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Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led House on Tuesday approved a controversial Senate plan to create a new state environmental rules review committee that could include lobbyists from industries like oil and gas.

Environmentalists have likened the proposal to the proverbial “fox guarding the henhouse,” but GOP lawmakers and business groups contend it would add oversight to decisions made by unelected bureaucrats.

The proposed Environmental Rules Review Committee would oversee rule-making by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and could theoretically reject rules that do not “achieve their purposes in proportion to the burdens they place on individuals and businesses.”

Other bills in the package would create a new environmental permit appeal panel appointed by the governor and an executive environmental science advisory board to advise the governor and state agencies.

State Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said the package is consistent with recent Republican efforts to eliminate “outdated and egregious regulations.”

Michigan has seen “a boom in the economy, a drop in unemployment with a record low for the last 20 years and people finally moving back to our state,” Chatfield said. “These bills prevent an unelected bureaucrat from returning us to the ‘Lost Decade.'”

But Democrats noted Republican rule since 2010 has coincided with environmental emergencies, including the Flint water crisis and struggles to clean up groundwater contaminants.

In Ann Arbor, where a dioxane bloom has slowly spread on the west side of the city since the 1980s, state environmental regulators tried to engage businesses in updating lax Michigan standards, said Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor.

“The DEQ self-complied with the spirit of this law, and what it meant was five extra years of people drinking poison water,” Rabhi said in a passionate floor speech. “That’s the reality when you put corporations in the driver’s seat and we put people in the backseat.”

Under the legislation, the rules panel would include six voting members from the solid waste management industry, a manufacturing group, a small business organization, public utilities, the oil and gas industries, and a statewide agricultural organization.

After changes in the House, six other voting slots would be reserved for members from an environmental group, local governments, a statewide land conservancy organization, a public health professional and two representing the general public.  

Outright rules rejection could be rare, as halting the process would require a vote by nine committee members. But a simple majority of members could send a proposed rule back to the DEQ for additional consideration and potential revisions.

Registered lobbyists could serve on the committee but would be limited to one paid client while reviewing rules proposed by the state environmental department. Members would not be required to have a scientific background, but the state environmental and health departments would each be required to select a science adviser to participate in rule review committee meetings.

“Corporations are people, too,” said Rep. Tommy Brann, R-Wyoming, speaking in support of proposal. "They live in the same state we do. They care about the environment. They have kids that live in Michigan."

Brann, who owns the Brann’s Restaurants chain in West Michigan, said he wants "all Michigan citizens to have a voice" in environmental rules, "and yes, that includes job creators and corporations."

Most Michigan businesses don’t intentionally engage in practices that damage the environment, but sometimes their drive for profits can lead them to act irresponsibly, said Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids.

“A vote for this bill is a vote for the polluters and puts our environment and the health of Michigan families in jeopardy,” she told colleagues.

House Democrats voted against the rules review proposal and were joined by six Republicans: Reps. Chris Afendoulis of Grand Rapids Township, Sue Allor of Wolverine, Martin Howrylak of Troy, Steve Johnson of Wayland, John Reilly of Oakland Township and Rob VerHeulen of Walker.

The measure passed 57-51 and now heads back to the Senate after House alterations. An earlier version of the proposal, sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba, cleared the upper chamber in a 26-11 vote in January.

A separate bill approved Tuesday in a 58-50 vote would create an environmental permit appeal panel that would recommend action to the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on disputes related to permits and applications.

A third bill would create an environmental science board within the Department of Technology, Management and Budget. Members would advise the governor and state agencies on environmental-related issues, but their recommendations would be non-binding.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce praised passage of the legislation, saying it would strengthen the environmental rulemaking process by requiring more “stakeholder involvement” earlier in the process.

The plan will “change rule-making from a bureaucratic process to a more open process with participation by a wide range of stakeholders,” Chamber President and CEO Rich Studley said in a statement.

Environmental groups criticized the legislation despite recent modifications.

GOP Gov. Rick Snyder and lawmakers “negotiated some of the sting out of the bills” in the House by making the rules committee “more advisory in nature,” said Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council.

But the legislation “still gives polluters and other corporate interests who are unaccountable to Michigan voters and taxpayers an oversized voice in crafting environmental protections,” he said.

The proposal would vest too much power in the permit appeals panel, giving newly appointed members final say in contested cases, and create “convoluted decision-making procedures” that slow down environmental protection rules, Kolb added.

joosting@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3662

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