A listener recently asked Stateside the following question:
"What does the Environmental Protection Agency do in Michigan?"
“Well, a lot,” said Nick Schroeck, director of the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic at Wayne State University Law School.
He said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has “the oversight responsibility” for big federal environmental laws, like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. That basically means the agency oversees those laws and makes sure they’re followed.
“And here in Michigan, we have what’s called ‘delegated authority’ in the state, where our Michigan Department of Environmental Quality does things like reviewing permit applications for a major source of air pollution, or reviewing permit applications for water pollution,” Schroeck said. “And EPA monitors all of our Michigan DEQ’s permitting activity in the state. And in fact, EPA can object if our DEQ fails to follow the letter of the federal law of if they’re not permitting it as fully as EPA would like to see happen.”
In short, this means “at a very big level, everyday activity going on in the state is somehow regulated by the EPA,” Schroeck said.
When big incidents happen around our state, it’s the EPA’s role to respond.
For instance, when the Enbridge pipeline broke near Marshall, Michigan and spilled oil into the Kalamazoo River, first responders at the scene were from the EPA.
“EPA sends in experts – they have a rapid response team – and EPA helps to train first responders and DEQ staff in the state of Michigan, so that they can be there when a spill happens and try to contain it as quickly as possible,” Schroeck said.
He said EPA led the cleanup effort at the scene of the spill near Marshall.
“And so, in fact, EPA was really driving the bus as far as making sure that Enbridge was doing what they said they would do to clean up that oil spill, tracking the benchmarks to make sure that they were meeting the cleanup standards when they said they would,” he said. “And so, EPA really had a major oversight role to make sure that the river was cleaned up as quickly and as efficiently as possible.”
EPA also works to clean up Michigan’s 65 Superfund sites. They’re some of the state’s worst, most contaminated sites.
“The sites are so toxic that they’re not going to be cleaned up on their own without some investment from our federal government,” Schroeck said. “And that means grants, that means technical oversight and expertise.”
In addition to providing regulation, Schroeck said the EPA also provides money to research and grant programs working to clean up contaminated sites in Michigan, research on the Great Lakes, and more.
He said Michigan depends on Congress to appropriate money to the EPA for various projects, including cleaning up those Superfund sites.
“And you can probably guess where this is going,” he said. “Over the last several years, there has been less and less money appropriated by Congress into the Superfund program to allow these cleanups to take place. That means those 65 sites in Michigan are not getting an appropriate amount of resources to help clean them up … to get those sites back up to a treatment standard where the property can be put to a productive use.”
The EPA's future
Schroek said President Trump’s nomination of Scott Pruitt for Administrator of the EPA sends a message to the agency.
“And that is that EPA is on notice that a lot of their prior regulations, rules that have been passed are now being overturned by Congress, or Congress is attempting to overturn them,” he said. “And the fact that Pruitt was actually nominated for this position says a lot, because, in fact, as attorney general in Oklahoma, he has had multiple lawsuits against the EPA and often questioned EPA’s authority to implement the various environmental protection programs that we have across this country. So, regardless of whether or not he’s confirmed, the message has already been sent that EPA should be on notice that times are changing under the Trump administration for sure.”
For the full interview, listen above.