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Wednesday, December 2,2009

DEQ's welcomed demise raises new issues

by Dave Dempsey

Easy come, easy go.


Created just 14 years ago by former Gov. John Engler, the state Department of Environmental Quality is about to bite the dust. The Granholm administration will merge it with the agency from whence it came, the Department of Natural Resources, early next year. So ends the life of a state department that was never necessary and wasted a few million taxpayer dollars.


Few will mourn the DEQ.


The new consolidated department — at this point to be dubbed the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (DNRE), although that could well change — will handle both traditional fish, wildlife and parks matters as well as pollution control and prevention. Which is just what the old DNR did between 1970 and 1995.


If done right, the merger will result in one less set of well-paid administrators. Even better, it will again put fish biologists side-by-side with water pollution controllers, meaning better thinking and decision-making about whether to allow new sewage pipes or giant fish blenders (power plants that catch and chew up fish in their intakes) that could harm the resource.


Engler hatched the DEQ in the mid-1990s to give himself a direct conduit to decisions about pollution permits requested by development and pollution interests. He chose for the director's job Russell Harding, who never met a polluter he didn't like.


Almost instantly, the new DEQ became a "Permits 'R Us" for business.


The major accomplishments of the DEQ in the Engler years included a close partnership with the Dow Chemical Co. in delaying cleanup of its massive dioxin contamination problem in and downstream from Midland, a welcome mat for a huge water pumping and export operation now operated by Nestle Waters North America, and opposition to tougher restrictions on out-of-state waste entering Michigan dumps.


As one critic put it, trash in, water out became Michigan's environmental policy.


The DEQ has become benign, if sometimes ineffective, since Jennifer Granholm took office. Director Steve Chester has proven ethical and committed to pollution law enforcement, but the agency's budget has shrunk dramatically. New toxic contamination sites are being created as we speak. Future generations will have to pay to clean them up — on top of the $1 billion the current generation of Michigan taxpayers has spent.


There are three problems with the reorganization. First, Granholm has opted to give herself and future governors the power to appoint the director of the new department. Even Engler wasn't that blatant. For 80 years the Natural Resources Commission has picked the head of the state's chief conservation agency.  


The Michigan United Conservation Clubs organized in 1937 to protect that system, on the grounds that it kept short-term politics out of long-term conservation policy. MUCC's new executive director, Erin McDonough, has marshaled opposition to Granholm's change that contributed to the Senate's rejection of the governor's order. The House would probably reject the order on the same grounds if it weren't controlled by Democrats who don't want to embarrass the party leader.


Second, while the internal team that is now figuring out how to blend the two agencies draws up pretty organization charts with "Centers of Excellence," the DNRE will be built shakily on budgets of mediocrity. The new agency will be handcuffed even more securely than the two old ones. New conservation funding is the only answer for many chronic natural resource needs.


Third, rumors abound inside state government that the director of the new agency may be neither Chester nor the respected DNR director, Becky Humphries, but former Consumers Energy staffer Bruce Rasher, whom Granholm appointed to head the internal DNRE reorganization team. Appointing a utility executive to run the state's conservation agency is something Engler also wasn't blatant enough to do.


Granholm wouldn't do that, would she?


(Dave Dempsey advised Gov. James Blanchard on environmental policy from 1983 to 1989. He is author of a book on Michigan’s conservation history and is communications director for the nonprofit organization Conservation Minnesota.)

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