State agency seeks to cut regulated air chemicals

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

In an attempt to cut “unnecessary permitting red tape,” Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality wants to reduce by 37 percent the number of chemicals it regulates under its Air Pollution Control Rules.

Under the rules, industrial facilities must provide the state with computer modeling data for a host of chemicals to ensure they do not pose a health risk to the public. In some cases, companies were forced to model for chemicals that were not part of their industrial process. The state now requires such modeling for more than 1,200 chemicals.

In a proposal that will be sent Thursday to the Office of Regulatory Reinvention, DEQ officials call for the number to be reduced to 756 air pollutants.

“This change better focuses our permitting process on the pollutants of most concern,” said DEQ Air Quality Division Chief Lynn Fiedler. “Our mission as an agency continues to be protecting public health while encouraging economic development.”

But some environmental advocates are concerned the list is being culled without regard to safety.

Many of the chemicals that would no longer be regulated by the state have not been studied in depth to understand their potential impact on human health, they say.

“What can we tell people if these rules get finalized?” asked Sean Hammond, deputy policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. “What can we tell the communities that have these emitters cited (for violations) if we remove those chemicals from being regulated? For the ones we have no health studies to draw on, we can’t tell those people that they are 100 percent safe.”

State officials were quick to note Thursday that the 756 pollutants it would continue to regulate include and go well beyond the 187 on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list for enforcement under the Clean Air Act. The Office of Regulatory Reform will set up a public comment period and hold a public hearing on the changes before forwarding them on for legislative action.

Chemicals suggested to be dropped from regulation include “low-toxicity, non-carcinogens.” Substances could be put back on the regulated list if new information indicates they pose a health risk.

“The only thing we’ve lost here is bureaucratic waste,” said Karen Tommasulo, a DEQ spokeswoman. “We can examine any substance that a company wants to emit. The only thing the regulated list does is trigger an automatic examination by DEQ during a permit application. ... If it’s not on that list, if they’re emitting something unusual or a large amount of something, we can still look at it.

“This in no way limits our ability to protect public health.”

Creating a more welcoming atmosphere for business and industry has been a focal point of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration since he took office in 2011. The effort has translated into environmental policy changes.

In 2012, an advisory panel called for the elimination of 330 DEQ regulations -- roughly 11 percent of the department’s rules. In March, Snyder’s administration fought federal efforts to tighten ozone pollution standards.

This latest proposal has been in the offing since late last year and was welcomed at the time by the industrial community Thursday. Andrew J. Such, director of environmental and regulatory policy for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, described the regulatory environment in Michigan as “over the top.”

“The states surrounding us have nothing like this,” he said. “None that I know of has a many (regulated chemicals) as we have right now. We need to stay competitive. ... And this would help us do that.”

It will be a tougher sell to people who live in areas already dealing with air pollution from large industrial plants, said Ahmina Maxey, outreach coordinator for Zero Waste Detroit. If public health concerns were the reason for regulating all 1,200 chemicals on the state’s list in the first place, she asked, what has changed?

“Detroit and a lot of other areas are already over-burdened with air pollution,” she said. “So deregulation is not what we need. If anything, we need more regulations because people are dying and have major health problems because of it.”

(313) 222-2034