When the law is an ass

Apr 5, 2018

There’s little doubt that the most appalling part of the Snyder administration has been the laughably misnamed Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

You have to give the MDEQ this: It never misses an opportunity to show that it doesn’t care about the environment, or what the citizens of Michigan think, unless they happen to be executives of large corporations.

What’s more, it doesn’t even feel any need to pretend it cares what we think. The MDEQ, the agency which lied about the water in Flint, did ask for public comment about a proposal to allow Nestle, a giant corporation based in Switzerland, to vastly increase how much water it was sucking out of White Pine Springs in Osceola County in Northern Michigan.

They got comment, all right. A total of 80,945 people were against it, and 75 were in favor. That works out to slightly more than 99.9 percent opposing this plan, which is an even greater margin than Albanian dictators used to give themselves when they staged rigged elections.

When the comments were in, the MDEQ cheerfully granted Nestle the permit. Matt Gamble, a water supervisor for the agency, told Michigan Radio that under the law, the agency can’t say no, “even if the vast majority of the public wants them to.”

Well, I don’t know how much Charles Dickens you remember, but I instantly thought of Oliver Twist’s Mr. Bumble saying, “If the law supposes that, the law is an ass.”

Actually, this isn’t about the law, but priorities. One of the current DEQ’s guiding principles, as Michael Jackman of Detroit’s Metro Times newspaper has pointed out, is to be “partners in economic development” with the people they regulate.

So it was scarcely surprising that Heidi Grether, the head of the MDEQ, admitted that “in full transparency,” the people were against this, but basically said that was not “and should not be part of an administrative permit decision.”

Grether became head of the MDEQ after the previous director was fired when the agency’s attempts to cover up what happened in Flint were exposed. She had previously been an oil and gas industry lobbyist who, eight years ago, worked for BP America during its disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That’s not exactly the background you might think someone running an agency charged with protecting our environment might have.

But that’s what we got. Two years ago, the citizens of the densely-settled Detroit suburb of Southfield vigorously protested plans to drill for oil on the grounds of a church which borders an area where residents depend on well water. Naturally, DEQ granted the permit anyway.

Fortunately, no oil was found. Candice Miller, now Macomb County’s public works commissioner calls herself a strong conservative Republican. Her voting record in Congress and actions as Michigan Secretary of State prove that.

But she thinks this decision is reckless and “totally outrageous.” She added, “It is extremely distressing that our current state leadership will not take the necessary steps to protect the irreplaceable international treasure that we have in the Great Lakes.”

What’s baffling to me is that the candidates for governor aren’t campaigning on a pledge to fire everyone who has been perverting the mission of the DEQ.

I think that would be Job One, if it were me.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.