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Green Rules, the Bottom Line, and MDEQ

Do environmental regulations harm Michigan’s business climate?

May 5, 2005 |


Steve Chester, appointed by Governor Jennifer M.Granholm, currently directs the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Recently the Michigan Environmental Council published an exchange of views between former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality director Russell Harding and the MDEQ’s current director, Steve Chester.

Mr. Harding served under former Governor John Engler and attracted strong support from businesses and fierce attacks from environmentalists for his policies. Mr. Chester, appointed by Governor Jennifer Granholm, has attracted strong support from most environmental groups and some criticism from businesses.

Russell Harding:

Let feds handle most Michigan green rules and enforcement
A restrained regulatory bureaucracy is critical to expanding jobs in Michigan. Make no mistake: Michigan has a well-deserved reputation for having difficult regulations, particularly when it comes to the bureaucratic maze of its environmental requirements.

The state has improved its permitting processes, but its reforms have not kept pace with those of competing states, particularly concerning wetlands and air permits. Governor Jennifer Granholm and the state Legislature should ameliorate our regulatory climate through the following actions, none of which would harm the environment:

  • Adopt a law that prohibits the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) from promulgating regulations that are more stringent than federal requirements without explicit approval from the governor and the Legislature. This law should require DEQ to review current state regulations, too. Federal requirements are already extremely stringent, since they are based on very conservative theoretical assumptions that are calculated to protect the environment from even the most unlikely threats. Michigan doesn't need to inflate these standards, and it will remain more economically competitive if it doesn't.
  • Pass a law that explicitly states that DEQ operating directives are not binding on regulated parties unless the directives are promulgated as regulations. DEQ directives are not subject to the same sunshine laws and public review as formal regulations, which must follow the Michigan Administrative Procedures Act. Nevertheless, many businesses feel compelled to comply with these unilateral and often-burdensome directives out of fear of DEQ retribution.
  • Establish a statutory requirement that the DEQ act on air permits within six months. Manufacturers need new air permits for their plants whenever they make even modest changes to their processes. A six-month requirement would codify in law a goal that state government already tries to meet, thereby adding predictability to a common business procedure.
  • Repeal the Air Toxics Program and rely on the federal Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards that are used by other states. Michigan's early and aggressive regulation in this area has outlived its usefulness, particularly now that the federal government has promulgated the MACT standards. Michigan should not reinvent the wheel for every new air toxics permit.
  • Return the wetlands program to the federal government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the program in every state except Michigan and New Jersey. Adopting the federal program would put us on an equal footing with other states and free Michigan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's scrutiny of its standards.
  • Reject the proposed Water Legacy Act, which would require permits to use groundwater. Of the Great Lakes states, only Minnesota requires groundwater permitting. It's a bad idea there, too, but it's more understandable given the semi-arid climate of Minnesota's western regions. Michigan, in contrast, has a wetter climate and already has ample means to protect its groundwater supply. It simply cannot compete with Ohio and Indiana for industry if groundwater is unnecessarily rationed.

Governor Granholm must play an additional role. No matter what laws are passed, she must ensure the DEQ operates in a fair, timely, and consistent manner that aids, rather than obstructs, businesses in meeting environmental requirements. A "bottom up" culture, in which DEQ personnel impose arbitrary rules, is a blueprint for disaster.

Russell Harding is former director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and is senior environmental policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland.

Steve Chester:

Michigan is protecting environment and helping businesses
Russ Harding, former director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, implies that a healthy environment and a healthy economy are incompatible goals. He would sacrifice human health and environmental protections for economic growth. This is a false choice. As the current DEQ director, let me assure the public that the DEQ is deeply committed to protecting public health and the environment, as well as the health of our economy.

Mr. Harding recommends Michigan adopt a law restricting the DEQ's ability to promulgate standards that are more stringent than federal environmental standards. This is bad policy. Virtually every federal environmental law preserves the authority of the states to enact standards specific to the needs of the states. Mr. Harding assumes that one size fits all. As the Great Lakes State, we know this is not true. To protect our vast water resources, Michigan understandably might choose to adopt standards that go beyond federal law and exceed what is required in Arizona or Nevada.

Mr. Harding claims that Michigan lags behind other states in our air-permitting program. True, when Mr. Harding was director, manufacturers did complain that it took nine to 12 months to obtain an air permit from DEQ, but times have changed. Under a new process in place since September 2004, the DEQ has been issuing permits in less than six weeks, making it one of the fastest programs in the nation. We recently issued an air permit to General Motors for its Flint Engine Plant within 21 days. We have also found ways to encourage manufacturers to install the very best pollution control equipment.

Mr. Harding suggests that we repeal Michigan's air toxics program and rely solely on federal standards. Unlike Michigan's program, however, the federal standards do not regulate numerous toxic pollutants that are of human health and ecological concern. Replacing Michigan's air toxic program with the federal program will thus reduce human health and environmental protection.

Mr. Harding advocates returning Michigan's wetland protection program to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Unlike the DEQ, the Army Corps has no statutory deadlines for permit issuance. This will result in delays and increased costs for permit applicants. In contrast, receiving a wetlands permit from the DEQ authorizes the activity automatically under state and federal law, eliminating the need to receive a separate permit from the Army Corps. If Mr. Harding sees regulation as a barrier to business growth, then his proposal would make things worse, not better.

Mr. Harding asks the Legislature to reject the Water Legacy Act, yet he mention neither the resource protections the law provides and that it has overwhelming public support. Michigan is the only Great Lakes state that does not have a law to protect the quantity of its surface water and groundwater. Overuse of our waters can severely impact residential uses and cause damage to lakes and streams used for recreational purposes. The proposed law doesn't prohibit use of water but reasonably requires those seeking new or increased uses in excess of two million gallons a day or 100 million gallons a year to apply for and obtain a permit from DEQ.

The DEQ under Governor Granholm's leadership is restoring Michigan's environmental legacy, while growing our economy. To assert that protecting the public's health and preserving the environment are antithetical to business growth and jobs development is an old and trite canard that must be soundly rejected.

Steve Chester has been Michigan Department of Environmental Quality director since January 2003. Special thanks to the Michigan Environmental Council for allowing the Michigan Land Use Institute to reprint this article, which appeared in the April issue of the Michigan Environmental Report. The MEC’s Web site is www.mecprotects.org.

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