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Michigan okays ‘polluter panels’ in blow to environmental efforts across the state

Environmental activists are slamming two controversial bills signed into law Friday by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), arguing that they will give polluting companies the ability to undermine state environmental guidelines.

The two bills signed by Snyder will allow for oversight of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), which is meant to serve as a watchdog for environmental issues throughout the state.

One law establishes an Environmental Rules Review Committee staffed by governor-appointed voting members representing various sectors including waste management, manufacturing, fossil fuel companies, and agriculture. The committee will oversee the DEQ’s process for establishing rules and presumably wield considerable control over how such efforts proceed.

The second law creates the Environmental Permit Review Commission, which will advise on permits and other applications, to be housed within the DEQ. Both laws have been dubbed “polluter panels” bills based on the leeway they give to industries known for poor environmental practices.

In a statement, Snyder argued the bills would bolster the DEQ’s ability to “make decisions impacting environmental quality” in addition to helping “transparency”.

“These bills enhance opportunities for independent experts to weigh in and provide information that will help ensure new environmental processes meet the highest levels of quality and safety standards,” the governor said.

But activists argued the laws are a step backwards in a state that has struggled to provide accountability to residents. In a statement released following the laws’ signing, Rhonda Anderson, a Michigan-based Sierra Club organizer, harshly criticized the move and likened Snyder’s actions to wider national efforts rolling back regulations and reducing environmental protections.

“Michigan, like the rest of the nation, has already been robbed of our best protections against dangerous air and water pollution since Scott Pruitt took control of EPA [Environmental Protection Agency],” Anderson said.

“Now that this legislation has been signed by Governor Snyder, we’ll have our own Pruitt right here in Michigan, with polluting industries in direct control of our state environmental agency. Communities are already facing unacceptable levels of toxins and pollution in our state,” she continued, emphasizing that the Michigan government still has not addressed other pressing state issues, including the ongoing water crisis in Flint.

Cyndi Roper, a senior policy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), argued that the two laws would all but hand control of the DEQ to the very industries it is meant to hold accountable.

“The fox isn’t even pretending like it will guard the henhouse,” Roper said.

According to the Detroit Metro Times, the Michigan DEQ has sparked controversy under Snyder, repeatedly showing favor to major industries and corporations. The current head of the DEQ is Heidi Grether, who formerly served as manager for BP throughout the company’s 2010 oil crisis along the Gulf Coast, the largest marine oil spill in history.

Activists have said the new laws come on the heels of another major environmental action in the state: sweeping new water regulations established earlier this month. Under the new rules, Michigan is set to become the first state in the country to get rid of lead pipes carrying drinking water, a direct response to the Flint water crisis.


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