Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
Michigan’s Safe Drinking Water Act contains few specific standards for municipal drinking water. It does not set forth any particular objectives for water purity. And apart from adopting by reference a set of interim federal guidelines from the 1970s, it does not specify the maximum allowable level of lead, copper, arsenic, or any other contaminant. Instead, it empowers the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (“MDEQ”) to test and monitor municipal water systems, regulate contaminants, and develop drinking-water standards through the administrative rulemaking process. The MDEQ is an executive-branch agency, under the control of Governor Rick Snyder.
Snyder has announced his intention to recommend a new state lead and copper rule that is stricter than the federal regulation. Most likely, this would be accomplished through MDEQ rulemaking.
It is extremely tempting to angrily dismiss Snyder’s recommendation as political gamesmanship and public-relations babble. In fact, that’s exactly what I did when I heard that he was calling for the new rule. After all, Snyder and his emergency managers are largely responsible for the Flint Water Crisis (at least in my opinion). What can be accomplished by new lead and copper standards now that the damage is already done?
Then I remembered that more Flint-level tragedies are surely yet to come.
The Michigan Legislature has the power to stop an MDEQ rule dead in its tracks. And as any observer of Lansing will tell you, the Legislature doesn’t always do what the governor asks. So if Snyder is actually serious, this just might be tougher than he thinks.
The current legislative majority is notoriously hostile toward environmental and public health regulation. In recent years, Republican-controlled legislatures have used their authority to suspend the implementation of agency rules and prevent environmental regulations from taking effect through the passage of countermanding legislation. What’s more, as I have explained previously, several Republican state senators are seeking to further limit the MDEQ’s ability to implement environmental and public health standards. Their bill, SB 827, would give a committee of manufacturing, oil-and-gas, solid-waste, agribusiness, and chamber-of-commerce representatives the ability to stop all proposed MDEQ rules before they’re even released for public comment. It’s just one more indication of the anti-regulation atmosphere that pervades Michigan state government.
This will be an interesting test for Snyder. It’s far too late for him to undo the catastrophe that he and his emergency managers have wreaked upon Flint. But maybe—just maybe—new drinking-water standards can prevent another similar tragedy from destroying more lives. So here’s the real question: Does Snyder really want a tough, new lead and copper rule as he claims? Or is his recommendation for a stricter lead and copper regulation just more of the same, tired, political grandstanding? We’ll find out before long. If he’s serious, he will instruct the MDEQ to move swiftly, speak in support of environmental and public health regulation, and actively defend his new water-quality rule before an unsympathetic Legislature. If he’s bluffing, as I suspect he might be, we can expect to see him cave in, lose interest, and capitulate as he has done so often in the past.