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EPA Investigating Michigan's Loss of Wetlands

April 19, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
and Terry Miller
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Responding to evidence that Michigan's regulators are failing to enforce wetlands protection laws, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has undertaken a comprehensive review of the Engler Administration's record.

The EPA regional office in Chicago wrote last February to Department of Environmental Quality Director Russell Harding and Attorney General Frank Kelley. The letter expressed concerns that Michigan is not meeting "basic levels of environmental protection," and asked for a response to numerous questions about the quality and integrity of the state's natural resource programs.

The EPA review was prompted in part by a new report, Assault on Michigan's Wetlands, produced by the Michigan Environmental Council and the Lone Tree Council. The report contends that the DEQ is failing to protect Michigan's 5.5 million acres of wetlands.

Mr. Harding called the report "highly partisan," and "not true." He added, "The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is committed to continued improvement of our wetlands programs, in concert with national advances in wetland science and policy."

Michigan and New Jersey are the only two states authorized by the federal government to administer the wetland protection program. In Michigan's case, the autonomy was allowed in large part because of the strength of the state's Goemaere-Anderson Wetland Protection Act. Since its passage in 1979, the Act has provided standards for wetlands protection that exceeded the federal government's.

Assault on Michigan's Wetlands, however, documents specific lapses in state oversight that are causing Michigan's wetlands to be developed at an accelerating rate. The study is based on six months of research, which included interviews with state regulators and details from internal records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The report documents an instance of "political abuse of the wetland permit program." The Bay City District Supervisor for the DEQ, Rob Zbiciak, was removed from his job for enforcing state wetlands law. Mr. Zbiciak was transferred to Lansing after the intervention of four Saginaw Bay area legislators, who were seeking permits to allow the filling of wetlands on behalf of developers in their districts. Mr. Zbiciak was replaced by an employee with no experience in wetlands regulation.

The report also identifies a bias toward development in decisions made by two administrative law judges appointed by Mr. Harding.

The judges consistently supported wetland losses, often for surprising reasons. In one case, a judge ruled in favor of a developer because the DEQ staff failed to inventory "the specific number and types of insects, songbirds, frogs, fish and other wildlife populations that would be affected by the fill."

Other findings in the report include:

• About 1,000 acres of Michigan's wetlands are lost to development each year.

• The losses are a result of: unlicensed and unpermitted construction; fills authorized by DEQ permits; loopholes in the law; and budget cuts in enforcement programs.

• The state has no accounting system for the thousands of permits issued for wetland losses under one acre.
• In at least three cases, the DEQ's senior officials recommended wetland destruction and ignored the professional decisions of its own field staff, or of the DNR Wildlife and Fisheries divisions. G

Terry Miller is chair of the Lone Tree Council, which works for the environmental quality of the Saginaw Bay watershed. Dave Dempsey of the Michigan Environmental Council provided assistance for this article.

For a copy of Assault on Michigan's Wetlands, contact the Michigan Environmental Council, 115 West Allegan, Suite 10-B, Lansing, MI 48933; Tel. 517-487-9539.

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