GOP Senate still undecided on scrapping gov. environmental order

By: - February 8, 2019 1:54 am

Republicans remain displeased over a new environmental order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, but it’s unclear if the GOP-led Legislature will ultimately throttle the measure.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer holds a press conference in her ceremonial office at the Capitol to announce she won’t withdraw her environmental executive order, Feb. 6, 2019 | Michael Gerstein

There’s been plenty of back-and-forth this week since Whitmer signed the measure on Monday.

On Wednesday, the House rejected an executive order making organizational changes to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Whitmer also renamed it the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

Republicans are still fuming over Whitmer’s comments afterward that they “voted down protections for drinking water” with House Concurrent Resolution 1.

Whitmer and Democrats argued that the Republican measure would hamstring the state’s ability to protect water and air quality at a time when Michigan is emerging from the Flint water crisis and actively grappling with PFAS contamination.

The Legislature has the authority to undo a governor’s executive order within 60 days with a majority vote in both chambers.

Sen. Ed McBroom | Michael Gerstein

It’s now up to the state Senate to act. On Thursday, the Senate Oversight Committee took the first step with an initial hearing on the resolution. Republicans didn’t indicate whether they would send HCR 1 to the full Senate for a vote.

More hearings are planned for next week, Chair Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) said.  

“We clearly have evidence to show there’s been some real problems here and some [government] overreach,” McBroom said.

Snyder’s legacy

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce came out against Whitmer’s order on Monday and encouraged lawmakers to oppose it.

Republicans bristled at the order’s elimination of three panels that allow businesses and industry to have more input, although they dispute that characterization.

GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder appointed the members of all three panels.

The panels — the Environmental Rules Review Committee, Environmental Permit Review Commission and Environmental Science Advisory Boardhave influence over making environmental rules and issuing permits.

Former state Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), who sponsored legislation creating the commissions, testified at the hearing Thursday.

Tom Casperson

“Where is the fairness in a government that can just determine what they want to fine you on their own?” he said. “We’re allowing our government agencies to start governing. And it doesn’t matter what the citizen says anymore, because the citizen just can’t compete with that.”

The boards were designed to avoid government “overreach” and give “the little guy” a say, Casperson said.

While the panels do have some individuals representing environmental groups or health concerns, the Environmental Rules Review Committee is largely composed of people representing industry or business concerns.

Whitmer’s order eliminated three panels that include individuals representing industries or businesses that may discharge pollution into the environment, including General Motors, the Michigan Farm Bureau, a petroleum company and DTE Energy, one of Michigan’s two largest utility companies.

The permit review committee also has the authority to overturn decisions made by EGLE.

Whitmer called a press conference Wednesday after the House vote and said she won’t be withdrawing the order. She also has asked Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, to review the legality of the panels.

“I think we need to be very clear: The House Republicans today, on a party-line vote, voted down protections for drinking water,” Whitmer said Wednesday. “They voted down protection of a public advocate for clean drinking water. They voted against a public advocate on environmental justice. House Republicans today voted against accountability to people and they voted against PFAS cleanup in their own districts. Today’s action endangers our public and threatens to burn bridges.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announcing new environmental executive orders, Feb. 4, 2019 | Nick Manes

Casperson said he was personally “offended” by the insinuation that he’s trying to “poison” Michigan drinking water.

That was echoed by McBroom, who called Whitmer’s comments “a ridiculous and insulting statement for all of us who support clean water and clean air for folks. And that’s why these bills were passed last term, to be able to make a better process to do those things.

“I found them very disappointing,” McBroom added. “I’m trying to have a fair process here where we take up the executive order, which is our right and our duty.”

‘Polluter panels’

But Democrats and environmentalists such as James Clift, a lobbyist for the Michigan Environmental Council, say the panels have pitfalls.

They argue the Permit Review Commission could create a situation in which the department might have to take itself to court if it disagreed with the permit panel. The panel also is not accountable to any elected official because the governor who appointed members isn’t in office, Clift said.

“The department would have to appeal the decision that was just made by its own department,” said Clift, who also was appointed a member of the rules-making commission dissolved by Whitmer. “That, I think, is a waste of state resources.”

Clift argued the panels could also drag out rule-making at a time when Michigan is grappling with widespread PFAS contamination. There’s also an issue with more than 4,000 potential vapor intrusion sites, or areas where toxic chemicals from legacy industry- and dry-cleaning pollution can leach into people’s homes and businesses in the form of vapors. Months ago, shops in the village of Franklin were evacuated over the issue.

Environmentalists have blasted the commissions as “polluter panels” — something Republicans on the Senate Oversight Committee said they also find offensive.

“It’s just not fair at all … it’s a completely ridiculous assertion,” said resolution sponsor Rep. James Lower (R-Cedar Lake). “To suggest it’s a bunch of polluters to just get together and continue polluting … it’s just not accurate at all.”

Democrats disagreed.

Jeff Irwin

“What was created by this bill … was a regulatory review body stacked with people from the regulated community,” said Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor). “And there’s so many slots that are guaranteed to each industry. And as a result, the majority of the body is dominated by industry concerns. That’s my concern.”

State Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.) is an environmental chemist who says the panels are harmful.

“It is difficult to comprehend the scope of the environmental contamination we face, unless you have witnessed it firsthand as I have,” she said in a statement.

She said she opposes “any effort to allow industry to continue dictating environmental regulations and permitting in Michigan.”

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.