Study #3 Evidence of Deep Ideological Attack on the State
Macomb's very own environmental prosecutor
December 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
In a precedent-setting local challenge to the state Department of Environmental Quality, Macomb County filed a lawsuit last November charging the agency's former deputy director with illegally issuing a permit to fill a wetland.
The lawsuit, brought by special environmental prosecutor Mark A. Richardson, is the first ever brought by a county in response to the Engler Administration's lax oversight of wetlands and overall pro-development approach to managing natural resources. The suit names as the lead defendant W. Charles McIntosh, the governor's former environmental advisor who recently resigned as DEQ deputy director to take a position at Ford Motor Company.
The Macomb lawsuit came six weeks after Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national public interest organization, issued a devastating investigative report by whistle-blowing DEQ staff members that documents political interference in the enforcement of Michigan's wetland protection program.
The report and the lawsuit have prompted a flurry of responses from the DEQ. Ken Silfven, the agency's chief spokesman, said the report was the work of "disgruntled" employees. Mr. McIntosh, meanwhile, called Mr. Richardson "incompetent," and said in an interview in the Macomb Daily that the lawsuit was a case of "malpractice." Twelve days after the interview was published Mr. McIntosh resigned from the DEQ, a move that Mr. Silfven said had been planned for some time and had nothing to do with the lawsuit.
Since the late 1700s more than 5.6 million acres of wetlands have disappeared in Michigan. Fifty percent of the state's inland wetlands and 70% of the coastal wetlands are gone. This massive change to the natural landscape has caused severe economic and environmental harm by increasing flooding and water pollution, and by diminishing wildlife.
To stem the damage, the Legislature approved a wetland protection law in 1979 that still is among the nation's best. Developers and industrialists, however, have lobbied against the law and have found support in the Engler Administration, which regards such laws as encroachments on private property rights.
In a particularly telling example of this ideological bias, Russell Harding, the DEQ director, issued a permit to a peat-mining company in 1997 to drain nearly 2,000 acres of Sanilac County's Minden Bog, the Lower Peninsula's largest wetland. (See the map on page 17.) Mr. Harding said he feared that otherwise the company would be successful in a lawsuit accusing the state of "taking" their property without just compensation. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, has rejected such arguments in similar cases.
The 28-page PEER report, "See No Evil," provides graphic evidence of how deep the ideological attack on the wetlands law has reached into the DEQ. The report found:
• Senior DEQ officials in Lansing regularly overrule staff recommendations to protect wetlands, and direct that permits be issued to developers in violation of the law. • Eighty percent of citizen complaints of wetland violations are closed without investigation.
• DEQ employees intent on enforcing the wetland law are intimidated into silence with threats of demotion or firing.
• State lawmakers regularly intervene at the DEQ to acquire permits for their campaign contributors to fill or drain wetlands.
Macomb County, which has lost 74% of its wetlands and is suffering pollution from sewage overflow in its lakes and rivers (see the articles on pages 10-18), is especially intent on preserving what's left, said county prosecutor Carl J. Marlinga.
Macomb's lawsuit focuses on an approximately eight-acre wetland that was part of a horse farm in Chesterfield Township sold in 1996 to CPD Properties, which is building a subdivision called Sugarbush.
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