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Needed: True Leadership

By Patty Cantrell
and Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Michigan has all the environmental laws it needs to prevent pollution. It’s leadership that the state lacks.
Environmental enforcement depends on who’s making the decision between fining a livestock factory for a major manure spill and fish kill or simply letting the operation fix its leak, for now. It depends on whether agency management supports staff who stick to the rules. And it depends on whether the Engler Administration cares about creating a level playing field for business.
Regulators actually penalize law-abiding companies when they back off enforcement, says former DNR enforcement official, Bill Murphy. “A company that follows the law needs to know they’re not putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage by being in compliance. Their competitors can save a lot money by not doing things right,” he said.
Enforcement is a choice. And in the 1990s, state leaders have chosen to support polluting companies, not staff, and to give away natural resources rather than conserve them by reviewing potential problems thoroughly.
“Almost anything is permittable under certain circumstances,” says former DEQ official Virginia Pierce. But the agency, for the most part, no longer studies circumstances to decide how best to protect the land, water, and wildlife that a development proposal will affect, she says. Instead of asking a DNR biologist, for example, to review a proposal, DEQ now issues a permit if the law allows for development in some way. “It lets the company’s engineers decide on their own how to go about it,” Ms. Pierce said.

Conservation Summit 2000
The challenge of how to put Michigan back on the environmental protection track was the focus of a conservation summit in Traverse City last June that drew representatives from more than 30 groups statewide. In his opening speech William G. Milliken, Michigan Governor from 1969-1982, summed up the problem that conservationists across the state face:
“Today’s policy debates under the Engler Administration focus largely on economic gain for this group or that, while virtually ignoring potential losses to the environment,” he said.
This lack of commitment from the top is the main reason DEQ staff are unable to serve the public trust the way they used to, says Don Inman, a former DNR deputy director. “The biggest problem we have now is that a staff biologist may know that some proposal will damage a magnificent fisheries habitat. But what can they do if Russ Harding doesn’t care?”
As Humbug Marsh activist, Blair McGowan of Gibraltar, points out: “We informed ourselves. We learned about the law. We got organized to work within the system. And then the system, coming from the Governor’s office, overthrew its own technical staff and undermined the citizens’ faith in government.”

Taking Credit Where it Isn’t Due
In a Traverse City Record Eagle article on the Conservation Summit, Gov. Engler’s spokesman, John Truscott, dismissed such citizen frustration as “Engler-bashing.”
“Results speak a lot louder than rhetoric, and under Governor Engler, the environment is in better shape than at any time in Michigan’s history,” he said.
The Administration regularly makes this claim despite a lack of data to support it, and a widening array of indicators to the contrary.
Claims about water quality improvements, for example, are indefensible because the Administration has decimated the state’s monitoring program. This summer, an EPA report noted that just 40% of the state’s rivers and 55% of the lakes have been monitored for contaminants, and much of the data is outdated.
It is clear, however, from an increasing number of beach closings in the Detroit Metro area due to sewage overflows from water treatment plants, that water quality in the state’s sprawling suburbs is a growing problem. Yet the Engler Administration has made its mark working to increase, not manage, the haphazard spread of roads, driveways, and shopping centers that overload treatment plants with urban runoff.
“It’s true Michigan is better off than we were in the 1970s,” says Dave Dempsey of the Michigan Environmental Council. “But that’s because we passed a bunch of laws and cracked down on pollution then, not because of what has happened in the last ten years.”
Michigan citizens will pay the pollution and cleanup price of this past decade of non-enforcement for years to come, says former Gov. Milliken: “If ever there was a time for visionary leadership in setting an agenda that assures that what has defined Michigan’s heritage will be available to future citizens, that time is now.”

CONTACTS: Preserve the Dunes attorney Thomas Fette, 616-983-0755; Environmental Working Group, Web site www.ewg.org; Assistant Attorney General Mike Leffler, 517-373-1110; Michigan Environmental Council, 517-487-9539.

—Keith Schneider contributed to this article
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