Resist willy-nilly pollution changes

Guest Editorial
(Editor’s note: The following editorial is reprinted from the Detroit Free Press, where it was first published.)

Better safe than sorry.

For decades, that was Michigan’s standard to regulate the pollutants belched into the air by industry smokestacks.

That’s about to change, as the state continues its headlong rush to make Michigan friendlier to business.

Eliminating unnecessary regulation has been a high priority for Gov. Rick Snyder, who understands the importance of building a more robust tax base and a more stable economy in Michigan.

But the health of Michigan’s business climate shouldn’t be placed above the health of Michiganders.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regulates about 1,200 air toxins, more than almost any state in the nation, save Texas. But a new set of guidelines under review by the MDEQ would drop that number by about 500.

The new guidelines were developed by a working group made up largely of industry representatives. If adopted, the new rules would remove about 25 percent of the least dangerous pollutants from the list of regulated air toxins, along with pollutants for which there is no health data. Businesses would still be required to report emissions, and the MDEQ could still restrict the quantity of emissions via an individual business’ permit.

These are drastic changes.

Michigan’s current system determines how much of a given pollutant can be released, in part, by assigning a value to each air toxin. That number takes into account not just the toxicity of the pollutant, but the quantity in which it is released. In other words, a large quantity of a less-toxic pollutant might be as or even more dangerous than a minute quantity of a more-toxic pollutant, something that ought not be ignored in any regulatory reform.

When it comes to pollutants for which no health data exist — there are 281 such pollutants on the list — the state assumes the worst, assigning those toxic pollutants the highest value. A more responsible course of action would be to require industries releasing such pollutants to obtain the health data necessary for the MDEQ to make an informed decision about the safety of emissions.

These kinds of environmental precautions are especially important in Michigan, where heavy industry is concentrated and where many homes are downwind of multiple factories emitting toxic air pollutants.

There’s no question that Michigan’s air-toxin regulation program is aggressive. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires regulation of just 187 hazardous air pollutants. But that’s a minimum threshold, not a goal — something Snyder recognized when he vetoed a 2011 bill that would have barred Michigan from using regulatory guidelines more stringent than the federal

The new guidelines are in a public review and comment period expected to last about six months; at the end of that time, the guidelines can be adopted by the state’s administrative rules process.

That shouldn’t happen.

Snyder has taken some big gambles: reducing the business tax rate while increasing taxes on individuals, getting rid of the personal property tax paid by some businesses, eliminating tax incentives in favor of a more limited, appropriations-based system. Yet it’s far from clear that these gambits will pay off. None thus far has resulted in a significant reduction to the state’s unemployment rate, at 9 percent, still substantially higher than the national average of 7.3 percent.

Air quality is too important for a gamble.