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These bills could change who decides environmental rules in Michigan

A factory next to a harbor
Jacob Szetela

A trio of bills making their way through the state legislature would change how environmental regulations are determined in Michigan.

Senate Bills 652, 653, and 654 would create an environmental rules committee that could reject or change Michigan Department of Environmental Quality rules.

They would also create an appeals board to review permits and an environmental science advisory board, which the state once had, but was ended a decade ago.

The bills passed the Senate in January and are currently sitting with a House committee.

Why change?

Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) introduced the legislation last year. He says its purpose is to counteract what he describes as "unreasonable views and agency overreach" in denying permits. In January, he told Stateside he believes the bills are necessary “based on some activities that have gone on since I’ve been in the Legislature.”

“We’ve tried different approaches to, what I would call, put some reasonable standards in place, and we keep running into roadblocks and problems within the department. So we’re trying to come up with something that levels the playing field,” Casperson said.

Listen to Stateside’s full interview with Casperson here.

Following Indiana’s lead

In Indiana, Kim Ferraro, senior staff attorney with the Hoosier Environmental Council, says for about a decade now there’s been “a separate environmental rules-making board that is comprised of sixteen different members, largely from regulated industry interests.”

Ferraro says the state has seen rules from the board that are “very favorable to industry.” However, she also says she’s not opposed to the idea of a separate regulatory body.

“The idea could be a good one because it provides a second check and potentially input from impacted citizens and people who care about environmental protection to have a say that is outside of the agency itself," she said. But packing the board with industry veterans, she warned, would lead to rules that favor their industry over environmental protection.

To learn more about how Indiana’s system works, listen to Stateside's full interview with Kim Ferraro.

Is the fox guarding the hen house?
Critics of legislation proposed in Michigan, have echoed Ferraro's warning. They say it opens the door to political appointees from the private sector, including some of the very industries that might be resisting environmental regulation.

That's what happened in Maine. Gov. Paul LePage chose an official from Nestle Waters to be a member of the board that has the power to rewrite Maine’s environmental rules. Colin Woodard of The Portland Press Herald joined Stateside in February to talk about how this has affected his state.

“The concern is because he’s an employee of this large company, he will of course be acting in that company’s interest, and also have access to a lot of things that the BEP looks at regularly that might also be of interest to the company he works for,” Woodard said.

Peggy Case, president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, says there's a very good reason industries like oil and gas, manufacturing and agriculture are regulated by the state.

"It's the state's responsibility to protect us, to protect our air, and our land and our water," says Case. "To do just the opposite -- and turn it over to the people who have been, for years, polluting it -- is a constitutional violation, as far as I'm concerned."

Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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