The sorry state of Michigan’s environmental watchdog

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


By Gary Wilson

“Can’t you see I’m on a losing streak,” goes a line from an early Rolling Stones song.

To describe Michigan’s official enviro watchdog — the Department of Environmental Quality — as on a losing streak is a gross understatement. The agency is not only on a losing streak it’s striking out on the most important issues.

A strong, aggressive DEQ is critical in Michigan. It’s responsible for protecting the crown jewel that defines the Great Lakes state — water — but it’s failing.


Strike 1

Faced with relentless pressure to do something about Enbridge’s aged Straits of Mackinac pipeline, the DEQ’s ultimate boss — the self-proclaimed nerd, Gov. Rick Snyder — signed off on a task force to do a study. It was a study of the obvious but it bought time away from the heat brought by enviro groups.

chicagoviewThe DEQ collaborated with the attorney general’s office and a year later they released a report that reminded me of the plot of the TV show Seinfeld — “it’s about nothing,” George told Jerry in that famous diner.

The report’s primary recommendation is that nasty tar sands crude not be allowed to pass through the pipeline — it wasn’t anyway and Enbridge had said that it wouldn’t be. It said that Michigan should ask for more information from Enbridge and that additional analysis would be needed. I swear I could hear the guffaws coming from Enbridge’s Calgary headquarters. Followed by a sigh: “OK, we’re good.”

Strike 2


The agency botched the Flint drinking water crisis to the point that there are multiple calls for investigations. The nerdy Gov. Snyder has launched — yep — another study to determine what went wrong.

He’s got some of Michigan’s best and brightest digging and snooping to see where the bodies are buried.

The Flint water debacle is a “public health disaster,” according to Nick Schroeck, who runs Wayne State University’s Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

Given the magnitude of the problem, Snyder’s investigation should be done by experts from outside the state, folks who aren’t remotely beholden to anyone in Michigan for anything. That’s if the governor wants the report to have credibility.                                                          

Strike 3

Michigan recently announced that it looked at what it’s been doing to protect Lake Erie from algae blooms and guess what, it’s working the MDEQ says. It’ll tweak things at the sewage treatment plants in and near Detroit, but not much more.

That sounds good, but the reality is that the Detroit River has very little impact on the toxic blooms.

“The concentration of phosphorus in the river is too low to stimulate the blooms,” Don Scavia, one of the University of Michigan’s top Great Lakes scientists, recently told me.

Closer to the scene, longtime Lake Erie watcher Sandy Bihn told the Detroit News that Michigan’s actions are “lame, at best… soft rhetoric … and disappointing.” Citizen activist Bihn obviously doesn’t suffer the pontifications of agency staffers.

Bihn wants “additional constraints on farmland practices regarding fertilizer.” That’s the primary cause of Lake Erie’s problems but they’re not on Michigan’s radar.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality has studied, parsed and tap danced around critical water issues for years now.

It has put Flint citizens at risk for serious, long term health problems. It’s gambling economically with Pure Michigan’s brand in the Straits of Mackinac and is tone deaf to Lake Erie’s water quality problems.

The agency and its leadership have lost credibility and the public’s trust. It’s in a sorry state and it’s time for changes.

Snyder will leave office in a few years with an environmental record and legacy.

Neither will be good unless he can right the sinking ship that is his Department of Environmental Quality.

6 thoughts on “The sorry state of Michigan’s environmental watchdog

  1. DEQ also pandered to DTE on SO2 attainment plan for southwest Detroit twice. DEQ allows fracking and out of state fracking waste that is toxic and radioactive to be down blended in Detroit and Belleville and shipped directly to landfills.

  2. The MDEQ has a sorry history of fluffing the pillows of industry and the well-connected, selectively applying statutes and rules in permitting processes. This has often seemed to be based on whose buddy is at one end or the other of the request.

    Maybe it is time for the USEPA and USACE to reassume the responsibilities of protecting our Great Lakes waters. At the very least, it would be one entity (federal) responsible to the Great Lakes States’ citizens. The feds would also be in a much better position to handle cross-border issues with our Canadian neighbors.

    Michigan’s political morass seems to be incapable of administering these tasks appropriately.

  3. Another is the MDEQ Great Lakes Water master plan which mentions wanting to address combine sewer overflows yet does not mention climate change. The rain patterns have shifted from long soaking rains to intense afternoon storms in many areas hence combined sewer overflows. It isn’t the only factor but it is a big one. The plan only mentions climate change on page 89 in an appx.

  4. I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Wilson! It appears the DEQ — along with AG Schuette and Gov. Snyder — are more concerned about protecting businesses than our state’s life-sustaining natural resources. Thanks for the good article.

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