Stateline Story

On the Record: Michigan Environmental Head Russell Harding

  • October 20, 2000
  • By John Nagy

With a Republican-dominated administration and a history of being a staunch friend of industry, Michigan isn't generally viewed by environmentalists as a champion of the environment.

Nonetheless, the Great Lakes State launched a $675 million investment in brownfields recovery and related programs two years ago and has won national laurels for its pollution prevention efforts. recently spoke with Michigan Department of Environmental Quality director Russell Harding, who served in Alaska and Missouri before taking over as Michigans top environmental regulator in 1992. The Society of Environmental Journalists is gathering in Lansing this weekend for its tenth annual conference. They'll be making comparisons with situations from their own states and cities. What will they see when they come to Michigan?

Harding : One thing I think they'll see is probably - well, not probably, definitely - the best brownfields program in the country. We really have invested strongly in reclaiming brownfields and recycling these city properties here in Michigan. We started to some degree back in the late 80s. We got a bond issue that had several hundred million in it for clean-up. And we spent kind of traditionally, mirrored after the federal clean-up liability scheme. We were having very limited success developing brownfields with that approach. And then in 1995, we substantially changed the law here in Michigan and went away from the federal model. Probably the key change was with liability. We went away from strict liability in Michigan. . . . If you cause the pollution, you pay to clean it up and if you didn't, you don't. : Since you've brought up brownfields, the National Governors' Association lauded your program as a model, while others like the Sierra Club disagree. They say that clean-ups in Michigan are more like cover-ups.

Harding : It's interesting because from the time we made the (liability) changes, they've criticized what we've done. That hasn't been reflected at all though in the mainstream politics, because all the changes we've made were overwhelmingly passed by both Democrats and Republicans. They (environmentalists) prefer the strict liability and they said that shifts part of the burden to the taxpayers. On that point, they're right. And we very much brought that to the attention of the legislature and the citizens of the state. In fact, we estimated that we would probably have around $16 million a year in what we call orphan sites. : Orphan sites?

Harding : That's a site where you don't have anybody that's responsible for the contamination that we can cost-recover against. That's fairly common in older, industrial areas. It may have been a plating company that provided parts, say for the automobile industry and they may have gone bankrupt years ago. And under the old way of cleaning up, you would go into that site and you would drag in any party that you could find to clean it up. And you might try to make some case that it's General Motors or Ford or some other auto supplier because they used them (and) in some way are responsible. What you ended up with was massive litigation.

Another important decision that we made is we said we're not going to clean up groundwater for the sake of cleaning up groundwater. What we're going to do is ensure that that groundwater doesn't have an interface with surface water, so it doesn't pollute the river or stream, for example. That can't be allowed, and we're going to ensure that it's not going to effect a usable aquifer. But if we have, for instance, shallow groundwater sitting under Detroit capped with clay, we may be able to take care of that fairly inexpensively as long as the contamination is contained.

Now, environmentalists disagree with that philosophically. And ours was a more pragmatic approach, which again was very much supported by the legislature. What we said was that in an ideal world it would be nice to clean everything up. With infinite resources theoretically you could do that. Unfortunately, the real world isn't that way. We've only got so many dollars and it's important that we get these sites safe for the public and cleaned up environmentally. But that doesn't necessarily mean we're going to be able to clean up every bit of contamination that's there. : Is there concern with ecosystems and biodiversity?

Harding : Well, that may be. We haven't heard too much about that. A lot of our clean-ups occur in the urban environment, suburban environment. Those are the areas we're addressing. I think on biodiversity, actually, Michigan is in pretty good shape in terms of state land because we have more state land ownership not through my agency, but through DNR (Department of Natural Resources) than any other state east of the Mississippi River. : We've touched on your relationship with environmentalists. Your agency recently intercepted a draft of a report, now public, that attacked your agency's record and specifically painted you and Gov. John Engler as engineers of Michigan's environmental destruction. I'd like to give you a chance to talk about that and ask directly how you would characterize your relationship with environmental activists in Michigan.

Harding : First of all, I'd say that report is absolute nonsense. It's a distortion of the facts and is a political document timed to try to deal with the national elections and the statewide elections here in Michigan this fall, without question. Our relationship with the environmental community, I'd say, in the state is not very good. I think that's unfortunate. We have outreached pretty extensively to them. Let me say this, I think unfortunately our environmental groups have become much more like political action groups than they have environmental (groups).

And it's become much more political. I would have to give some credit for that to (EPA Administrator) Carol Browner, who at the federal level has politicized and polarized the environmental issues. It started before the last national election and has become a political wedge issue. That's unfortunate because you don't solve problems that way.

