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Guess What! Fake Wetlands Don’t Work

DEQ gives itself an “F” for oversight

August 1, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Destroy a natural wetland for a new shopping center? Don’t worry, developers say. State law can require builders to construct an artificial wetland somewhere else that will work just as well.

According to a remarkably candid internal audit, however, the Department of Environmental Quality says artificial wetlands don’t work and the state program for overseeing them is a mess. The DEQ’s conclusions about the shortcomings of artificial wetlands are consistent with many other studies that have found manmade wetlands simply do not replace the biological and ecological values of natural wetlands. Rarely, though, has a state agency been as straightforward in assessing the weaknesses of its practices and procedures for wetland protection.

Don’t count on it
The internal audit, by DEQ water quality specialist Robert Zibciak, revealed how far Michigan’s wetland protection program has strayed from its mission of keeping Michigan’s wetlands — nature’s kidneys — functioning. Mr. Zibciak reviewed 78 permit applications and resulting state orders to build 158 artificial wetlands in 33 counties. His investigation found:

• 71 percent of the artificial wetlands were biological failures.
• 14 percent of the artificial wetlands the state ordered never were built.
• One in five artificial wetlands were so poorly constructed that they actually caused more erosion than they prevented.
• Only a third of the companies required to monitor their artificial wetlands actually did.
• State inspectors consider just one in five of the artificial wetlands to be “successful.”

In response to the report’s findings, the DEQ released a statement citing improvements in its wetland program and blaming previous administrations for weaknesses in enforcing the wetlands law, as well as below-average precipitation during the study period. The report’s author, however, said the agency’s new steps did not work and that the program’s weaknesses were due largely to the DEQ’s overall goal of encouraging economic development at the expense of environmental protection.

Campaign promise
The rush to satisfy permit applicants comes at the expense of wetland protection, according to the report. “The emphasis is to issue the permits as quickly as possible,” said Mr. Zibciak’s report. Taking the time to gather all the facts “would be very unpopular with the regulated community and unlikely to be acceptable to MDEQ management.”

The 1979 wetland law requires the state to issue permits within 90 days. Before Governor John Engler took office in 1991, according to the report, state regulators interpreted the law to mean that the clock began ticking only after they had received a complete application — one with all relevant information from developers. Builders grew frustrated, and complaints about the slow pace of wetland permitting escalated. Mr. Engler campaigned on a message of making government more responsive to its constituents and speeding up the permitting process. Russell Harding, the DEQ’s director, took the campaign promise to heart.

Enforcement nightmare
According to a September 2000 draft of the internal audit that the Michigan Environmental Council obtained, the DEQ’s front office advised staff members to issue wetland development permits within 90 days irrespective of whether the applicant had submitted all necessary information. The DEQ generally issues such permits on condition that the applicant provide the missing information later, typically within 90 more days.

But the state never follows up in most cases on those conditions, Mr. Zibciak reports. The result is a “department-created” enforcement nightmare. “Permit violators that receive no follow-up contact from the MDEQ regulatory staff are sent a clear message by this inaction,” the draft report reads. “That message being that the MDEQ will not follow up on their project, and compliance with their MDEQ permit can be a low priority item or ignored altogether.”

CONTACT(S): Dave Dempsey, Michigan Environmental Council, 517-487-9539, <davemec@voyager.net>; Ken Silfven, Department of Environmental Quality, 517-241-7397.

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