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White House and Engler at Odds Over Environmental Policy

Feds step in

May 27, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Last March, in an unusual action, Senator Carl Levin notified the Engler Administration that he was concerned about an incident in which 11 people were injured last summer by poisonous hydrogen sulfide that escaped from a natural gas well in Manistee County. According to the Houston Chronicle, which is conducting a national investigation of such poisonings, the Manistee incident was the worst mass exposure to hydrogen sulfide in the United States since 1989.

Senator Levin noted that state regulatory agencies had all but ignored the poisoning. Unless Michigan moved immediately to investigate and protect citizens, said the Democratic lawmaker, he would seek federal action.

The Senator’s warning was far from the only one that the governor’s office has received from Washington in recent months. Across the spectrum of public health and environmental policy, the Engler Administration’s abjectly narrow vision for protecting the safety of citizens and natural resources has come under sharp attack from the federal government.

This winter, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publicly protested the governor’s plan to downgrade the potential health threat from eating trace levels of contaminants in Great Lakes fish. The E.P.A. then bypassed the state and issued its own advisory.

Late last year, the E.P.A. warned the state Department of Environmental Quality that its proposal to allow a private company to destroy more than 1,000 acres of the Minden peat bog in Sanilac County, one of Michigan’s largest wetlands, was a gross violation of the Clean Water Act.

The D.E.Q. and the E.P.A. are skirmishing over new federal proposals to strengthen the nation’s air quality laws. The E.P.A. also has attacked a new rule the Governor pushed through the legislature last year that allows industrial plants to police themselves, and to hide from the public critical information about air and water pollution.

In a letter in February that summarized its overall view of the governor’s approach, the E.P.A. advised the Engler Administration that it was concerned Michigan was not assuring "basic levels of environmental protection to all citizens." Without saying so directly, the E.P.A. implied that it was considering stripping the state of its authority, and bringing environmental and public health regulation under Federal control.

In effect, the face off between the Federal government and the Engler Administration over environmental policy is beginning to resemble the contest of wills more than 30 years ago between the Federal government and Deep South states over civil rights. At that time, independent governors in Mississippi and Alabama repeatedly defied U.S. laws and invited federal intervention.

At the core of the dispute between the governor’s office and the E.P.A. is competing visions of government. It is an article of faith within the Engler Administration that businesses can regulate themselves and a smaller, less intrusive bureaucracy yields greater protection. The Clinton Administration, in contrast, continues to believe environmental laws must be enforced, and that national oversight is necessary for the well-being of citizens and resources.

Given such deep ideological differences, it’s not difficult to view the struggle between the E.P.A. and the governor’s office as a proxy battle; a prelude that could help decide the Republican and Democratic nominees to the national tickets in 2000.

Vice President Al Gore, who framed the environmental message that helped President Clinton win two terms, sees strengthened safeguards for families, communities, and natural resources as a key plank in his own to run for the presidency. In contrast, Gov. Engler’s attack on the environment is almost identical to the approach tried by Congressional Republicans in the 104th Congress. That program of dismantling failed, and public revulsion hurt the G.O.P. at the polls.

It is now producing ominous political liabilities for the governor. Earlier this month, a voter survey by the respected Lansing-based firm EPIC/MRA found that 49 percent of those polled gave the governor a negative rating on the environment. In northern Michigan, a traditional Republican stronghold, 61 percent of those polled rendered a negative judgment for Mr. Engler on the environment. Statewide, just 37 percent of voters viewed Mr. Engler’s environmental record positively. All of these numbers represent a sharp reversal from just a year ago.

There are indications that Mr. Engler is getting the message. This month, the state turned down an application to drill the first natural gas well in the Jordan River Valley, one of Michigan’s most beautiful recreation areas.

Much more, though, needs to be done to satisfy public expectations. The governor’s office must not interfere in a far-ranging investigation of whether Michigan’s natural gas industry wrongfully diverted to its own pockets millions of dollars in royalty payments due the state and private citizens. A substantive state investigation of the Manistee County poisonings is needed. A clear mandate to protect the Minden Bog would be useful. And the governor could take steps to strengthen state land use laws to curtail Michigan’s growing and ruinous suburban and rural sprawl.

These are the sort of clear-headed measures the majority of Michigan residents support. They also more readily fit the image of a smart and tough politician who takes pride in being innovative and appears to be seeking higher office.

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