What Kind of Environmental Agency Does Michigan Need?

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For almost eight years, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality has sided with resource exploitation over resource protection. MDEQ’s recent decisions to grant Nestle a 60% increase in the volume of water it can extract from springs near Evart for bottling and sale, and to authorize Enbridge Energy to bypass full environmental alternatives review and install more support anchors on its dangerous Line 5 pipelines are just the latest examples.

It wasn’t always so — and we can do better again.

Michigan’s conservation and environmental protection agencies have been recognized as national leaders in two eras. From 1921 to 1970, the Department of Conservation oversaw the reforestation and acquisition of 9 million acres of forestland, built a robust park system, and vaulted recreational fishing and hunting to national prominence, particularly in deer and salmon management.

From the late 1960s to the 1980s, the Department of Natural Resources attracted national praise for a number of bold actions. DNR was a major force in making Michigan the first state to cancel most uses of DDT, three years before the federal government. DNR championed reduction of phosphorus, which led to the recovery of Lake Erie. The state adopted tough limits for sulfur content in coal burned by power plants in Michigan, attacking acid rain and smog before nearby states. With DNR support, the Legislature and governor enacted laws to control soil erosion, protect inland lakes and streams, protect sand dunes, protect wetlands, protect Great Lakes shorelands and bottomlands, improve management of solid and hazardous waste, clean up toxic waste sites and ban oil drilling in the Great Lakes.

In both eras, a key feature was the separation of the Department of Conservation/Natural Resources from raw partisan politics. As was true in many Midwestern states, lawmakers in the 1920s created a citizen commission, the 7-member Conservation Commission, appointed by the governor, to oversee the agency. The Commission chose its own chairperson and was generally free to put in place policies that would pay off in a generation without suffering direct political backlash.

The Commission system was born in part out of a memory of how politicians of the mid- to-late 1800s catered to the lumber barons, market (not sport) hunters and other commercial interests who laid waste to natural resources and abandoned the state, leaving behind ruin for the people of Michigan to clean up. A Commission insulated from the pressures of politics and lobbyists, it was felt, would be able to put in place policies with long-term public benefits rather than immediate rewards to politicians. This enabled foresters to take a long view of 40 to 50 years for replanting the north country.

The tradition continued in the 1960s and 1970s, when what was now the Natural Resources Commission generally provided support for staff to do what it considered best. The DNR also contained air and water commissions that met in public, voted on rules and permits, and heard out the concerns of citizens. The DNR Director from 1975 to 1983, Howard Tanner, encouraged staff to “err on the side of the resource” when in doubt.

Michigan has not been regarded as a leader on the environment since Governor John Engler in 1995 split the DNR in two, abolished most citizen commissions and gave the new DEQ a “hands-off” mandate. The DEQ has never had a commission and the DNR’s Natural Resources Commission performs mostly ministerial functions, rarely delving into major policy issues, instead setting fish and game rules and seasons. Leaders of both agencies are appointed not because of excellence in environmental and natural resource fields, but because of fealty to the governor.

How might things be different if a DEQ Director sensitive to public concerns had acted swiftly when advised about alarming news in Flint – or if citizens from Flint had been able to speak in public before a citizen commission demanding that the state investigate?

 The current DEQ mission statement does not use the word “protect”:

“The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality promotes wise management of Michigan’s air, land, and water resources to support a sustainable environment, healthy communities, and vibrant economy.”

The name of the agency also lacks the word “protect.”  Perhaps it needs a new name — the Michigan Department of Environmental Protection — and a mission to “protect the air, water, land and other natural resources of the state, and the public trust therein, from pollution, impairment and destruction. Through a high level of professionalism, respect for public views, strong science, law enforcement, and policy that considers both current and future generations, the Department assures a healthy people and environment.”

Michigan deserves this new approach.


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