LANSING - Proposed changes to Michigan's environmental rules would eliminate red tape and redundancy, the Snyder administration says, but environmental groups say air, water, soil and health protections would be weakened.
"The real meaningful changes are more process-related than actual requirements," said Skiles Boyd, vice president of environmental management and resources at DTE Energy and a member of an advisory committee that recommended he changes.
"Some of the processes we go through are too burdensome to get the result that we already know we're going to get," Boyd said.
There is a debate going on in the state of Michigan concerning the impact that changes in environmental regulations will have, including statutes governing air pollutants and toxic emissions. (Journal file photo)
But James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, said, "I dissented on changes that I thought reduced the state's role of protecting public health."
In January, a committee assigned to make the state more business-friendly proposed 77 recommendations to Gov. Rick Snyder to overhaul environmental regulations.
Snyder rejected three of them. The Legislature must approve the rest before they go into effect.
The 13-member advisory committee of state officials, industry and utility representatives, lawyers and the Michigan Environmental Council worked with the state's Office of Regulatory Reinvention on the report.
A Snyder executive order in April 2011 created that office in the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to stimulate business growth and job creation. Since then, the agency has removed 47 state environmental quality rules, not counting the 74 pending changes.
Some proposed changes, like recycling manufacturing waste and eliminating duplicative efforts, would pose no environmental harm, according to the office. Others would deregulate some controls over air pollutants and toxic emissions.
Clift, the lone representative of environmental groups on the advisory committee, disagreed with 20 of the recommended changes. No other committee members dissented.
Some changes would be a step backwards, Clift said. For example, all chemicals not on the federal list of hazardous pollutants would no longer be subject to state testing.
"Michigan has for years been a leader in protecting people from toxic air pollution - so much so that other states have adopted our standards," Clift said. "And now we're pulling back."
Another change would exempt electric generators that don't sell to the grid from air quality rules.
These tend to be smaller, industrial boilers that can be coal-fired, just like utilities, Clift said.
"They have the same impact on public health and air pollution," Clift said. "All facilities should be on the table."
Industry and utility representatives lauded the recommended changes.
DTE's Boyd said that regulation of environmental cleanup and air toxics emissions need an overhaul.
And he said existing rules actually have slowed some cleanups.
"If we can cut red tape, you reduce risk tremendously," Boyd said. "You can move through the actual cleanup much faster instead of waiting around for years to start."
Recommended changes include shifting some duties from the Department of Environmental Quality to the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs and eliminating rules that are no longer relevant.
For example, the state's toxic site emissions requirements were written before federal rules, Boyd said. Because there are now nationwide rules, there is duplication.
Snyder rejected the committee's proposed elimination of local regulations of wetlands, the elimination of mandatory pollutant spill plans and the exclusion of wetland impacts when considering pollution permits.
The state is already moving forward with the remaining recommendations, said Rob Nederhood, deputy director of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. The changes are subject to public comment before legislative action.
Nederhood said his department anticipates pushback from environmental organizations but added, "No one was there to gut environmental regulations."
And Boyd said committee members challenged each other when it seemed a proposed change could hurt the environment.
Nederhood said some changes would benefit everyone, like increased transparency. That was spurred by a recommendation that would require DEQ to put online any information the agency might use to make decisions.
Another change would force the state to develop a "beneficial reuse" law, which would be a template for recycling manufacturing waste that is now trashed.
Clift said the environmental community will object to changes that it disagrees with.
"We're done with the actual committee process, but as each of these regulatory changes moves through, we will continue to engage with both officials and industry leaders," Clift said.