A bill to integrate private business stakeholders with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's rule-making process narrowly passed the Republican-controlled state House on Tuesday, infuriating Democrats who fear another potential environmental crisis in a state still haunted by Flint's lead-tainted water troubles.
Lawmakers voted 57-51 on legislation to create an environmental rules review committee stacked with private industry representatives who would be able to weigh in during the DEQ's rule-making process. The other two bills would establish a permit appeal panel and an advisory board of scientific experts.
A floor substitute notably scales back the Senate version that would have granted the rules committee veto power over the DEQ — a concession that led to critics christening it the "fox guarding the henhouse act." Over half of the voting stakeholders would hail from industries such as oil and gas, agriculture and manufacturing. Now, the legislation says the DEQ director can seek a final verdict from the governor if the committee's position is unsatisfactory.
"The only unfair advantage that exists in our state today is the advantage that unelected bureaucrats have over the citizens of our country," said Rep. Lee Chatfield, a Republican from Levering and chair of the House committee that moved the bills to the floor. "These bills finally even the playing field."
Democrats lambasted Republicans on the House floor during Tuesday's vote, emphasizing the severity of the Flint water crisis in their speeches.
"Children were drinking poisoned water — will you be moved by that?" said Rep. Yousef Rabhi, a Democrat from Ann Arbor. "Will you be moved by the fact that families were cooking with poisoned water? Will you be moved by that? Because that's the reality of what happens when you put corporations in the driver's seat and we put the people in the backseat."
Rep. William Sowerby, a Democrat from Clinton Township, said he voted "no" on the new version because "regardless of what the governor can do to intervene, there are too many hoops that may not be followed."
The sponsor of the rules committee bill, Sen. Tom Casperson, was unavailable for comment Tuesday. In January, the GOP-controlled Senate backed the old version of the bills on a mostly party-line vote.
Gov. Rick Snyder will review the House changes before deciding on whether to sign them into law, spokeswoman Anna Heaton said Tuesday. DEQ spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said "the updated substitute bills are heading in a more positive direction."
Casperson, an Escanaba Republican with a background in log trucking, is seen by many as the darling of business and industrial groups — dozens of which are backing his bills. The Associated Petroleum Industries of Michigan and the Michigan Farm Bureau have both said the DEQ iced them out of rule-making deliberations for the past decade.
"The current process is dependent on whether the director wants to engage," said Jason Geer, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce energy and environmental policy director. "That is not what I call a reasonable process for government."
But environmentalists say the DEQ is in fact too pro-business because it approves virtually all permit requests. To them, the department has a slipshod record in public health crises — most drastically in 2014 and 2015, when lead leached from old pipes and fixtures in Flint and contaminated the city's water source. Several ex-DEQ officials have since been charged with involuntary manslaughter, while the state is still working to replace Flint's pipes.
"This legislative package still gives polluters and other corporate interests who are unaccountable to Michigan voters and taxpayers an oversized voice," said Michigan Environmental Council president Chris Kolb.
Chatfield countered attacks from Democrats on the floor by saying that after the Flint crisis he is "amazed that all of a sudden we want to put a blind trust back into the DEQ, back into bureaucrats."
The DEQ director has long been the top decision-maker on permit conditions. Verdicts are subject to Michigan's Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, which commands the DEQ to issue permits only in the absence of a "feasible or prudent alternative."
Casperson, the rules committee bill sponsor, believes the DEQ exploits that mandate to "hold people hostage."
"It appears to me the DEQ looks at wetlands as almost a religion," Casperson said when interviewed on the legislation in March. "They preserve every little frog pond as if they were big, beautiful pristine wetlands."