Polluters Getting Closer to Full MDEQ Takeover
Michigan in the 1970s and 80s was a leader in natural resource protection and policies that safeguarded residents from the harmful effects of pollution. Today too many politicians are choosing to represent their corporate donors instead of us, their constituents. Every day they are chiseling away at these safeguards in nearly every imaginable way—from drastically cutting funding for permitting, monitoring, and anti-pollution enforcement to eliminating polluter pay laws. That forces taxpayers to fund toxic cleanups instead of the companies that caused the contamination. Further, Governor Snyder chose Heidi Grether as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s director. She’s the former lobbyist for BP America who played a leading role defending the indefensible during the massive 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico.
Now Michigan lawmakers have teamed up with polluters to take it up a big notch, proposing that polluting industries be given authority over pollution regulations and permitting by the state’s environmental protection agency. A package of bills to take away regulatory authority from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) has cleared the Michigan Senate and a House Committee. The bills are pending in the full Michigan House. If these bills pass and reach Governor Snyder’s desk, his veto pen will be the only thing standing between an explicit industry takeover of environmental rulemaking and having an agency accountable to the governor and, ultimately, the people of Michigan.
Polluting industries are marshaling a formidable army of regulated businesses and are pushing hard to get these bad bills passed before the November elections. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Manufacturing Association, and the Michigan Oil and Gas Association are joining forces to support the takeover of these vital state’s drinking water, clean air, clean water, solid waste and other environmental programs. I learned at an early age that these industries should never be the final arbiters on matters of such importance to public health, Michigan’s Great Lakes, and the state’s other natural treasures.
My dad was an employee of Ford Motor Co. in the 1950s, and he offered workshops on professional development days, talking about why the company shouldn't dump paint directly into the Rouge River in Dearborn, MI. He knew the paint would harm the fish and other plants and animals that lived in and around the Rouge River, and he understood the connection of the river to public health and the rest of the Great Lakes ecosystem. Sadly, no one attended his sessions because there wasn't a Clean Water Act forcing the company to protect the river and because the sessions didn't help the company’s financial bottom line. My dad didn't work at Ford when the Clean Water Act was enacted (and when the company stopped dumping paint directly into the Rouge). But he moved on to work for 3M Corporation as a plant engineer where he was put in charge of permit compliance under the Clean Water Act. In this role, there were still conflicting demands between maximizing profits and meeting pollution discharge permit limits, but now he had the attention of his co-workers and the law as a backstop.
In the wake of the Flint Water Crisis, NRDC has been working with other Michigan groups to strengthen the state’s Lead and Copper Rule, which regulates our exposure to lead in drinking water. Throughout this process, our goal has been to eliminate lead from drinking water for residents throughout the state with an urgent need to protect children, pregnant women and residents in older urban areas, which are primarily communities of color. Vital rulemaking decisions like this simply cannot be left to industry, which exists for profit-making and not for protecting our health and our communities.
We’re still trying to figure out what industry is complaining about given that the MDEQ Scorecard displayed on Governor Snyder’s “Dashboard” indicates there were a total of 8,408 permit applications in 2017 of which 8,374 were issued and only 34—or less than one-half of one percent—were denied.
Instead of an industry takeover of MDEQ, we should refocus our attention on resuming our place as national leaders instead of racing to the bottom of environmental protection. We all deserve safe drinking water, clean air and water, and livable communities.