Industry panels might decide environmental rules

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Stakeholders in industries ranging from waste management to oil and gas would get a say in the creation of state environmental rules under bills discussed Wednesday in the House competitiveness committee.

The bills, passed by the Senate in January, would create an 11-member Environmental Rules Review Committee to oversee rulemaking at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Private-sector stakeholders would account for six of the 11 members.

Sen. Tom Casperson introduced the legislation last year as a way to increase stakeholder input and engagement when it comes to environmental rules, he told representatives Wednesday.

“The department holds all the cards,” said Casperson, an Escanaba Republican. “They hold the rules. They hold the law. And they hold discretion.”

The proposed legislation has prompted concern from environmental groups who have likened the scenario to the “fox guarding the hen house.”

James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, joined representatives from the Sierra Club and Michigan League of Conservation Voters in opposing the bills. He said the legislation allows for financial interests to influence environmental policy and removes rule-making authority from elected officials.

“They (elected officials) should be the final arbiter on these decisions, not somebody with a financial interest,” Clift said.

Under the proposed bill, the rule review committee would have the responsibility of holding public meetings on proposed environmental rules and ultimately amending, denying or approving those rules.

Voting members on the rule review committee would be appointed by the governor and would include representatives from solid waste management, oil and gas, agriculture, manufacturing, medicine, public utilities, land conservancy, environmental groups, local government, small business, and the general public. The bill allows for a lobbyist to be appointed to the committee if he or she does not work for more than one client.

The committee also would include the directors for the MDEQ, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation as nonvoting members.

Casperson said the rule review committee, modeled off of a similar system in Indiana, would put industry, residents and regulators on even footing and give the regulated a better understanding of the rules that govern their industries.

The DEQ is “changing policy internally,” Casperson told legislators. “And they’re doing it without what I would argue is appropriate oversight, which is really you and I.“

Nick Occhipinti, government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, argued that the committee should be advisory in nature, not authoritative.

“It’s taking it to that next level that takes it too far,” Occhipinti said.

Representatives from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Farm Bureau and Michigan Manufacturing Association spoke in support of the bill. The farm bureau echoed comments submitted to the Senate last year that said the bill would give legislators “a clear understanding of the impact of regulations on business before they vote to support more stringent regulations.”

When the bill moved through Senate committee last year, the Michigan Oil and Gas Association said it supported the legislation but was disappointed by the added layer of bureaucracy.

Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, voiced similar concerns. “I don’t think we should move forward by creating more government,” he said.

Rep. Lee Chatfield, a Levering Republican and committee chairman, said more administrative oversight at the DEQ was needed given the department’s recent history. He added that the department need to be more accessible to all stakeholders.

“To hint that because someone is from an industry that they’re not a part of the general public, that is a false scenario,” Chatfield said.

Another bill in the package considered Wednesday would appoint a panel to consider appeals from applicants denied a DEQ permit. Members of the appeals panel appointed by the governor would require expertise in engineering, geology, hydrology or hydrogeology.

Casperson hopes the panel will be a more affordable solution for residents who would otherwise pay thousands to fight the DEQ.

He said he takes issue with figures showing the DEQ approved upwards of 99 percent of permit applications last year. Those statistics don’t take into account applicants unable or unwilling to go through the long permitting process, Casperson said.

“People give up,” he said. “They don’t argue, they don’t fight … because they can’t afford to fight.”

A third bill would create an Environmental Science Advisory Board to advise the governor on environmental and natural resources issues. That board would consist of members appointed by the governor with various expertise in fields including engineering, environmental science, geology, chemistry, biology or statistics.

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