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Michigan House approves bills letting industry vote on environmental rules

Feb. 2019: Michigan Republicans kill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s environmental overhaul plan
Feb. 2019: Few love MDEQ. But are oversight panels worth Whitmer-GOP showdown?

LANSING — The Michigan House on Tuesday approved a package of bills that would give industry representatives a larger role in environmental regulation, moving the proposal closer to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk.

Championed by Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, Senate Bills 652, 653 and 654  provide increased oversight of the Department of Environmental Quality, which Casperson has called overzealous, too quick to deny permits and fueled by a “radical left-wing” environmental agenda.

The legislation would create private-sector panels — including one largely populated with industry representatives — that could override agency decisions on rules and permits.

The Republican-controlled House advanced the package Tuesday through votes of 57-51, 58-50 and 59-49. The Senate approved the bills in January and must sign off on changes before sending them to Snyder.

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The governor hasn’t indicated whether he supports latest measure.

The (reforms are) one recourse we have to give the people a voice when unelected bureaucrats run amok,” said Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering. “This finally evens the playing field” against “overregulated bureaucracy.”

Environmentalists have dubbed the legislation the “Fox Guarding the Hen House Act.” Critics say it would defang a regulator that has lost some teeth due to years of budget cuts and already prioritizes economic development in its decision making.

Democrats took up that line of argument Tuesday as they mounted loud opposition on the House floor — describing the bill as an effort to protect polluters.

“There’s no second chances when it comes to environmental incidents. Once contamination occurs, it becomes a legacy for our taxpayers,” said Rep. Terry Sabo, D-Muskegon. “We should be toughening our environmental standards and laws – not weakening them.”

The proposal would undercut DEQ’s power by allowing governor-appointed panels to overturn agency decisions.

An Environmental Rules Committee would “oversee all rulemaking of the Department of Environmental Quality,” under the bills.

As passed in the Senate, the committee would have full veto power over the DEQ rules. The version that cleared the House would let the DEQ director seek a final ruling from the governor.

Six of 12 voting members would represent industries or businesses. Solid waste management, manufacturing, public energy utilities, oil and gas, agriculture, small businesses would each have representation. Other members would include representatives from an environmental organization, a local government, a land conservancy group, the medical field and the general public.

Lobbyists could serve on the committee if they didn’t represent more than one client.

Meanwhile, a Permit Appeals Panel would resolve permitting disputes at the agency.  Aggrieved parties trying to, for instance, alter floodplains, drill for oil, mine minerals — or do most anything requiring DEQ permission — could seek relief.

The panel’s 15 members would need to meet educational and professional requirements, and they could not work in state government. The bill does not stipulate specific-interest groups that members must represent.

A conflict-of-interest provision would bar panelists from weighing in on a permit if the applicant recently hired or contracted the panelist. The provision would also extend to panelists who had more than 1 percent ownership in the applicant's company.

The third bill in the package would establish an Environmental Science Advisory Board to offer guidance to the governor and state offices.  The state had a similar body until a decade ago. The board’s nine members, also appointed by the governor, would each have expertise in a number of fields outlined in the bill — engineering and environmental science, for example.

Democrats proposed several amendments that failed. Those included proposals to bar people from out of state — as well as employees of companies that have broken state or federal environmental laws —  from serving on the rules board.

The Michigan Environmental Council, Sierra Club and Michigan League of Conservation Voters and other environmental groups opposed the effort.

“These bills are the opposite of reform; they create new ‘Polluter Panels’ that would give the state’s special interests even more sway over Michigan’s environmental policy at the expense of public health,” Cyndi Roper, a Michigan policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

A slew of industry and business groups support the reforms, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Michigan Farm Bureau and Michigan Manufacturing Association, as well as oil and gas groups.

Supporters call criticism of the bills overblown and suggest rulemaking under the proposed system would generally reflect the interests of the governor — as happens at the DEQ now.

One Republican, Rep. Tommy Brann of Wyoming, scolded Democrats for demonizing corporations.

“Corporations are people, too,” he said. “Corporations are not evil.”

The anti-regulatory push comes as DEQ is still smarting from an entirely different line of criticism: That it caused Flint’s lead-in-water crisis and failed to keep the public safe from contamination. In 2016, the governor’s Flint Water Advisory Task force recommended a “cultural change program” within the DEQ “to refocus the department on its primary mission to protect human health and the environment.”

Environmental advocates say DEQ already closely listens to industry — sometimes more so than they would prefer.

Advocates point out the agency’s director, Heidi Grether, is a former oil industry lobbyist and executive who spearheaded BP’s public response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

DEQ approved 99.5 percent of permit applications — 7,413 of 7,447 —  in the 2017 fiscal year and 99.8 percent the previous year, agency figures show.

Casperson, a powerful lawmaker in his 15th and final year in office, dismisses the data as “a bunch of baloney” and largely cites anecdotes as a reason to scale back DEQ’s authority.

“They believe they’re on a mission and have a cause, and they have justification to do what they got to do to save the environment,” Casperson told Bridge in January. “They’re setting policy behind the scenes, working with (environmental advocacy) groups.”

Casperson has repeatedly invoked Indiana as inspiration for the private-sector panels. That state has an "Environmental Rules Board” similar to the one proposed in Michigan.

But Indiana’s permit appeals process involves hearings in front of an administrative law judge — much different from the board outlined by Michigan Republicans, which would collectively vote on appeals after hearing arguments at a public meeting.  

“We’d like to see more representation from health and environmental interests on our board…which makes perfect sense, since that’s the mission of the board — to protect health and the environment,” Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, an advocacy group, said of the setup in Indiana.

Maloney said Indiana environmentalists have largely avoided “really bad outcomes” because the past three governors have done little environmental rulemaking. That includes Mike Pence, now the U.S. vice president, who put a moratorium on rules.

“The whole rulemaking process and the board’s role in it, is largely responsive to the administration in power,” Maloney added.

Snyder, who is term-limited and in his final year in office, has not publically taken a position on the effort.

His DEQ opposed the legislation that cleared the Senate, but Snyder will review the final versions of the bills, a spokeswoman said. He has rejected some past efforts to scale back environmental regulations.

Snyder vetoed a no-stricter-than-federal bill in 2011, saying it could hamper the state’s ability to protect the environment. And in 2015, he vetoed a Casperson bill that, among other provisions, would have struck “conservation of biological diversity” from the DNR’s forest management duties.

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