Michigan Republicans kill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s environmental overhaul plan

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, speaks to reporters after his Senate Oversight Committee approved a resolution to overturn Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order to overhaul the Department of Environmental Quality. (Bridge photo by Jim Malewitz)

Feb. 20: Gov. Whitmer remakes Michigan DEQ again, but leaves oversight panels intact

LANSING — Michigan Republicans on Thursday thwarted Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to overhaul the state’s environmental department — a reshuffling she has called crucial to responding more quickly to widespread water contamination and addressing climate change.

In a 22-16 party-line vote, the Senate approved a resolution to “disapprove” her executive order to morph the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

The vote came just hours after a Senate committee disapproved the plan, and a week after the GOP-controlled House cleared the resolution in a party-line vote.

Thursday’s vote marked the first time since 1977 the Michigan Legislature rejected a governor’s executive order.

Related: What's next after Republicans kill Gretchen Whitmer’s environmental shakeup?

While the DEQ overhaul is wide-ranging, Republicans have largely focused on one grievance: The elimination of business-friendly panels lawmakers created last year to oversee agency decision making.

The issue was about "Who is taking complaints about a department that is abusing the people? Who is watching the watcher?” Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, told colleagues on the chamber floor.

Sen. Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said Republicans recognize Whitmer’s ability to reorganize the government, and want to partner with her. He invited Whitmer to send another executive order that leaves the disputed commissions intact.

Democrats, meanwhile, painted the resolution as a victory for polluting industries who have significant representation on the oversight panels — and a swipe against Whitmer’s efforts to clean up tainted water and air.

“This [executive order] was truly to protect citizens, said Sen. Jim Ananich, the Democratic minority leader. Republicans “just voted to allow polluters a free pass, and the citizens of Michigan took it on the chin.”

Whitmer's press secretary called it “disappointing to see the party of limited government vote for more government bureaucracy, but the governor remains undeterred.”

“She is committed to reorganizing this department so we clean up our drinking water and protect public health. We look forward to continuing a dialogue with the legislature to get this done, because Michiganders can't afford to wait for clean drinking water,” said Tiffany Brown

The dispute surrounds questions of policy and power, and it began Feb. 4.

That’s when Whitmer announced she’d create a new environmental agency to include a “Clean Water Public Advocate,” “Environmental Justice Public Advocate” and an “Office of Climate and Energy.”

The public advocates would accept, investigate and analyze complaints related to drinking water and environmental justice problems, and work within state government to address them.

The order would also create an interagency team — composed of agency directors across state government — to fix policies that disproportionately pollute low-income and minority communities from power plants and factories.

Whitmer has pitched the reshuffling, in part, as a response to Flint’s lead-exposure crisis triggered in 2014 and growing concerns about harmful industrial contaminants called PFAS communities are increasingly detecting in their waters.

But Whitmer’s order, written to take effect April 7, would also abolish the GOP-created commissions, angering legislative leaders. Whitmer has called the panels unneeded bureaucracy and said they flout federal environmental laws for timely rulemaking. Whitmer has  asked Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, for a legal opinion.

Republicans call the abolishment a de facto veto of bills the Legislature adopted last year under Whitmer’s predecessor, Rick Snyder. They argue that such commissions —  backed by powerful groups such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — bolster transparency and check the environmental agency’s power, which Republicans and business interests complain can be overzealous.

Separately, Republicans also said they want Whitmer to more clearly define “environmental justice” if she issues a new order.

McBroom said Whitmer’s executive order creates entities that lack the transparency and accountability of the boards she sought to eliminate.

While Democrats have backed some form of oversight commissions in the past, they say the GOP-created commissions would only slow down Whitmer’s effort to strengthen environmental protections by giving industry more say.

Among the citizen boards Whitmer would nix: the Environmental Rules Review Committee, which has power to “oversee all rulemaking” of the DEQ and has held one organizational meeting.

Half of the 12 seats on the panel are slotted for business representatives. Former Gov. Rick Snyder appointed all members last year; another appointment for Whitmer doesn’t open until late 2020.

