Deregulating toxic air chemicals a major shift

Guy O. Williams and Chris Kolb

The state Department of Environmental Quality plans to give big polluters a free pass to emit toxic chemicals into our air, putting Michigan children in harm’s way.

The state’s proposed deregulation of some 500 chemicals would pack a potent punch in Detroit, where many people live in the shadow of heavy industry, and where asthma puts residents in the hospital three to six times as often as in the rest of Michigan.

Yet, the department’s plan for gathering input on the proposed deregulation does not include any public meetings in Southeast Michigan — the state’s most populous region, and one with serious air quality concerns. We find that outrageous.

Recognizing that DEQ’s staff and budget are perpetually stretched thin, we recently sent the department a letter offering our time and resources to arrange a meeting space in Detroit, provide refreshments and help spread the word to residents. The DEQ declined our offer.

Detroiters have perhaps more at stake in this rule change than anyone else. If the state agency responsible for protecting residents from pollutants thinks it’s a good idea to loosen air pollution rules, they should come to the city and explain why.

The proposal to deregulate toxic air chemicals represents a fundamental shift in how Michigan protects public health — or doesn’t.

Existing regulations, in place for more than 20 years, assume a chemical is toxic if its health impacts have never been tested. Now, at the request of industrial interests, state regulators are seeking to abandon those common-sense precautions. No longer could state officials say with any credibility that residents would be safe if a factory located in their community.

The proposed rule change would end regulation of those unstudied chemicals. It would treat Michigan families like guinea pigs, exposing them to unknown quantities of chemicals that, for all we know, could be extremely dangerous.

It also would eliminate regulation of chemicals that are noncarcinogenic but are still known to be toxic. A chemical’s human health impact is measured not only by its toxicity, but also by the quantity emitted. Under the proposal, the DEQ would no longer limit releases, allowing polluters to emit as much of these harmful chemicals as they wish.

This proposal adds to our growing concern that the DEQ has lost sight of its mission and is more interested in creating a friendly business environment than in protecting human health and Michigan’s air, land and water.

As the DEQ gathers input on this proposal to allow more dangerous chemicals in our air, Detroiters deserve a chance to share their concerns. The health of Michigan families must come first.

Guy O. Williams is president and CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. Chris Kolb is president of the Michigan Environmental Council.