Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Critics say feds unable to protect Michigan wetlands

Traverse City, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s proposal to
hand over protection of Michigan wetlands to the federal government
comes as critics in Congress and elsewhere say federal agencies are
falling down on the job.

A muddled U.S. Supreme Court ruling on two Michigan cases in
2006 has caused general confusion about which wetlands the
government can regulate. Since then, there has been “drastic
deterioration” of wetland protection under the Clean Water Act, a
congressional memo said in December.

Not only are the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army
Corps of Engineers uncertain about their jurisdiction, the report
said. The court rulings have piled more work on field staffers who
inspect wetlands, process applications to develop them and
investigate possible violations, causing lengthy delays. Hundreds
of violations have gone unpunished.

“It’s a terrible time” for Michigan to drop its program and rely
on the feds, said Jan Goldman Carter, a National Wildlife
Federation wetlands attorney. “Clean Water Act enforcement at the
federal level has been seriously undermined.”

David Evans, EPA’s wetlands division director, declined to
comment on specific criticisms in the memo but acknowledged the
court ruling has created uncertainty about federal authority.
Things have improved more recently as agencies have made
adjustments, he said.

Michigan’s wetlands program is successful and abandoning it is
“not something that we would suggest they pursue,” Evans said. “On
the other hand, we do understand their budget situation has put
them in a position where they have to consider things like
this.”

The governor’s office believes the federal agencies would
adequately protect Michigan’s wetlands.

“We would not be recommending it if we weren’t confident of
that,” said Liz Boyd, spokeswoman for Granholm.

Michigan’s law protecting wetlands such as swamps and marshes
was enacted in 1979. The state has lost about half the 11 million
acres it had prior to European settlement. Wetlands are valued for
qualities such as absorbing floodwaters, removing pollutants and
providing fish and wildlife habitat.

In 1984, the state was granted permission to administer the
section of the federal Clean Water Act dealing with wetlands. New
Jersey is the only other state with that authority. That put
Michigan regulators who issue state permits for altering wetlands
in charge of making sure the projects also meet federal
requirements.

In her budget proposal last month, Granholm called for
transferring federal wetland regulation back to the federal
government to save money as the state grapples with a $1.6 billion
budget deficit.

Regulating wetlands costs about $4 million a year, of which $2.1
million is appropriated from the general fund to the state
Department of Environmental Quality. The rest comes from the
federal government and permit application fees, which legislators
have refused to increase.

Granholm also is expected to seek repeal of Michigan’s wetlands
law. Bills to do so have been introduced in the Legislature.

That would require that people seeking to develop wetlands for
houses, commercial buildings or other purposes obtain permits from
the Army Corps, with EPA providing oversight.

The Army Corps had no immediate reaction to Michigan’s plan, but
EPA’s Evans said it would dump a heavy burden on the Corps’
workers. They would have to process a larger volume of new
applications and monitor compliance with existing permits issued by
the DEQ, he said.

If that happens, the Corps could seek to hire more workers for
Michigan, spokeswoman Lynn Duerod said.

Aside from staffing issues, environmentalists also worry that
the Clean Water Act – as presently interpreted – would protect
fewer wetlands than the state law.

In a 2006 ruling on two Michigan cases, a sharply fragmented
Supreme Court failed to produce a majority opinion establishing
which wetlands are under federal control. That has forced
regulators to make more time-consuming, case-by-case determinations
than before.

“EPA field offices across the country have expressed serious
concerns about this negative trend, warning that they are no longer
able to ensure the safety and health of the nation’s waters,” said
the Dec. 16 memo by the House oversight and transportation
committees.

Even before the Supreme Court ruling, DEQ Director Steven
Chester wrote in 2003 that 17 percent of Michigan’s wetlands –
930,856 acres – might not be protected under federal law because
they are not physically connected to streams or lakes. Most of
those are covered under the state law, which is more specific.

Legislation to grant the federal government broader regulatory
authority failed last year. Supporters hope Obama administration
backing and larger Democratic congressional majorities will boost
its prospects.

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