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Michigan House panel votes to gut ‘radical’ wetlands protections

Update: Michigan DEQ staffers to Gov. Snyder: Veto bill to weaken cleanup standards
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 state House committee cleared legislation Tuesday morning to lift environmental protections on thousands of Michigan wetlands and lakes.

The full House is expected to vote on Sen. Tom Casperson’s Senate Bill 1211 as early as Tuesday afternoon, moving the proposal closer to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk in the final week of the Legislature’s busy lame duck session.

Snyder, whose term ends Dec. 31, has not indicated if he supports the proposal.

Related: Michigan power grabs, pipelines and pot: What we’re tracking in lame duck
Dec. 19: School grades, toxic waste and dark money: Your Michigan lame duck roundup

Supporters say the bill is needed to protect property rights of developers, but critics contend it would leave vast swaths of Michigan’s waters vulnerable to unfettered dredging, filling and construction.

The Republican-dominated Senate already approved a version of the legislation along mostly party lines this month.

Both versions of bill would lift state permitting requirements for property owners wanting to fill, dredge or build upon at least 550,000 acres of wetlands and at least 4,200 of Michigan’s 11,000 lakes, according to Department of Environmental Quality analyses obtained by Bridge Magazine. But even more Michigan lands would lose protections under the bill if a recent federal proposal to relax protections becomes final.

Casperson, R-Escanaba, told the House Michigan Competitiveness Committee Tuesday that his bill would protect landowners against overzealous “radicalism” at the Department of Environmental Quality, which enforces Michigan’s wetlands regulations.

Beyond carving out exemptions to which Michigan wetlands are protected, the bill would also add protections to landowners — requiring, for instance, DEQ to more clearly define any wetlands violations when they occur.

“If we don’t do something, we can kiss personal property rights goodbye. Because the government’s going to tell us what we can and can’t do no matter what,” Casperson said.

Business and development groups, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Michigan Farm Bureau and National Federation of Independent Business support the legislation.

Casperson and his supporters say the bill would add certainty for landowners by making Michigan’s protections more in line with the federal government’s. The bill would at least ensure protections for lakes and wetlands that fit the federal definition of “navigable waters of the United States.”

Wetlands are critical to many of the state’s natural resources, serving as habitats and fish nursery grounds, controlling flooding and filtering pollutants. Critics say tying Michigan’s regulations to Washington’s would only stir confusion, because the federal waters definition is murky due to conflicting court decisions, and it could change as litigation persists.

The federal government 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.

The U.S. Environmental Protection has flagged a few deficiencies in Michigan’s program over the years, but the Michigan wetlands regulations collectively are considered far more protective than those of the federal government, which continue to change.

The federal water rule “will always be a moving target,” Richard Bowman, director of government relations with the Nature Conservancy, told the House committee Tuesday.  “Every time a federal agency, a court or a federal body changes its mind about a definition, it changes our law.”

The Nature Conservancy owns some 30,000 acres of commercial forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Bowman said, and needs a handful of wetlands permits each year. Casperson’s bill would gum up that process, he added.

And President Donald Trump earlier this month proposed to change the federal waters definition yet again — to exclude waterways that don’t flow continually. At least 18 percent of nationwide streams and 51 percent of wetlands would lose federal protections under Trump’s proposal, according to a federal analysis obtained by E&E News.

If the federal proposal goes into effect along with Casperson's bill, about 3 million of Michigan's 6.5 million acres of wetlands would lose protections, according to a DEQ analysis. That would encompass more than 75 percent of some counties' wetlands. The agency also said about 21,600 miles of Michigan's 36,000 miles of streams would be not protected under that scenario. 

Steven Niswander, who leads the consulting firm Niswander Environmental, said he had no trouble dealing with the DEQ on wetlands permits, which he could get quicker in Michigan than in other states.

Niswander said Casperson’s legislation could prove devastating for Michigan’s waters if it dramatically increases the removal of wetlands, which naturally filter out pollutants before they flow into rivers.

“We will not be talking about the Flint water crisis, we’ll be talking about the Michigan water crisis.” he said.

Michigan Environment Watch

Michigan Environment Watch examines how public policy, industry, and other factors interact with the state’s trove of natural resources.

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