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WOOD: Michiganders need to take ownership of environmental crises

• Dec 15, 2017 at 1:30 PM

In early September, 25 Michigan senators signed a letter to Gov. Snyder chastising the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and its staff for, among other things, a “pattern of unreasonable overreach when it comes to implementation and enforcement of laws and regulations that is alarming (and that) is not representative of the customer service mindset that you (Snyder) have established for the department.”

It is alarming that so many in the Legislature, including senators representing West Michigan and Ottawa County, are willing to sign their name to such a letter in the wake of the Flint crisis, new and ongoing issues around water contamination, and the laundry list of environmental problems impacting Michiganders’ quality of life. Alarming, but not surprising; in fact, it’s our own fault.

A culture of “customer service” at the DEQ

For years, Michigan’s legislative majority and governor have demanded the DEQ build a culture of “customer service.” While understandable, the DEQ’s primary mission must be to “(p)romote wise management of Michigan’s air, land and water resources to support a sustainable environment, healthy communities and a vibrant economy” — not to act first as customer service representatives serving economic interests.

According to the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force, the crisis in Flint was caused in part by DEQ “cultural shortcomings that prevent it from adequately serving and protecting the public health of Michigan residents,” a culture the task force criticized for producing delay and inaction. Indeed, one of its top recommendations was to “(i)mplement a proactive, comprehensive cultural change program within DEQ, to refocus the department on its primary mission to protect human health and the environment.”

Does the record show an overreaching, “heavy-handed” DEQ, as the 25 senators complained in their letter to the governor?

Snyder requires the DEQ to report performance indicators quarterly to a statewide scorecard. The most recent scorecard from July 2017 demonstrates that, during FY 2016, out of 8,882 permits reviewed by the DEQ, only 20 were denied. While many were likely modified, a 99.7 percent approval rating implicates a “rubber stamp” process.

Moreover, metrics tracking permits; work plan reviews; and grant applications for things like development, discharge, wetland, sand dune and stream alteration indicates that the DEQ is meeting their turnaround times, with only surface water discharge permits taking longer. Further, 97 percent of DEQ customer survey respondents reported excellent customer service. The culture of customer service is strong at the DEQ.

Staff and resources matter

The Legislature is concerned with the customer service at the DEQ and yet consistently cuts budgets and staff. Since 2006, the number of full-time DEQ staff has fallen by 22 percent, while their budget has failed to keep pace with inflation. An Oct. 24 audit conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the DEQ failed to oversee Flint’s drinking water supply switch due to a lack of the financial, technological and staffing resources, despite an earlier 2010 audit warning the same.

The EPA report comes as the governor, House and Senate agreed to cut $10 million from the DEQ’s 2018 budget. The timing couldn’t be worse. Clean Michigan Initiative funds will be spent down at the end of this year, leaving an additional $15 million hole in site contamination and remediation funding. Meanwhile, in Washington, the president and Congress proposed massive cuts to the EPA. President Trump’s budget calls for a $2.4 billion cut to the agency, a gargantuan 31 percent of its budget. The U.S. House responded with $500 million of its own cuts.

Legislature poised to make matters worse

House Bill 4205 (s-1) was passed by the Michigan House of Representatives in May. It is currently awaiting a full floor vote in the Senate. The bill aims to prevent Michigan from issuing any new rules stricter than federal government standards, unless a “clear and convincing need” is demonstrated explaining the “exceptional circumstances.” Michigan has a unique set of natural assets and challenges, not to mention the great responsibility for stewarding more than 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water. We should not be tied to the minimum standards governing the nation as a whole.

If that wasn’t bad enough, on Dec. 7, the state Senate’s Natural Resources Committee passed a package of bills (SB 652-654) that would deliver a body blow to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. The three bills would transfer much of the department’s statutory oversight and enforcement authority to political appointees — many of whom would be appointed from business and industry groups.

We are part of the problem

We can blame politicians, but this is also on us. “Bill cuts red tape for job providers” and “Senate passes plan to cut red tape, help put people back to work.” These are the headlines our elected officials release when our health and environmental protections are being rolled back. Many candidates proudly run for office on platforms promising to cut regulations and shrink the size of government, and too often we cheer them on without asking for specifics or context.

Environmental governance practices should be continually reviewed and updated. But we can no longer cheer politicians who mindlessly deride the rules, regulations and agencies responsible for protecting us. When a politician runs on a platform of cutting red tape, we should ask him or her to explain which regulations and why. If their answers aren’t clear and specific, it is a red flag that they are probably more interested in ideology than good governance.

Sufficient funding, staff and a supportive Legislature could enable Michigan’s DEQ to build a more pro-active culture, an approach that might very well avoid the Flint crises of the future. But the message from the Legislature has been and remains clear: They don’t want a tough or more effective DEQ. And we refuse to hold them accountable.

— By Bill Wood, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council

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