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Lansing — A plan to deregulate thousands of smaller Michigan wetlands, streams and inland lakes won approval from a House panel Tuesday morning despite concerns from environmental groups.

The House Competitiveness Committee on Tuesday approved the legislation by Republican Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba in a 6-3 vote. The legislation would redefine wetlands and limit oversight by the Michigan Department of Environment Quality on waterways that cover less than five acres.

The bill could be considered later Tuesday by the full House.

Casperson has argued state regulators have hassled and fined property owners who inadvertently break the state’s wetlands rules. The Escanaba Republican provided photos of a small waterway in Menominee for which an applicant was denied a DEQ permit to fill in a section roughly “wider than a vehicle.”

“The radicalism is on one side and it’s on the department’s side,” Casperson said. “…This is taking away people’s personal property rights to the nth degree.”

Representatives from the Michigan Farm Bureau and National Federation of Independent Business supported the bill, which they said would clarify the state’s responsibilities and create a level playing field between farmers, residents and land owners and “a well-financed department.”

Environmental groups said sections of the bill that revert to the federal Waters of the U.S. standards will create a two-tiered system that is bound to create confusion for land owners and the department.

“My humble opinion is that WOTUS will always be a moving target, and that’s why its important to have a state standard,” said Rich Bowman of The Nature Conservancy.

The bill puts at risk thousands of wetlands and endangers the state’s delegated authority from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate state wetlands, said Tom Zimnicki of the Michigan Environmental Council.

The legislation does little to bring clarity to the permitting process, Zimnicki said, and the council would recommend water oversight be pushed back to the federal government if the legislation passes.

‘This is doing surgery on a toe with a chainsaw,” he said.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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