorse Republicans running for Congress. Now these groups hardly endorse any, and for good reason. It is as old as the earth - we have been implored to be good stewards by God. Teddy Roosevelt said it best: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

Bugs 13
Tue, 12/04/2018 - 3:24pm

Casperson is doing this to develop a piece of property to benefit his family. He only cares about his legacy in providing the best available land for logging, ORV use and mining profits. For a guy diagnosed with lung cancer, you would think he would rather go quietly into the night.

James Jendrasiak
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 10:02am

Further disregard for our wetlands and the ecosystem that thrives from them would be disastrous for Michgan. Good hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation are dependent on these ecosystems and will be an economic loss for those !!!

Victoria Bowman
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 12:30pm

I hope there are lawsuits filed against the Lame Duck Representatives and Senators. They are circumventing the will of the voters in these Lame Duck sessions. Disgusting power grabbers!

Thu, 12/06/2018 - 9:53pm

Every time I see the name "Home Builders Association," I get nervous. The Republicans put through a bill for those folks that suppresses competition for their members by imposing a few extra regulations that are widely opposed (pre-license and post-license classes that aren't necessarily beneficial). The state even stopped keeping track of the numbers of the licensees because, I guess, the results have been to alarming to publicize.

I don't know anything about wetlands, but I do know that the HBA isn't a friend to non-members.

Fri, 12/07/2018 - 7:46am

Destroying the environment will "Make Michigan Great Again."

Nathan Knight
Fri, 12/21/2018 - 8:29pm

This bill passing would be fabulous. You ask why well let me tell you. The DEQ has no right to fine tax paying citizens for doing little projects on there land. I’ve farmed and in construction most of my life and they say people should know the rules that’s a bunch of crap because there’s no posted information for a normal person to know. And for the banking company that sells wetland banks I hope you go under that’s the biggest rip off I’ve ever heard! Wetlands are created by Mother Nature every year. I have many areas that flood in fields over time and become wetlands naturally it’s all a bunch of money making for the state and wetland banks to cry about this good move for tax paying citizens of Michigan!