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GOP senators call Mich. environmental agency ‘overzealous’

By Lindsay VanHulle/Bridge Magazine • Oct 14, 2017 at 4:00 PM

LANSING — Republicans in the state Senate say Michigan's environmental agency is harming residents and small businesses through "overzealous" enforcement, costing them time and money, particularly related to environmental permits.

They are asking Gov. Rick Snyder to step in and restore what they called a "customer service mindset" to the department. A majority of Senate Republicans last month sent a letter to Snyder, asking for his help in improving customer service practices in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in light of constituent concerns.

The Sept. 6 letter, which drew an incredulous response from a leading Democrat, was sent on letterhead from Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof's office.

"While we can appreciate the role of the DEQ, we see a pattern of unreasonable overreach when it comes to implementation and enforcement of laws and regulations that is alarming, and it seems that this concern has become more evident over the last couple of years," senators wrote to Snyder, also a Republican. "It is not representative of the customer service mindset that you established for the departments."

Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said via email "the governor has asked DEQ to refocus on customer service by reviewing and improving protocols.”

The senators listed several complaints with DEQ staff:

A "heavy-handed enforcement mentality";

"Significant" fines they claim have hit $10,000 per day, in some cases for issues that are questionable violations;

Requiring permits for circumstances or events that have never before required one, and

Delayed action on applications and approvals, including for permits.

The legislators said they plan to amend parts of state law to address the apparent problems and asked for Snyder's help in the short term. All but two of the 27 Republican senators signed the letter. The two that didn’t were Sens. Patrick Colbeck, of Canton Township and a Republican candidate for governor, and Tory Rocca, of Sterling Heights, said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans. Neither Colbeck nor Rocca could immediately be reached for comment.

"The caucus has expressed general frustration with the DEQ for years," McCann said in an email. "In particular, Senator Casperson has been a vocal critic of the department and the challenges experienced by (Upper Peninsula) residents when trying to work with the DEQ.

“Complaints and concerns are not limited to the northern part of the state. Many senators relay concerns and irritation from constituents when attempting to work with the Department to conduct business or use land."

Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said he wants to see more common sense infused into the department's processes for setting rules how government agencies implement laws that legislators pass. No one is arguing the environment should be less protected, Casperson said, but it can seem as though the department's default position is to delay or reject a request rather than try to help a resident or a business owner make something work.

He said he was prompted to call for changes this summer, after the DEQ required permits to operate a dam on the Michigamme River in small Republic Township in Marquette County for an annual fishing tournament. A member of the Republic Sportsman's Club said the DEQ never had required a permit in 26 years of running the derby, which is a big fundraiser for the nonprofit club and a moneymaker for local businesses. Attendance dropped to slightly more than half of the 500 anglers it can draw in a good year.

"Instead of trying to get to yes, they did everything in their power to get to no, and I've had enough," Casperson said. "I've said all along since I've been in Lansing it's not their role to make law. They're to enforce the law, not make it, and when they use that discretion with what the rules give them, I can make an argument they're making law."

In a statement provided by a spokeswoman, DEQ Director Heidi Grether said: "The department appreciates hearing the concerns raised from its legislative partners and assures the Senators that the issues raised do not fall on deaf ears."

Grether promised to make DEQ leadership “more accessible for legislative feedback.”

Democrats and conservation groups questioned the Republicans' portrait of the DEQ as an agency that is overly protective of the environment.

"The environment should never be too burdensome or too expensive to protect," Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said in a statement. Citing the Flint water crisis and the agency's much-criticized response to it, Ananich added: "On the heels of the worst manmade environmental disaster in our country's history, I find it disturbingly out of touch that some are calling for fewer, weaker regulations, while there are still folks in my city drinking bottled water."

Charlotte Jameson, government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said the lesson of the lead-poisoning crisis in Flint is that safeguarding public health and natural resources are, and must be, DEQ's primary missions.

All agencies, DEQ included, can and should be better at helping Michigan residents and community leaders understand the regulatory process and what events or circumstances require permits, said Jameson, who has not read the Senate Republicans’ letter in full.

But she said her perception is that the agency has “bent over backwards” to find compromise or get input from interested parties.

The Legislature’s own task force, established after the Flint water crisis emerged, recommended creating an oversight commission to manage the agency. Lawmakers have authority to pass bills on this and other matters to address concerns, Jameson said.

“There’s a little bit of a double-talk happening here, in terms of … who needs to take action,” she said. “There’s a role that the Legislature should be taking around being proactive and making sure that the agency is putting in place solid reforms to help get the job done, as opposed to sort of railing against heavy-handed enforcement ‒ which I can’t say that I’ve actually seen.”

Casperson said the GOP's criticism of the agency should not be read as "somehow you hate the environment and you want to just let everyone do whatever they want. That's so unfair, and not true."

Rather, he said he is looking for a "common-sense" solution that respects residents' and businesses' property rights while still protecting the environment.

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