AP Environmental Writer
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — For the second time in recent years, the Michigan Legislature is rewriting environmental law in ways that critics say would accelerate development of sensitive wetlands, although business interests contend the revisions would provide adequate protections while boosting the economy.
The state Senate this week approved and sent to the House a measure that would make numerous changes in laws dealing with wetlands such as swamps, marshes and bogs, which absorb floodwaters and provide vital wildlife habitat. Some of the provisions deal with farming. Others would provide more flexibility for developers who are required to create new wetlands in place of those they damage.
The bill is designed to fix problems in Michigan’s wetland policy identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA oversees wetland protection under the Clean Water Act but has allowed Michigan and New Jersey to handle the job within their borders because of their strong state-level programs. About 95 percent of Michigan’s 5.5 million acres of wetlands are covered under its rules.
“The EPA has made it clear that we will lose our ability to self-regulate wetlands unless changes are made to our program,” said Sen. Mike Green, a Republican from Mayville who sponsored the bill that cleared the Senate on Wednesday. He said it “does what we need to do to stay independent while protecting lawful commerce.”
Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed dismantling Michigan’s program and handing control to the EPA as a cost-saving measure in 2009. She eventually signed a bill that kept the state’s 30-year-old system alive but made changes that business groups said would make it more efficient and fair. It also established an advisory council that developed the legislation Green is sponsoring.
Environmental and business organizations favor continuing the state program, but for different reasons. Repealing it would leave about 900,000 acres unprotected because it covers some activities exempt from federal regulation, environmentalists say. Businesses say they’d rather deal with state regulators than their federal counterparts. It takes the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality about 21 days to process a wetland development permit, while federal permits often take up to a year, Green said.
The Michigan DEQ has endorsed the bill, which also is backed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Farm Bureau and groups representing home builders and Realtors.
It would continue a longstanding pass from regulation for existing farm operations, but would require a permit for future conversion of wetlands to agriculture. That’s a significant concession for the agriculture industry, said Laura Campbell, ecology manager for the Michigan Farm Bureau. But it also exempts minor drainage operations, the use of wetlands as livestock crossing areas and some other farming activities.
Environmentalists say the bill further loosens state rules instead of just addressing issues raised by EPA. Letting livestock trample wetlands to reach ponds and streams could damage water quality, especially for sensitive streams in the northern Lower Peninsula, said Jennifer McKay of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.
Also worrisome is a provision that could lessen regulators’ authority to insist that developers build replacement wetlands in the same area as those they damage instead of putting them elsewhere, McKay said. Yet another provision could force the DEQ to perform more costly on-site surveys to determine whether particular wetlands are under its jurisdiction, she said.
“The legislation ... weakens wetlands protections in the state of Michigan and jeopardizes the important role wetlands play in purifying our water and sustaining our state’s economy,” said Jack Schmitt of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said the bill was designed to “make the process simpler, easier and more effective” for developers and landowners. “It contains meaningful reforms as well as meaningful protection,” he said.