As the community of Flint continues to rebuild and replace its lead service lines under a court ordered settlement, Governor Snyder recently announced the disappointing decision that Michigan will stop providing free bottled water to the residents. While not legally obligated to continue providing free water under the lead settlement after certain lead levels were achieved, the state has not yet addressed the community’s full array of water safety concerns as NRDC’s Health Program Director highlighted on CBS News. These worries are especially acute in the wake of the Legionella outbreak that reportedly contributed to a dozen or more deaths and has been linked by experts to Flint’s tap water.
This is particularly troubling considering the state also just announced it will be giving free water to Nestlé. Despite extraordinary public opposition, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) approved a permit from Nestlé Waters North America to take more groundwater from our public waters. Nestlé, the largest water bottler in Michigan, can already pump up to 250 gallons a minute from White Pine Springs—a well near Evart—and now they have been given a permit to pump up to 400 gallons of water a minute, which is more than 500,000 gallons each day.
MDEQ received an overwhelming 80,945 public comments against the Nestlé proposal compared to 75 in favor, yet it was still approved. MDEQ Director Heidi Grether essentially punted the issue by saying they are, “required to follow the rule of law” and that their hands are tied—giving Nestlé access to even more Michigan water for their own profit.
Yes, there are serious problems with the current MDEQ, but things could get a lot worse if the Michigan Senate has its way. A package of bills that cleared the Senate in February seeks to further impede the agency’s power to protect public health and our natural resources. If these bills are approved by the House, where they are currently awaiting action in the Michigan Competitiveness Committee, the result would be an agency explicitly dominated by the regulated community. Two of the bills would do the following:
- Senate Bill 652 would eviscerate MDEQ’s permitting authority by allowing the regulated community to control panels established to “oversee all rulemaking of the Department of Environmental Quality”. The majority of this Environmental Rules Committee (six of eleven voting members) would represent industries like solid waste management, manufacturing, public energy utilities, oil and gas, agriculture, and other businesses. The remainder of the members (the minority) include a single representative from an environmental organization, a local government representative, a member of a land conservancy group, someone from the medical field, and one individual from the general public.
- Senate Bill 653 establishes a Permit Appeal Panel in the MDEQ consisting of 15 members all appointed by the Governor. An applicant who disagrees with an MDEQ decision could go to this panel to try to get their decision overturned. The regulated community and is allies can dominate the appeals panel. In fact, the entire panel could be from industry with only limited restrictions for people who have a direct stake in the company appealing the permit.
What exactly is the problem the Michigan legislature is trying to solve? A review of 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 were denied. The bottom line is that a minuscule one-half of one percent of the permit applications were denied. That's it. Clearly, there is not a problem with environmental permit issuance in Michigan.
The current MDEQ is riddled with problems, but transferring the power to protect our health and the environment to the regulated community is not the answer. Instead, we need to ensure the MDEQ is funded at the level necessary to do its job and that the agency hires and retains qualified personnel committed to fulfilling the agency’s mission: to promote wise management of Michigan's air, land, and water resources to support a sustainable environment, healthy communities, and vibrant economy.