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Lawmakers ask for EPA oversight at Dearborn steel mill, call state permitting process "tainted"

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Two state lawmakers are calling on the US Environmental Protection Agency to step in and help regulate a Dearborn steel mill.

State Representatives Rashida Tlaib and George Darany say the state can no longer be trusted to oversee and enforce environmental laws against the Severstal steel facility.

Severstal is seeking to “correct” its 2006 air quality permit to relax emissions standards for some pollutants, including lead and carbon monoxide. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality hasn’t issued a decision on that yet.

Meanwhile, recently uncovered emails show another state agency--the Michigan Economic Development Corporation—pushing Severstal’s case to the DEQ. The emails were obtained by Traverse City environmental attorney Chris Bzdok.

“We need to know what the issue is, and have a reasonable response for the company,” reads one June, 2012 email from MEDC State Business Ombudsman Amy Banninga that was forwarded to DEQ officials. “If there is something the DEQ can do to help the company comply, etc., we can help connect the players.”

Another message appears to show MEDC setting the agenda for meetings with DEQ officials about the permitting process.

Detroit state representative Rashida Tlaib says now that these emails have come to light, the EPA needs to take charge of oversight and enforcement because the state permitting process has been “tainted.”

“It’s very unprecedented for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation [to be] leading the meetings and the conversations about an air quality permit,” Tlaib says. “And not just any air quality permit-- one of the leading polluting industries in our state.”

Severstal has been cited for violating its current state air quality permit 37 times. Both the Michigan DEQ and the EPA are taking enforcement actions for violations that have occurred over the past 5 years.

Nick Schroeck, director of the Detroit-based Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, calls the situation “extraordinary.”

“Having an economic development arm of the state government, the MEDC, intervening in a permitting action, and basically telling our regulators what to do…that’s very, very concerning,” Schroeck says.

The EPA can take over issuing permits and ensuring compliance with federal laws such as the Clean Air Act if state governments fail to do a “satisfactory job.”

But state officials say that’s not the case here.

Severstal’s permit “needs adjustments,” says DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel. “Their job is to make steel. Our job is to make a permit that reflects what they’re doing.”

Wurfel says such “adjustments” are fairly common for large, changing industrial facilities. He says Severstal’s request won’t result in additional pollution, and may actually decrease its current actual emissions.

Wurfel adds that while the MEDC’s Ombudsman’s office can “check in” periodically as a business advocate or mediator, it doesn’t set the DEQ’s agenda or influence decision-making.

“I don’t think that this process has been in the least tainted by the conversation,” Wurfel says.

According to MEDC documents, the Michigan Business Ombudsman “serves as a liaison between state government and the business community. The office provides impartial and independent assistance in resolving disputes and investigating complaints against state government agencies.”

In a statement, Gov. Snyder’s office says he’s committed to “helping foster the economic climate for innovation and job growth, while also ensuring environmental protection and stewardship.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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