Column: Our public health is at risk

Rashida Tlaib

I thought the smell in my neighborhood in southwest Detroit was normal. It wasn’t. After years of working on the right to breathe clean air, we are now being faced with the biggest setback in oversight over polluting industry. The state and the Republican-led Legislature is proposing to give Gov. Rick Snyder the power to appoint a panel to rewrite the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality rules, and another to veto permit decisions made by MDEQ.

Get this. The appointees who can veto permit decisions will be engineers, not public health officials. They are not qualified to protect public health, safety and welfare. Such a move would be catastrophic for our public health. Like our MDEQ director, the board members likely would come from the very industries environmental permits are supposed to regulate.

Michiganians have fought too hard to give up the laws that protect our Great Lakes and the air we breathe. We are outraged by the recent decision to allow Nestle to withdraw 576,000 gallons of water for an annual $200 fee, despite the MDEQ (the state agency responsible for regulating pollution in Michigan) receiving more than 80,000 public comments opposing the permit and only 75 in favor.

In Detroit and Wayne County, residents are the ones who are constantly reporting odors, flares, plumes, and emissions to the MDEQ. An understaffed regulatory agency combined with industry oversight of the permitting process could lead to more catastrophes like Flint throughout the state.

As a state representative, I represented Southwest Detroit, Ecorse, and River Rouge, an area that is considered to be among the most polluted area in Michigan, especially in terms of air quality, asthma, and cancer. Residents have been constantly bombarded with permit hearings, sometimes as many as three a month, for the many industries that operate there. Not one permit in that area was rejected by the MDEQ during my six years in office.

One of the biggest problems with the way the permitting process currently operates is that is fails to take into account the cumulative impact of all of the industries have on our health, air, and water. That is one of the main reasons we see permits approved and renewed so frequently. So this proposal would make it worse. Permits can be hundreds of pages long and are full of jargon, making keeping on top of them a daunting task for the public. Simply showing up at a hearing and stating one’s opposition to a permit because you’re worried about your asthma or a loved one’s cancer is not enough to stop a permit from moving forward. Comments must instead be focused on the particulars of the permit. Many people are not aware of this.

Just like the residents of Flint, Michiganians cannot rely upon the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help us. The Trump administration has worked to repeal regulations and jeopardize our environment. We must rely on our own state agencies to protect our health and natural resources.

Rashida Tlaib is a former Democratic state representative and a candidate for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District.