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Proposed regulatory approach could weaken environmental protection

• Jan 18, 2018 at 12:00 AM

If we needed help securing a houseful of hens, foxes' well-known hunting and eating habits would keep those creatures fairly low on our list of potential picks for the job.

When we learned about a set of bills in the Michigan Legislature which would revamp the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's regulatory and permitting processes, we saw potential for similarly ill-suited parties to gain control over environmental protection decision-making.

Three bills under consideration in the Legislature, each introduced by state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, could shift control over various environmental matters from the DEQ to three separate appointed boards.

Senate Bill 652 would establish an Environmental Rules Review Committee to oversee all rule-making of the DEQ. The 11 voting members, appointed by the governor, would include a majority to be selected as representatives of various industries, along with others who represent constituencies such as the general public, environmental advocacy and the medical profession. No more than six voting members could be of the same political party, and decisions would be made by a majority vote.

Bill 653 would create a Permit Appeal Panel, a 15-member panel in the DEQ that would be appointed by the governor and have the option to modify or reverse decisions made by the DEQ.

Under Bill 654, an Environmental Science Advisory Board would be created in the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, with the nine-member board required to advise the governor on issues affecting the protection of natural resources of the state. It would have the ability to make inquiries, develop studies, have hearings and receive public comment to assist in its deliberations.

We're concerned that some of the changes proposed for the state's regulatory processes would open the door to conflicting priorities when it comes to shaping environmental protection policies. Depending on appointment choices, we see potential for business interests — perhaps with financial objectives at odds with an active environmental protection program — to gain disproportionate clout in steering how rules are set and applied.

Along with that potential, there's another element of the proposals which we find particularly worrisome. The proposed appeal process for DEQ permitting decisions would be limited to those who applied for the permits in question, excluding affected nearby residents or property owners from this form of recourse.

In a recent Petoskey News-Review story, Casperson noted concerns that DEQ staff have overreached in some of the agency's actions, and that his goal is to address some "biased and unreasonable opinions" among department members.

We see protection of natural resources as a viable aim for state government, one that can help uphold citizens' health and quality of life. As officials go about these tasks, it seems prudent enough to provide affected constituencies with channels to offer their perspectives on the policies and decisions involved. According to a scorecard assembled by the DEQ, the agency issued 7,447 permits and denied 34 in fiscal year 2017 — not the sort of ratio that suggests widespread obstructionism.

There are often legitimate business and economic considerations to weigh alongside environmental priorities, and channels for affected business constituencies to have input in the process are a legitimate need. But the proposed approach — in which interests tending to have an antipathy toward environmental regulation could align and override such actions — would hardly appear to leave the pendulum in a state of reasonable balance.

PETOSKEY NEWS-REVIEW (AP)

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