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Keep Dirt Where It Belongs: On Land

A big step for legislature

February 12, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In the final days of its session last year, the Michigan Legislature responded to broad concern about weak environmental protection by strengthening the state’s soil erosion control law. The new provisions, which Governor John Engler signed into law on January 11, 2001, include much higher fines for violations and greater local government authority to require restoration of eroded sites.

Yet even as these and other provisions reinforced the soil erosion law, lawmakers nevertheless took care of their friends in the oil and gas industry, one of the largest contributors to conservative legislators’ campaigns. A separate section of the amended law gives the state Department of Environmental Quality responsibility for overseeing construction activities in the energy industry, and exempts oil and gas producers from county and township permitting and oversight.

The oil industry sought the change because counties have tended to be much more vigorous regulators than the state DEQ, which has a weak record of enforcing the state’s soil erosion control law. The legislative waiver in the amendments nullifies a 1996 District Court ruling that upheld the authority of local governments to issue soil erosion permits before oil companies can build roads, pipelines, drilling pads, and other installations that can result in significant "earth changes."

Weak protection
Approved in 1972, the state Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act requires anyone planning new construction on a site larger than one acre or within 500 feet of a lake or stream to acquire a permit, in most cases from local governments. The law prohibits soil or sediments from leaving the construction site. The effectiveness of the old law, which had been largely unchanged since its original passage, was waning because fines were too small to act as a deterrent and the quality of local erosion control programs was inconsistent.

State Senator Ken Sikkema (R-Grandville) led the charge for a stronger soil erosion law. He started two years ago after construction at Arcadia Bluffs golf course in Manistee County resulted in tons of soil and sand rushing repeatedly into Lake Michigan off a high bluff that developers had stripped bare of trees. It is the first time since Gov. Engler was inaugurated in 1991 that he or his Republican allies in the Legislature have strengthened a core state environmental statute.

In 1999, Attorney General Jennifer Granholm also become involved when she joined the Department of Environmental Quality in filing a lawsuit, still pending, that called for $425,000 in fines against RVP Development of Grand Rapids, the owner of the course.

The Michigan Land Use Institute played an important part in alerting the state to the significance of the calamity at Arcadia Bluffs. Institute journalists published timely and incisive articles in 1998 and 1999 about the extent of the erosion and the weakness of the state erosion control law. The Institute also prepared a cover package of articles in the winter 1999 Great Lakes Bulletin on why soil erosion is the most significant water pollutant in Michigan. The articles included recommendations for raising fines and improving local erosion permitting programs. Sen. Sikkema incorporated many of these ideas into the final bill.

The new soil erosion control law
o Raises fines to $2,500 a day, five times higher than the old law, and increases penalties for the most serious violations to $25,000 a day.
o Provides local governments with the authority to restore land that has suffered serious erosion and requires the responsible party to pay the bill.
o Gives the state new authority to review and help improve the soil erosion programs of local governments.

Efrain Rosalez, the soil erosion control officer in Antrim County, said in an interview that exempting the oil industry from local oversight was a disappointment, especially in his county where oil and gas companies actively drill. But overall, said Mr. Rosalez, the new amendments are an important step forward in reducing water contamination from soil erosion. "This is a strong bill and will help us better manage construction sites to keep soil from reaching our lakes and streams," he said.

Senator Sikkema, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee, said "soil erosion and sedimentation continues to be the single largest pollutant — by volume — in Michigan’s rivers, lakes, and streams." He added that the strength of the new law is that it "empowers local governments to develop, promote, and enforce their own soil erosion prevention programs."

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