MEC's five-year fight for clean air ends with major win for Michigan families

This week brought a long-fought, hard-won victory for MEC-and anyone who breathes Michigan's air.

On Monday, the Department of Environmental Quality announced that-in response to strong pushback from environmental advocates and the public-it is dropping a plan to deregulate air emissions of some 500 toxic chemicals.

This is a major win for clean air and public health in Michigan. Had DEQ gone through with the rule change, it would have allowed unchecked air emissions of about 250 chemicals that have never been tested for their impact on human health and could be cancer-causing. It also would have deregulated emissions of another 250 or so chemicals that, while not carcinogenic, are known to be somewhat toxic, allowing polluters to emit them in any quantity-despite the fact that even mildly toxic chemicals can have serious health impacts if people are exposed at high enough levels.

Among other arguments against the proposal, we warned that it ignored the science of toxic chemical exposure, and that it would deal a disproportionately heavy blow to the health of low-income residents and communities of color. You can find more details about the proposed rule change and our objections to it here.

"The DEQ's decision to continue regulating these chemicals is consistent with the best available science on the health risks of exposure to toxic substances, and it's the right decision for Michigan residents," MEC Policy Director James Clift said in our press release praising the decision. "We hope this is a sign that the department is putting its focus back where it belongs, on protecting Michigan's environment and the health of people who live here."

At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, this victory is the direct result of MEC's hard work. It's also a good illustration of how MEC goes about protecting Michigan's environment. Furthermore, it underscores the crucial role played by our financial supporters, who give us the resources to stick with an issue over the long-haul.

Here's the successful formula that added up to a clean-air victory:

We were at the table early. The proposal to deregulate air toxics came from a Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs work group charged with paring down the state's list of thousands of environmental rules by cutting unnecessary and redundant regulations. Thanks to his reputation as one of the top environmental policy experts in Lansing, MEC's James Clift was appointed to that group. The proposal to loosen air toxics rules was among many that James opposed, but because of business support, it nonetheless made it into the group's final recommendations to the Snyder administration in 2011.

James also served on a second work group, this one organized by the DEQ, to look in more detail at the air toxics proposal. MEC Health Policy Director Tina Reynolds also served on that panel. Because we had a seat at the table, we were able to identify the air toxics proposal as the serious threat it was, and begin organizing opposition to the rule change.

We drove the conversation in Lansing. When it became clear the DEQ was going to accept the deregulation idea and put forward a formal proposal to change state air rules, MEC swung into action. We held a conference call to alert journalists to the plan, and published a report on the proposal and why we were opposed. By sounding the alarm about this issue, we generated substantial news coverage that showed Michigan residents what was at stake.

MEC President Chris Kolb also published an op-ed in the Detroit News, co-authored by Guy Williams of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, urging the state to drop the plan and insisting that DEQ at least hold a public meeting on the proposal in Detroit. (We offered to organize and pay for that meeting. The state declined our offer.) And more recently, MEC's Sandra Turner-Handy and a co-author used their Detroit Free Press op-ed on the environmental injustice of the Flint crisis to call on the state to drop the air toxics plan.

We stuck with it. It's been five years since the air toxics deregulation plan was first proposed. We were ultimately successful because, while it was just one of numerous issues we worked on during that time, we remained persistently, stubbornly focused on stopping the proposal in its tracks. Even when it looked all but certain that the plan was moving forward, James kept up his opposition.

Frankly, the Flint water crisis and the deep blow it dealt to DEQ's credibility probably impacted the department's decision; before Flint became a national story, the air toxics deregulation looked likely to move forward, despite our objections. But we kept a spotlight on the proposal, and presented it to state leaders as a way to demonstrate the DEQ's commitment to protecting human health and the environment, and begin repairing the department's tarnished image.

We are very happy that DEQ made the right decision, and we're grateful to our supporters, who enabled MEC to put in the time and effort-day after day, month after month and year after year-that it took to achieve this important win for clean air and healthy families.

Now, on to the next challenge.


Photo courtesy Michele Truex via Flickr.

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