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We The People

Broken: The Public Trust

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

Georgia Boerma, who is 70 now and doesn’t look it, brushed aside the low-lying, tangled oak and maple branches and then set deep foot prints down in the wavering spine of a coastal dune north of St. Joseph. Nowhere else in the world do sand and forest, fresh water and blue sky converge as magically as they do in the high dunes that rise steeply, like sculpted sentinels, from Lake Michigan’s beach.
Mrs. Boerma, a talkative and friendly mother and grandmother, spent most of her life in this region. She easily finds the words to describe the joy and urgent calling she feels for this part of the world.
Mrs. Boerma’s ready vocabulary fails her, however, when it comes to describing why she and her neighbors have spent nearly three years trying to stop state regulators from giving a mining company the right to strip 70 acres of forest and haul away this 10,000-year-old ridge of sand, which is a state-protected critical dune.
Her eyes grow restive and darken. “You know,” she remarks, “things really have changed. Our state government doesn’t seem to care anymore. Just look at what’s going on here. If it wasn’t for people like us, this would all be gone.”
Indeed, since 1996 Mrs. Boerma and the 750-member, non-profit group Preserve the Dunes have put their lives on hold and their personal finances on the line in an expensive court challenge to force the state to do its job. Perhaps no grassroots environmental dispute with state government better crystallizes Michigan’s vastly changed attitude about its responsibility to nature, or helps to explain why thousands of people like Georgia Boerma are now compelled to take up new roles as grassroots activists.

Bending the Rules
Like many, Mrs. Boerma and her neighbors thought the law and the regulators charged with enforcing it would protect them. And, in fact, the Department of Natural Resources in 1995 denied the mining company, Technisand, a permit to expand because it did not qualify for an exemption in the 1976 Sand Dune Protection and Management Act.
But on April 1, 1996, six months after Gov. John Engler carved away the DNR’s enforcement divisions to establish a separate Department of Environmental Quality — answerable only to him — the new agency sent Technisand a letter inviting the company to resubmit its application. “There have been many changes in state government,” the new agency’s letter read, “and the DNR/DEQ in particular.” On November 25, 1996, the DEQ issued the company a permit to mine in the protected critical dune area.
DEQ spokesman Ken Silfven told the Detroit News that “our interpretation of the statute is correct and appropriate.” But Thomas R. Fette, attorney for Preserve the Dunes, isn’t convinced. “Nothing else changed — not the law, the company, or the mine,” said Mr. Fette. “The only thing that was different from 1995 to 1996 was that the new DEQ interpreted the law in a way that promoted mining at the expense of the environment.
“If you look at what’s unfolded here,” he continued, “you reach a number of conclusions. And the most important is that there was a conscious political decision in the 1990s to make environmental law enforcement more business friendly. This case is a poster child for what happened.”

Government Taking Sides
Why would state regulators go out of their way to circumvent the law? Aren’t they supposed to enforce environmental rules and leave economic development to the community? That’s what Mrs. Boerma and people across the state want to know as they repeatedly encounter, at DEQ permit hearings and even local planning and zoning commission meetings, a general reluctance among officials to enforce rules that may limit business.
“It’s not right that citizens have to do the job that the DEQ is supposed to do,” Mrs. Boerma says. “There’s an arrogance there that just makes your blood boil.”
So much blood is boiling in Michigan, in fact, that from St. Clair Shores and Milan Township in southeast Michigan to Petoskey and Alpena in the north, people are forming grassroots organizations to challenge the troubling non-enforcement trend.
These campaigns are not quite like the earlier citizen activism of the 1960s and 1970s, which focused on establishing the basic policies and laws to clean the air and water, manage toxic wastes, and protect wildlife. Michigan citizens today are organizing around efforts to uphold those laws. They are working to:
• Protect rivers, wetlands, wildlife, and property rights from lax state permitting.
• Hold local officials to democratically decided open space zoning provisions.
• Require that state agencies do their legal duty of notifying and listening to the public.
• Keep watch over polluters, which underfunded and demoralized agency staff are not monitoring closely.

Less Democracy, More Bureaucracy
The primary opponent these groups face is not big business, but Big Government weighing in on the side of private interests over the public’s values. Citizens have always had to keep tabs on government and wrestle with its bureaucracy. But the public’s watchdog burden grew exponentially during the 1990s in Michigan and across the country as a new government-bashing, “regulatory reform” ideology took hold.
Instead of making it easier for businesses to comply with clear and consistently enforced regulations, the new regulatory pattern has been to relax the rules, back off enforcement, and obstruct citizens. Rather than improving government, as the political rhetoric behind this ideology implied, the record in Michigan and across the nation shows that “regulatory reform” actually has eroded the environmental laws and the democratic processes that, to date, have made America the envy of the world.
The rule of law and the public’s rights under those laws are hallmarks of the U.S. regulatory system, just as similar government rules and public rights make this country’s financial markets among the world’s most trusted. Without these checks and balances, America’s natural resources, just as its monetary system, are subject to creeping corruption and easy exploitation.
The threat of such lawlessness in Michigan is real. Enforcement statistics and a telling pattern of on-the-ground experiences show that the state’s citizens can no longer rely on the letter of the law or a seat at the policy table.

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