A separate Environmental Permit Review Commission resolves permitting disputes at the agency. Aggrieved parties trying to, for instance, alter floodplains, drill for oil, mine minerals — or do most anything requiring regulator’s permission — could seek relief.

The permit commission does not require members to come from specific professions, but State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he’s worried about it’s makeup, since it’s almost entirely composed of engineers and consultants who contract with people and companies seeking environmental permits.

Republicans have criticized Democrats for villainizing industry representatives as polluters.

Irwin said he doesn’t believe companies release toxic chemicals into the environment out of malice, but out of financial interest, and he turned to the Dr. Seuss book "The Lorax" to illustrate.

“I don’t think [the villain] intended to pollute. I don’t think he intended to fill the pond with gloppity glop. I don’t think he intended to cut down all the truffula trees. He just wanted to make more thneeds. He was just biggering and biggering and biggering,” Irwin said.

“Then all of a sudden the forest was gone.”

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Thu, 02/14/2019 - 2:48pm

Story needs a copy edit -- no first reference to "Irwin." I assume it's State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, but that needs to be edited in.

Jim Malewitz
Thu, 02/14/2019 - 5:09pm

Thanks for catching that! We've fixed it. 

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 9:59am

No problem. Ex-reporter. Old habits die hard. You guys are doing great work, by the way...

Jim Katakowski
Fri, 02/15/2019 - 6:49am

This GOP and their record for 8 years is abominable with regards to water poisoning in our pure state of Michigan. Gloves off go get em.

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 9:30am

Why not "go get" the Democrats that let Flint's lead pipes to stay in the ground for 60 years?

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 12:02pm

Becaue it wasn't a crisis until the emergency managers changed the water source with treating it to save pennies. How do people still not get this?

Kevin in Waterford
Fri, 02/15/2019 - 12:40pm

Because nobody believed we’d changed the chemistry of the river, with road salt. Absent the salted water, flint would have done fine.
Sadly, the best water in Flint is now at the gas station, where they’ve had decades of experience with UnLeaded.

Victoria Bigelow
Fri, 02/15/2019 - 8:56am

I look forward to 2020 and another opportunity to vote Republicans out. The GOP has done tremendous damage to our Michigan environment, particularly our water supply, in the name of profits.

Michigan Observer
Fri, 02/15/2019 - 10:39pm

It is not a question of profits versus the environment. Rather, it is a question of where we get the best return on our investment of resources. Consider two opportunities for promoting the general welfare. One involves cleaner water and the other involves infrastructure such as roads. Let us further suppose that ten million dollars invested in cleaner water would save one life, but that one life could be saved by investing just seven million dollars in a better, safer road. Which opportunity should we choose? Obviously, the road project. We would have saved a life, and had three million dollars left for another worthy project. It is not a matter of lives versus profits. It is a matter of lives versus lives.

We have made enormous progress in cleaning up the environment, but each increment of a cleaner environment is more costly than the last increment. Eventually, you reach a point where the benefits from achieving a one percent cleaner environment are more costly in terms of resources invested than achieving the same improvement in the general welfare by investing in some other needed improvement.

That was the point of the panels implemented by Governor Snyder and the Republican legislature. It was believed that our resources were being invested inefficiently in terms of promoting the general welfare. It is a matter of straightforward cost / benefit analysis. Unfortunately, none of the commentators seem to grasp that. They also failed to grasp that all costs incurred by business are passed on to consumers.

Andy Schmidt
Fri, 02/15/2019 - 8:58am

Time to declare a State Emergency and do it anyway

Andy Schmidt
Fri, 02/15/2019 - 9:16am

Republicans clearly want the Governor to declare a State Emergency to fix the problem.

john chastain
Fri, 02/15/2019 - 9:16am

Republicans have criticized Democrats for villainizing industry representatives as polluters.
Irwin said he doesn’t believe companies release toxic chemicals into the environment out of malice, but out of financial interest, and he turned to the Dr. Seuss book "The Lorax" to illustrate.
“I don’t think [the villain] intended to pollute. I don’t think he intended to fill the pond with gloppity glop. I don’t think he intended to cut down all the truffula trees. He just wanted to make more thneeds. He was just biggering and biggering and biggering,” Irwin said.
“Then all of a sudden the forest was gone.”

