By LAINA STEBBINS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Bills introduced by House and Senate Democrats would establish citizen oversight commissions to restore a layer of accountability in environmental enforcement – commissions which have not existed in Michigan for a quarter-century.
The boards would allow public input and oversight over the Department of Environmental Quality’s air quality, water quality and oil and gas operations throughout the state.
Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, the House sponsor of one bill, said high-quality oversight like this is necessary to ensure that incidents like the Flint water crisis will not happen anywhere else in the state.
“We had multiple failures in the state department, which had been tasked with making sure things were safe for residents,” said Neeley in regards to Flint.
“Moving forward, I think if we put these commissions back into place, we won’t see another [crisis like] Flint,” said Neeley.
Advocates say citizen oversight would restore crucial decision-making power to the people for their communities and environment, which they say is more important than ever given pending decisions from the DEQ, including Nestlé Waters North America’s controversial efforts to expand their water pumping at an Osceola Township well.
The legislation would re-establish both the Air Pollution Control Commission and the Water Resources Commission, which was eliminated by a 1991 executive order by Gov. John Engler. An additional proposed commission seeks to give citizens a voice in decisions over oil and gas pipelines in the state.
The proposed Water Resources Commission would deal with concerns relating to the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.
Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For Love of Water (FLOW), views the proposed commissions as “a backstop to ensure that the agencies are complying with the law.” She said this extra accountability could be an effective measure against what she sees as Michigan’s rising problem of water diversion and privatization.
“We don’t see the protection we should demand and expect from local, state and federal officials,” Kirkwood said. “It’s something that’s very concerning to me.”
The Air Pollution Control Commission and the Water Resources Commission would have members appointed by the governor with Senate approval, and include people representing local government, industry, conservation organizations, medical expertise and the general public.
The oil and gas commission would be composed of governor-appointed members with the same credentials, plus representatives with water resource expertise and geology expertise.
The director of the DNR would sit on the Water Resource Commission, while the director of DEQ would sit on all three boards.
DEQ officials would not comment on the proposed legislation, but public information officer Melody Kindraka said that the agency is making “great strides in community engagement and building relationships with our stakeholders and partners” and is looking forward to developing “robust citizen-engagement strategies for the department.”
According to Anne Woiwode, conservation chair of the Sierra Club Michigan chapter, re-implementing citizen oversight commissions would provide an opportunity for a new channel of citizen-government communication. By wielding both investigatory and decision-making authorities, the commissions would act as an extra layer of checks and balances before the state could, for example, issue a drilling permit to an oil company.
“The more public engagement and awareness there is, the better chance there is that environmental protection will actually occur,” Woiwode said.
Peggy Case, president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, said, “They (DEQ) have to be a little bit more careful about what they’re doing than they were before Flint, and the public is paying attention now.”
Although Case expressed concern about Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature shooting down the bill package again – a similar version failed to pass last year – she feels a bit more hopeful this time, given what she calls a “huge groundswell” in public outcry and civic engagement over the past year.
“Citizen involvement does make a difference,” Case said. “The public needs to be involved. We should have public commissions. Democracy’s not working too well these days.”
Kirkwood said there could be pushback against the legislation for what could be perceived as “excessive oversight.” Nonetheless, she maintains that restoring these oversight commissions is more critical now than ever before – and is hopeful about public engagement, too.
“I think people are more eager than ever before to be active citizens in our democracy,” Kirkwood said.
The package of bills that would restore DEQ oversight commissions were introduced by state Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, and Sens. Coleman Young II, D-Detroit and Hoon Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor, along with Reps.Neeley,, Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, Phil Phelps, D-Flushing, and Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield.
The Senate bills have been referred to the Committee on Government Operations, and the House bills have been referred to the Committee on Natural Resources.
By LAINA STEBBINS