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Wednesday, December 8,2010

Snyder appointments: Better lock the henhouse

by Dave Dempsey
Imagine a new governor of Michigan appointing an environmentalist as agriculture director — someone with a track record of fighting factory farms and calling for tough measures to reduce fertilizer and pesticide runoff into lakes and streams. Imagine that appointment on top of the selection of an environmental enforcer to run the state’s air, water and waste programs.

Imagine that, and you’re an environmentalist with a vivid dream life.


In the Lansing climate of the last 30 years, at least, dual appointments like that would provoke protesting howls from the farm lobby. And they wouldn’t get past the state Senate.


But the reverse is not true, as last week’s natural resource appointments by Gov.-elect Rick Snyder demonstrated. Snyder named former Agriculture Department chief Dan Wyant to head the state Department of Environmental Quality and former Agriculture Department administrator Keith Creagh as director of the Department of Agriculture. The governor-elect also announced a split — again — of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment into two agencies, including the DEQ. More on that in a moment.


Both Wyant and Creagh are intelligent, experienced administrators — and champions of agriculture. You can only hope that their long history has taught them that balance — that perennial term of art in politics — means more than balancing between promoting agriculture and really promoting it.


Reaction to Snyder’s picks ranged from joy in the Michigan Farm Bureau to wait-and-see from most environmental groups, to shock and dismay from individual environmentalists and some DNRE staff.


Michelle Hurd Riddick, no big fan of the outgoing Granholm administration and an advocate for cleanup of widespread dioxin contamination of Saginaw Bay, pulled no punches. “The heart of Pure Michigan is the people’s Great Lakes, and I have little confidence, given Mr. Snyder’s DEQ pick, that he embraces the heart of what is Pure Michigan,” she said. “The mission of the DEQ is first and foremost to protect the resources of this state, not fast track permits — a clean environment has never hurt any economy, and cleaning up the environment creates jobs. I’m still waiting for a governor who stands up and dispels the myth of jobs or the environment.”


The cleaving of DEQ from DNRE just a year after Granholm fulfilled a 2002 campaign promise by putting them together took most DNRE employees by surprise. One veteran said reactions of colleagues were “mostly along the line of ‘you’ve got to be kidding.’ Most DEQ staff are disappointed. No one wants any more turmoil.”


Another, younger staffer observed that fellow workers felt “broken,” adding, “The past year we’ve spent countless hours changing templates, forms, web pages, memos, form letters, etc., to reflect our new name. This time was taken away from the work that really needs to be done. We’re frustrated that so much attention is being paid to our agency name and the administrative work that goes into that detail, that no attention is being paid to environmental protection work.”


Stationery has been changing a lot in the state’s natural resources programs for the last two decades. Then-Gov. John Engler abolished most environmental boards in 1991, then split off the DEQ from the Department of Natural Resources in 1995. Then along came the dueling reorganizations of Granholm and Snyder.


Perhaps it’s time to stop shuffling boxes, and to start conserving natural resources.


One of the big agriculture issues Wyant and Creagh will face is a bumper crop of manure runoff from factory farms into lakes and streams. Environmentalists were pleased when the Granholm administration cracked down on the problem by requiring the operations to get Clean Water Act permits setting limits on the pollution and enabling enforcement of violations. Now that policy is in jeopardy.


An estimated 200 factory farms in Michigan — or ‘concentrated animal feeding operations,’ as the agriculture community prefers them to be described — can pollute when their waste pipelines rupture or overflows happen after heavy rainfall, washing tons of manure into waterways, killing fish and causing bacterial water contamination. Disputing that environmental permits are needed to control this, proprietors of the farms and their friends in the Capitol say that voluntary efforts will take care of the problem.


The official reaction of environmental groups — that they’ll hold back on their judgments of Wyant and Snyder and hope to work with the pair makes sense in Lansing. No point burning bridges before they’re even built. But it’s safe to say that most of them are wincing, and hoping that the time both men have spent out of power has broadened their view of what protecting natural resources really means.


(Dave Dempsey was environmental adviser to Gov. James Blanchard. His latest book is “Superior Shores: A Novel of Conservation.”)

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