So his argument is that “financial interest” is somehow free of malicious intent because the consequences were simply disregarded in the original calculation? When you cause willfull harm out of financial expediency your guilty because of your intent not despite it. Businesses pollute out of self interest and protecting ourselves and our state from them is in our self interest. State senator Irwin’s apologetic stance for polluters makes me wonder who’s side he’s on.

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 9:25am

That's the problem "business-friendly panels lawmakers " almighty business interests. If you need an oversight committee why not have one including all interested parties i.e. private citizens.

Bob Potocki
Fri, 02/15/2019 - 9:33am

Our Legislature is rigged and corrupt. It should be dissolved and replaced by free and fair elections.
It would not hurt to return to a part-time legislature like most other states. And certainly lame duck is a perfect example of the problem.

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 11:21am

Most corrupt state? Really? You must not leave the confines of your tin box. I suggest becoming educated and do some google surfing about the corruption in (may I say) New York, Illinois, california, Dist of Columbia just to mention a few. Michigan is far from perfect but cannot hold a stick to the worst.

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 12:03pm

Michigan is dead last for transparency, who so knows what's lurking in the backrooms that we don't know about yet?

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 12:47pm

bu****it Clark

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 9:37am

Another example of the republican party who is in power illegitimately for the last 10 years due to gerrymandering, concerned about big business and not the citizens. The citizens have had enough of this dysfunctional government. Collaboration and dialogue are the skills needed in the 21st century, not polarization and ideologues. DO YOUR JOB, and GROW UP.

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 10:07am

Its too bad for the Dems and enviros that they still don't realize that the Flint water crisis actually happened WITHOUT any of those Panels in place! It's an inconvenient truth that the MDEQ and Michigan Community Health Department and some local officials too, all didn't do their professional jobs back in 2014-16. Someone should have modeled the Flint water switch over, before they charged blindly ahead and poisoned thousands of children and families. Also, before people died of Legionnaires Disease. We need scientists and environmental engineers to be true professionals and civil servants, not point fingers at someone else. These industry panels were NON-EXISTENT when the Flint water crisis happened and they should be given a chance to work and improve the natural environment and public health.

Michael Delp
Fri, 02/15/2019 - 10:36am

There is only one way to regard this: governance by thuggery.

John S.
Fri, 02/15/2019 - 8:30pm

The issue was about "Who is taking complaints about a department that is abusing the people? Who is watching the watcher?” Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, told colleagues on the chamber floor. The Senator is apparently unaware that it is the state legislature's responsibility to exercise oversight of the executive agencies. It's not the job of business friendly panels. If businesses have a complaint, they can take it directly to the DEQ. If the complaint is not resolved to their satisfaction, they can complain to one or more of their elected representatives in Lansing. Oversight isn't fun. It requires a lot of knowledge. It is hard work. It doesn't win a lot of votes. It doesn't bring in a lot of campaign money. Still, state legislators need to do the job that they are being paid to do.

Daniel Schifko
Sat, 02/16/2019 - 7:21am

I see Bridge still dabbles in propaganda for the Democrat party. Maybe one day you could consider actually reporting facts with a purpose of informing readers. In the meantime may I suggest a story about evil retailers selling spoiled food, I have a certain Dr. Seuss book you could feed to a concerned elected person for pithy quotes.

abe bubush
Sun, 02/17/2019 - 2:54pm

So the Republicans are willing to open the state to lawsuits for refusing to address a range of public health issues. Fine. Eat it in court. The AG will not defend it.

abe bubush
Sun, 02/17/2019 - 2:56pm

Fine. So the Republicans are willing to make the state liable for a host of unaddressed public health issues. Let the lawsuits pile up.