The enviros didn't like the split of the DNR into a separate environmental agency back in '95, although some of the very same enviros who are critical of that actually suggested that should be done. But they didn't like it because a Republican governor did it. They feel like somehow it was politicizing the environment, although the way we are now organized a cabinet level status is like 35 other states. It's the common way to deal with the environment because of the importance of it. So they didn't like that.

My sense of it is, it isn't so much that we disagree on where we need to go, but we have fundamental differences on how to get there. Our approach, on the issue of enforcement, the numbers on enforcement actually are greater than they were when we were part of DNR. . . . But our approach has been quite a bit different. We've done things like we've created an environmental assistance division, which is non-regulatory, to reach out to small businesses particularly to try to help them comply with environmental laws.

I think, again, it's a philosophical thing. The environmental community, although I'm sure they wouldn't argue with that, really still believes that what we need to do is hard core enforcement. They don't trust business to comply . . . I've been in this business for 25 years. I've seen a huge change in the attitude of business. I used to do very strict enforcement, hit people over the head to get their attention. You don't have to do that anymore. That's not to say you don't have businesses that are bad actors. But the majority of your businesses understand good environmental performance is integral to a good business.

This isn't a holy war to us. This is trying to get these programs to work. And in my opinion the environmental groups really enjoy the rhetoric. They enjoy the politics of it. And I think what we're trying to do is just get compliance. : During the second presidential debate, Vice President Gore said, "the old argument that the environment and the economy are in conflict is outdated." And recently, West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood, a Republican running for re-election in a traditionally Democratic, industrial state, said that states need to strike a balance between these interests while discussing smog reduction, clean coal technology and mountaintop removal mining. Which of these positions do you find more realistic? And how do you envision your role in moderating these interests?

Harding : I'd say they're both right, although I don't think Gore carries out what he says he has. There is not an inherent, fundamental disconnect between the environmental performance and good business. And you also have to balance. The problem with that argument is that it's very general in nature. I, in almost every speech I've given around the state, argue that you can have both.

A good example of that disagreement would be the new air standards that EPA's proposing. We think a 120 parts-per-billion is very protective of public health. We're an attainment state here in Michigan. EPA has proposed dropping that to 80 and that would make most of Michigan non-attainment again. Our air continues to get cleaner. (EPA Administrator) Carol Browner is saying that children get more asthma. Well, children are getting more asthma, but the air is getting cleaner, so we ought to look for some other causes.

That's the nature of the debate. So when Mr. Gore says that, I don't really disagree. But I don't think he's done a really good job of what Mr. Underwood says and that's to balance those things. And that's not easy. There's no right or wrong answer. You have to use some common sense. You have to really look at the science. And I think that Carol Browner is much more of an advocacy type than an environmental administrator.

There's a current issue out right now with drinking water arsenic standards. The current drinking water standard is 50 parts-per-billion. Browner wants to lower that to five-parts-per-billion. And we've looked at the science and we believe strongly what they scientists say you can't really technically and scientifically - defend a number below 10 and 20. We support a number in the 10 to 20 range. Fifty is too high, but they take it to an extreme. Are relations with EPA tense?

Harding : Well, the relations with EPA actually have not been as good in the last few years for most states, including Michigan, as we hoped. I can say myself, and I think many of my counterparts agree -- though certainly I can't speak for them -- but I can tell you myself we were fairly optimistic when Administrator Browner was named to the job. She was a former Florida administrator, although not for a long time, but we thought she'd have a more state perspective. The first couple years were better, not too bad, but she got very political on us before the last national election. : She blames that on the Republican Congress.

Harding : Yes, and I'm not trying to defend what the Republican Congress did or didn't do. But my point is she really made it a political wedge issue. And the states sort of became the enemies.

The EPA has a very important role. They need to set national standards. They've got a role in auditing states' performance. I've never objected to that. But we have tremendous micromanagement of state programs occurring daily. Duplicative services. I don't think the feds have kept up the model that Congress envisioned. Twenty years ago, that was very, very appropriate for EPA to be in that role. States didn't have capacity for the most part. They were just gearing up for these programs. That's just not true anymore. Eighty percent of all the people doing this work now, eighty percent of all the budgets are state and local. The feds are only twenty percent of the picture.

But to answer your question, I think the relationships aren't as good as they could be. I think they need to be better. I think we should be partners. And if the state isn't doing the job, then EPA needs to work with that state to help correct those problems. Ultimately, if they can't be corrected, EPA should take the program over. But they need to let the states do their job. So, yes, I think there's been some tension. : It has been suggested that you could be on the short list for EPA administrator in a Bush administration. Does that job interest you?

Harding : I don't know who suggested that. No, I'm not actively applying for that job. Certainly I don't ever rule out anything. I consider it a privilege to work for Gov. Engler. I think we've accomplished great things in this administration. So, no, I'm not looking for any kind of federal appointment.