Environmental agency reorganization sparks local concerns

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By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service

LANSING — While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s attempt to reorganize state efforts to protect the environment faces legislative rejection, some local leaders fear the action could further polarize business and environmental groups.

“It’s bothersome to me, because my members who are not happy with the executive order are still people who care about clean drinking water and they’re responsible people,” said Cathi Abbs, the executive director of the Sturgis Area Chamber of Commerce.

Even environmental groups that welcome the changes caution that they not be viewed as an attack on business.

“We do ourselves no favors if we alienate parts of our community — people that own businesses or fear that regulations will negatively affect business,” said Theresa Lark, the executive director of the MidMichigan Environmental Action Council covering Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties.  “At the same time, if your business practice is negatively affecting someone else, you should listen to that person too. It should be a conversation.”

If Whitmer staves off attempts to derail the reorganization, the renamed Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy would absorb two state agencies, create an Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules, and eliminate three boards that gave businesses input on rulemaking, permit application disputes and other issues affecting environmental protection.  

The removal of those boards is the key sticking point among lawmakers challenging the reorganization. The Republican-controlled Legislature has 60 days from Whitmer’s Feb. 4 executive order to reject the reorganization. A resolution to do just that by Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, passed the House by a 58-51 party-line vote. The Senate is set to hold hearings.

Lower said he’s pleased the Senate intends to be “very deliberative” on the issue, and unless Whitmer rescinds her order, he expects the resolution to pass.

It’s important to give the subjects of environmental regulation “a voice in the process,” Lower said. His rural district relies on agriculture and manufacturing. Eliminating the review boards takes away representation for local farmers and businesses, he said.

Abbs said Whitmer’s order signals an imbalance over environmental regulation to some of her members.

“They just don’t like the idea of too much power in any one person,” she said. The three branches of government “should all be respected, and to just be able to cherry pick — I like this, I don’t like that — there’s concern over it.”

Lark said environmentalists are excited over the restructuring’s potential for change, but would like to see it done in a way that doesn’t marginalize the business community.

The state needs to rebuild trust after its handling of lead contamination in Flint and other water supply scares statewide, she said.

Last December, two Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) officials pled no contest to misdemeanor charges in relation to the Flint water crisis. The restructuring is a step toward healing, Lark said.

“To have the DEQ cloud these issues rather than be transparent with people about the health issues in their communities was a real black eye for the agency,” she said.

Two of the 35 state-identified sites contaminated by PFAS — toxic chemicals that can be found in firefighting foams and consumer products like Teflon — are in the council’s coverage area.

Lark’s group is also studying microplastics in Ingham County, and she said she hopes the department’s reorganization supports such local initiatives to protect drinking water.

“We look forward to seeing how this is rolled out and to see some tangible changes for the citizens who truly are suffering out there with poisoned water,” she said.

Corporations aren’t seen solely as threats, Lark said. Businesses partner with the council on such regional priorities as developing environment-friendly practices and landscaping  facilities with native, pollinator-friendly plants.

While some environmentalists thought the review boards proposed for elimination were “the fox guarding the henhouse,” Lark questioned if the advisory boards — which existed for little more than six months and had no final say in the areas they oversaw — were around long enough to do any damage or if they ever would have.

All parties affected by environmental regulations, from corporations to the “common citizen,” should have a voice in the regulatory process, and the review boards gave businesses one, she said.

The diverse opinions of her members made it impossible to give a blanket, chamber-wide perspective on the issue, Abbs said. But they largely lament the portrayal of opposition to the reorganization as their willingness to sacrifice the environment for profit.

The real issue for them is the elimination of the boards and the lack of clarity over how the proposed department overhaul would translate into tangible effects on businesses, she said.