By JUSTINE McGUIRE
Capital News Service
LANSING – The dance between businesses and environmental protection took a giant step – in one direction or the other – with recent changes to Michigan’s environmental cleanup law.
The law was changed last year to provide a clearer path to completion by those responsible for the contaminatiomn without sacrificing protection. It also sets priority projects based on the threat they pose to the environment and public health.
“I get the sense that the business community is supportive of the reforms,” Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Director Dan Wyant said. “We try to be balanced and meet with environmental and business groups. That’s our challenge and we’re up to it.
“We are giving businesses clarity and certainty, while at the same time ensuring public health and environmental protection by managing risk,” he said.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce supports the cleanup changes, said Jason Geer, its director of energy and environmental policy.
He said the process under the new law is more about communication and everyone coming together to get sites cleaned up. In the last eight years, he said, things weren’t getting cleaned up, but now they are and businesses want to do it.
“The process just wasn’t working – it was frozen,” Geer said.
He said businesses aren’t cutting corners and are meeting the same standards as before, adding,“It makes our front porch look better for Pure Michigan.”
But some environmental groups don’t sounds happy with the changes.
Nick Occhipinti, director of policy and community activism for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council in Grand Rapids, said, “The old regulations certainly had flaws, but it’s yet unclear that the new regime will not sacrifice protections.
“The policy changes were designed in a policy environment of decreasing environmental funding. This is a false choice,” he said. “Michiganders do not have to accept a status quo that under invests in regulatory science, remediation and DEQ protections.”
Occhipinti said, “The DEQ can and should be a partner to business, but never to the point where it comprises our environment.”
Nic Clark, Michigan director of Clean Water Action in East Lansing, said, “Michigan is literally defined by our Great Lakes way of life, and now is the time for bold action. We’re calling on the governor and Legislature to fully restore funding to the DEQ so we can ensure our natural resources are fully protected.
“The department has made great strides over the years. However we know we can do better,” he said. “The profit lines and interests of a privileged few should not come at the expense of our pure Michigan legacy.”
Despite loss of funding in the past decade, the department said its budget has increased since Gov. Rick Snyder took office.
The department highlights two cleanup deals that it’s made this year with Dow Chemical and Bay Harbor Resort, said Brad Wurfel, its communications director.
Wyant said Dow contaminated soil in Midland with dioxins for many decades with chemicals coming out of the smokestacks and landing on the soil.
“This year we worked with Dow to manage risk and to protect human and environmental health,” he said.
Dow is working to remove and replace contaminated soil.
Lack of a clear standard made it difficult for Dow to the determine cost and time that would be associated with the cleanup. Removing the uncertainty with site-specific standards has made it easier for the company to take responsibility and to stay in business, Wyant said.
“Michigan is cleaner and it’s done in a way that creates economic opportunity – it’s a win-win,” Wyant said. “Strategies of the past were win-lose.”
Part of Bay Harbor Resort is on the site of an old cement factory and has cement kiln dust in the soil that leaches into the harbor, Wyant said. The cleanup was put off for many years, but a deal was reached this year to collect, control and remove contaminants and to treat the water.
Another example of the department’s work is the revision of the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), Wurfel said. The Legislature adapted the state’s voluntary agriculture assistance program, which encourages farmers to use best practices to maximize production and minimize runoff into surface water.
Occhipinti said, “We’ve certainly seen some positive MAEAP developments clustered around the state — the Leelanau Peninsula is one great example. Programs such as MAEAP are effective when competition and peer pressure can be harnessed, but voluntary measures are almost never as effective as smart mandates and targeted financial incentives.”
However, Wyant said voluntary programs are more effective.
In a mandatory program, everyone will do the minimum, he said, but when it’s voluntary, they do it because they want to and therefore will do more.
He said that even though some farms may choose not to participate, there is still more environmental stewardship than before. And if a major problem is caused by farm runoff, laws in place would allow the department to penalize those responsible.
“We’re building trust and collaboration to promote the use of best practices,” he said.
By JUSTINE McGUIRE