Republicans battle environmentalists

Argument over waste cleanup plan gets dirty

BY HUGH MCDIARMID JR.
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

June 4, 2004

Republican legislators drew a bull's-eye on the state Department of Environmental Quality Thursday -- proposing to eliminate its 60-person hazardous waste program, cut 117 other employees and slap director Steve Chester with a 15-percent pay cut.

The reason: A rancorous dispute over how strictly the DEQ will enforce cleanup of decades-old dioxin contamination from Dow Chemical Co. in Midland.

The DEQ wants to use a standard that critics say is unnecessarily harsh and could result in thousands of properties being declared hazardous waste sites.

Chester says the state standard is necessary to protect children and others from cancer, birth defects and numerous other diseases that have been linked to high exposures.

But State Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, said something drastic was necessary to call attention to the situation in Midland.

"The DEQ would label 9,000 homes in Midland County and 2,000 more in Saginaw County as hazardous waste facilities," he said. "Dow . . . the fourth-largest employer in the state, is being harassed by the DEQ. I think there is a general belief that the DEQ is out of control."

Dioxin is a term for a group of highly toxic chemicals created by processes including chemical manufacturing.

Chester reiterated his intentions to aggressively deal with the contamination at a public meeting last week that drew more than 1,500 people -- most of them against the DEQ's approach.

The fallout came Thursday at the House Appropriations Committee, where the Republican-led measures were approved in party-line votes. The cuts are expected to be debated by the full House of Representatives next week.

DEQ spokeswoman Pat Spitzley called the actions spiteful.

Scrapping the hazardous- waste program would leave the state with no oversight, licensing or inspections of facilities producing toxic materials, she said.

The director's salary was the only one the committee suggested slashing, she said: "It's clearly a personal attack against the director."

Moolenaar helped engineer the proposal eliminating the hazardous waste program. He also is one of the sponsors of a law to lift the level at which the state acts on dioxin contamination from the current 90 parts per trillion to 1,000 parts per trillion. That is the standard used by the federal government as the threshold for federal cleanup assistance.

Moolenaar said he and other legislators from the area will meet Saturday with Gov. Jennifer Granholm to discuss the situation.

The actions Thursday were "almost horrifying" because of legislators' unwillingness to explore a public health threat, said Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter.

Contact HUGH McDIARMID JR. at 248-351-3295 or mcdiarmid@freepress.com

 


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