Engler's environmental legacy


Published July 14, 2002

In the coming months, Michigan's chief environmental law enforcement body, the Department of Environmental Quality, will be undergoing a major reorganizing program. Internal memos leaked to the Detroit Free Press revealed that Director, Russ Harding, intends to consolidate the nine divisions of the agency in response to state budget cuts. The re-organizing effort, however, is essentially a facade that effectively conceals the results of Republican Gov. John Engler's anti-environment policies. Engler recently announced a $32 million reduction of the general fund support for the DEQ beginning in September. The department will also lose nearly 160 employees under Michigan's early retirement program this summer.

Already constrained by a sparse budget and understaffed, the new cuts have effectively disabled the DEQ. The budget cuts comprise over 30 percent of the agency's general funds and employee losses total 10 percent of the previous staff.

In addition to under-funding and de-emphasis, the DEQ will also suffer from Harding's irrational restructuring. Among other improbable combinations, Harding is placing the Wetland Protection Program under the control of the Geological Survey division, a major proponent of drilling beneath the Great Lakes and whose operations include granting permits for oil and gas production.

Likely to be a major issue in the gubernatorial race this fall, environmental and public health has repeatedly proven to be a high priority of Michigan's citizens. Yet Engler continues to slash the budget of environmental agencies like the DEQ and Harding continues to passively accept these policies. Their disregard of both public opinion and health is especially inconceivable considering the high stakes involved in protecting Michigan's environment.

The state is the site of numerous environmental treasures like the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshores. To endanger these and the state's thousands of lakes, wetlands and forests not only has drastic consequences for Michigan's environment, but also endangers the state's outdoor recreation and tourism industries.

Moreover, Michigan is home to a large number of high-polluting industries whose contaminants threaten the health of the state's citizens and communities. Ann Arbor alone has 29 sites already deemed unlivable because of contamination. With the DEQ crippled, Michigan's residents can expect their environmental problems to increase and their environmental laws to be enforced even less frequently than in the past.

The reorganization also raises public oversight issues. The entire process has been undertaken with little consultation of the public, whose health the department is ostensibly responsible for protecting. Furthermore, with divisions losing directors and employees transferring to new divisions, established ties between the public and the agency have been erased. Similar abuses could be avoided in the future with the creation of a citizens oversight committee to monitor the agency's internal actions.

The restructured DEQ will likely be in place shortly before Engler leaves office next year. The emasculation of the DEQ is a fitting legacy to Engler's tumultuous years in Lansing. The next governor must renounce Engler's deleterious social and fiscal policies and restore Michigan's progressive spirit.