by Dave Dempsey, Senior Policy Advisor, Michigan Environmental Council
Eight Michigan environmental groups are asking the federal government to block issuance of a wetland destruction permit by state DEQ Director Russell Harding. Approved by Harding after his staff denied it twice, the permit would allow the conversion of 17 acres of wetlands near Caseville (which is near Saginaw Bay in Michigan’s Thumb), for construction of an airport.
The chair of the lead group in the appeal, the Lone Tree Council’s Terry Miller, blasted Harding’s decision because it overturned recommendations from staff of his wetlands program and from an administrative law judge who handled an earlier appeal. “This director seems to persistently ignore the public trust and his own staff in favor of developers, corporations and the extraction industry — that is not the mission of the DEQ, nor is it in the best interests of the residents of Michigan. This give-away of 17 acres of unique wetlands is a travesty,” said Miller.
The permit applicant is Lowell Kraft, a Caseville area resident appointed by Governor Engler to serve on the Michigan Aeronautics Commission.
“I’ll tell you what stinks about this whole thing,” said J. Dean Smith, Huron County’s Deputy Drain Commissioner, who noted the earlier staff rejections of the permit. “Now it goes up to the political level and Harding approves it. I think that stinks.”
In his 4-page ruling, Director Harding dismissed the value of the 17 acres of wetland because “there is no evidence that threatened or endangered species use this wetland . . . [and] implementation of a mitigation plan can reduce the impact of the proposed activity.”
The Bay City Times criticized Harding’s reasoning in an editorial. “If it takes the presence of a threatened species to tip the balance away from bulldozing wetlands, then wetland permits just became a lot easier to get . . . Harding ignores the special nature of these acres and those nearby. Together, they form an interdependent complex of wetlands and a resulting diversity of habitats that will be damaged by an airport. * * * [T]he state’s chief environmental steward . . . has slighted the most basic concept of protecting and preserving our natural resources.”
In a letter to Gary Mannesto, Chief of the Regulatory Section of the Detroit U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the environmental groups noted that the proposed airport:
Under the Clean Water Act, a state wetland permit is not valid if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has commented adversely on the permit during the public review process, as EPA did in this case. The Act then triggers a separate permit review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, Kraft, the proponent of the wetland destruction, may attempt to avoid federal scrutiny by arguing the wetland is not within the Corps’ regulatory jurisdiction.
“This case is an example of how politics and politicians can play a major role in the protection or destruction of aquatic habitats – in spite of regulatory processes designed to protect them,” said Dempsey.