Whitmer backs off 'polluter panel' legal review
Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this spring quietly paused her request for a legal review of controversial environmental rule and permit review committees that critics have dubbed “polluter panels.”
A spokeswoman for the governor did not elaborate on the decision but said the administration is "focused on building" the new Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
Whitmer in February asked Attorney General Dana Nessel for an opinion on the legality of Environmental Rules Review and Environmental Permit Review committees created late last year by the Republican-led Legislature and former Gov. Rick Snyder.
At the time, the East Lansing Democrat suggested the panels may violate federal requirements under the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, calling them “unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles that get in the way of our state government responding to problems with drinking water quickly.”
But at the governor’s request, Nessel’s office has not worked on the legal opinion since May 21, a development first reported by Gongwer News Service.
“We’ve been asked to just put it on hold,” said Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney. “It hasn’t been withdrawn. We’re not moving forward with it at this point in time, but at any point in time the governor’s office could ask us to move ahead with it.”
Whitmer attempted to abolish the panels this year in an executive order that reorganized state environmental efforts and created the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
But the GOP-led Legislature rejected Whitmer’s initial order, prompting her to sign a second version that did not eliminate the panels. Instead, the governor requested the legal opinion from Nessel.
Sean McBrearty, Michigan campaign organizer for Clean Water Action, said he is “disappointed” Whitmer is now holding off on that request but said there are “other ways to get rid of these committees,” including legislation.
Environmental groups contend the panels give regulated industries an inappropriate voice in the formation of the regulations they must abide by.
McBrearty likened the committees to the “fox guarding the hen house” and argued “we need to be able to get rid of these panels if we’re going to adequately protect the environment in Michigan.”
But Sen. Ed McBroom, a Vulan Republican who chairs the Oversight Committee that reviewed Whitmer's environmental order, said he’s been “satisfied” with the early work of the panels.
“It seems far from being a rubber stamp to anything right now, which we had never anticipated it would be,” McBroom said.
The Environmental Rules Review Committee includes members representing waste management, manufacturing, small businesses, utilities, environmental, oil and gas conservancy and agricultural organizations. Local governments and public health professionals are also represented.
Snyder appointed all 12 initial members, but Whitmer may soon have a chance to reshape the panel by filling waste management and manufacturing slots vacated by two members who retired and moved out of state.
The committee has so far reviewed and approved one rule set but will play a closely watched role this fall when the environmental department rolls out new regulations to limit PFAS contamination in drinking water.
"The first time going through the process in-depth could be with the PFAS rules, which obviously are very important," said Chairman Rob Nederhood, an attorney who worked for Snyder's Office of Regulatory Reinvention and represents the general public on the rules committee.
The panel held a joint hearing with the Michigan PFAS response team in June.
While the committee's status has been mired in political drama, members are “doing their jobs and doing what the statute requires from us and ignoring the things that are out of our control,” Nederhood said.
The permit review commission includes 15 members with backgrounds in engineering, geology, hydrology, hydrogeology or a field of engineering or science related to air or water.
McBroom said he is confident the panels were created legally and is “not entirely surprised” that Whitmer is holding off on her challenge.
Initial questions over their legality were prompted by communications between the federal Environmental Protection Agency and former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether.
But subsequent communications, along with early letters describing the states delegated authority from the EPA, show “these commission were not likely to be a problem,” McBroom said.
He credited Liesl Clark, Whtimer’s director at the new state environmental department, for “making the new system work.”
The Environmental Rules Review Committee is currently scheduled to hold its next meeting Aug. 29. The Environmental Permit Review Committee is scheduled to meet Sept. 30.