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Clean Water Requires Same Regulation As Clean Money

State's voluntary approach is recipe for trouble

May 1, 2000 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Here's a political quiz: Name the federal regulatory agency that businesses fear most. Hint: It's not the Environmental Protection Agency.

No, the strictest, most inflexible federal regulatory body is arguably the no-nonsense protector of investors' money, the Securities and Exchange Commission. The hardline SEC has made America's money markets the safest in the world because it forces businesses to tell investors the truth about company performance. The SEC's scrutiny of complicated paperwork is more ironclad than any file review by EPA, the federal agency that politicians like George W. Bush and Michigan Governor John Engler want to get off industry and state government's backs.

But you didn't hear any candidates or state officials proclaim during the 2000 elections that the SEC's rigorous financial disclosure requirements should be voluntary. They know voters wouldn't stand for such governmental recklessness. Any company could commit fraud if given half a chance to fudge the numbers.

Yet when it comes to drinking water, children's health, and chemical spills, our state's political leaders and environmental regulators keep talking about how much they trust industry to voluntarily prevent pollution.

One of the best examples is Michigan's current wrestling match with EPA over water contamination from massive livestock factories. Both an EPA report and a review by the Michigan Auditor General last month confirmed what hundreds of rural families, who live next to football field-size pits of manure and urine from thousands of animals, have been trying to tell state legislators: The state's honor system of voluntary guidelines does not work. This year alone, several livestock factories have spilled tons of manure into state waterways because Michigan does not require them to take pollution precautions.

Russell Harding, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, not only dismissed the report's clear evidence of ongoing and potential water contamination, he reaffirmed the state's disregard for federal laws that hold companies accountable for dangers to public health. Harding told a Michigan Farm Bureau publication that the federal government has chosen to come into this state in a Waco-like manner to trample over the state's rights. EPA simply told Michigan to follow its own laws and require livestock factories to prove, rather than merely promise, that their facilities and manure-handling methods are safe.

Michigan's refusal to do its environmental protection job is a clear example of where this election year's anti-regulatory rhetoric could take the country. Under Gov. Engler's voluntary compliance leadership, Michigan has relaxed environmental rules, backed off enforcement, and let business run the regulatory agenda. The results are:

  • Wasted taxpayer money. Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars fighting the EPA on behalf of known polluters, including 10 lawsuits against the asthma-fighting power of proposed clean air rules. Beach closings, river cleanups, and the spread of disease are other high costs to taxpayers when government does not do its environmental protection job.
  • Back room deals. Internal documents confirm that DEQ director Russell Harding reassigned one of his best toxic cleanup staff members last year at the request of paper companies responsible for polluting the Kalamazoo River. This and many other documented examples of top management interference in DEQ enforcement cases tells industry that Michigan's rules are easily broken.
  • Shut-out citizens. Michigan has forced thousands of families to suffer pollution in silence by turning a blind eye to their complaints and fighting off EPA intervention. Inner-city communities, for example, have the highest concentration of toxic releases and the least support from DEQ, which is a national leader in efforts to discredit the notion of environmental discrimination.

Gov. Engler and Mr. Harding complain that environmental regulations amount to a bunch of useless paperwork. But residents of Indian Lake southeast of Kalamazoo and hundreds like them around the state know the state's voluntary rules amount to less protection.

Kalamazoo County closed the Portage River, upstream from Indian Lake, to swimming this summer. The reason? DEQ did not require a 2,000-cow dairy factory, well-known to the agency for its manure mismanagement, to take the simplest pollution precautions with its tons of excrement ¾ more waste than a city of 45,000 people. Eventually E. coli bacteria counts in the water reached life-threatening levels because, under Engler-Harding's voluntary policies, DEQ staff could only mail countless warnings and request ¾ not require ¾ the dairy factory to operate safely.

The Securities and Exchange Commission would never let a company lie for years about its financial statements and defraud investors. And state government officials would never dare attack the SEC for doing its duty to keep money markets safe from reckless business practices and irresponsible state regulators.

But Gov. Engler and DEQ director Harding, on the taxpayer's dime, have launched a full-scale attack on EPA and Michigan families, who asked the federal agency to investigate DEQ's neglect of livestock factory pollution. Voters need to remind such politicians that the public expects the same governmental respect for clean water as it does for clean money.

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