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Business leaders will lobby for 'sensible' environmental rules
By Jeff Kart
Bay City Times
09/06/03

Bay County businesses say some state and federal environmental regulations in Michigan are hurting their ability to retain jobs and compete.

They're taking their case to the state Capitol on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.

The trip is being organized by the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, and marks the first time the agency has ever led such a lobbying effort, said Chamber President Michael D. Seward.

A local business regulation and environmental task force plans to meet with local legislators, other policy makers and representatives of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

"It's a very time-consuming, heavy effort that over the long haul, I'm convinced will pay off for the Bay area," Seward said.

"It's designed to really set the rapport with the leaders in the House and Senate and the administration on these key things that effect Bay County."

Seward said he could only speak in general about the group's concerns, because issue statements are still being finalized.

He said the concerns include discharge limits on wastewater treatment facilities, permitting fees, water treatment standards, air quality and land use. The group thinks environmental regulations need to be more sensible.

DEQ spokeswoman Patricia Spitzley said her agency welcomes the input, but she takes issue with the suggestion that her agency is too hard on business.

"I don't think the DEQ as a whole has a problem with companies expressing concerns about environmental regulations," Spitzley said. "I think that they will find that we are not as heavy-handed as other states."

Warren R. Smith, environmental projects coordinator for H. Hirschfield Sons Co. scrapyard in Bay City, will be one of those making the trip.

Smith said his company will send representatives, along with Dow Corning, Monitor Sugar, S.C. Johnson, Consumers Energy, Bay Cast and General Motors.

Smith said businesses in the Saginaw Valley, as well as other parts of Michigan and the Great Lakes states, are under stricter environmental regulations than states in other parts of the country.

For instance, he said, the mercury standards for surface water discharges here are more stringent than those for drinking water. Drinking water has a parts per billion standard, while surface water has a parts per trillion standard, said Smith, a former manager for Dow Chemical Co. in Midland.

"The problem is, it's very difficult to even test to those limits, much less to find the controls to meet it," Smith said.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said the standards are higher for surface water because mercury accumulates in the environment, building up in sediments, fish and other aquatic organisms. That then becomes another source of mercury that people are exposed to when they eat fish, for instance.

Mercury is a liquid metal that can cause kidney and brain damage, according to the EPA.

Still, Smith said costs to businesses rise exponentially as limits on mercury and other contaminants continue to drop.

He said there are few laboratories that can even test for mercury in parts per trillion. The tests are so sensitive that old fillings in teeth can mess up a sample, he said.

"It's a situation where I think everybody wanted the water to get much better and they set the limits very high so people would reach for a higher limit, but I think we're starting to get to a point where maybe those are very, very low and very, very difficult to attain without spending an ungodly amount of money."

Smith said environmental standards in the Great Lakes make it tougher for companies in the Saginaw Valley to maintain jobs here. Hirschfield has spent about $1 million on a resurfacing project at its site, to get rid of old contaminants and contain surface water on the property, he said.

DEQ spokeswoman Spitzley said she schedules all of the agency's external meetings, and wasn't aware of the Chamber's upcoming visit.

She said environmental regulations exist to keep harmful amounts of pollutants from getting into the Great Lakes. The DEQ gets guidance from the EPA and usually makes rules in a process that includes opportunities for public comment.

"We don't do it in a vacuum," Spitzley said. "We don't have a Ouija board."

Rep. Joseph L. Rivet, D-Bangor Township, said the lobby effort can only help Bay County.

"Relationships mean everything," Rivet said. "The Chamber's effort can only be positive, developing those relationships in concert with what we do on a daily basis in Lansing."

Smith said Hirschfield has installed a rain gauge across from its scrapyard to measure the amount of mercury that falls from the sky.

Rain falling in Traverse City has been found to contain mercury levels up to nine times higher than those considered safe for surface water, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Smith suspects similar findings in Bay City; Hirschfield plans to share its data with the DEQ in hopes of reducing the amount of mercury it has to remove from surface water discharged from the scrapyard.

Smith said he doesn't fault the DEQ or the EPA for enforcing regulations, but thinks sometimes they're imposed without consideration of the effect on businesses.

The local lobbying effort is nothing new for Seward, who led similar charges while at chambers in California and Illinois.

He couldn't recall any changes to environmental regulations that came as a result of those visits. But he said the chamber in Illinois picked up a $175,000 grant for economic development last year, shortly before he came to Bay City.

Environmental regulations are one of six issues the lobbying effort aims to address. The others include economic development, education, health services, taxation and spending, with representation from local government and education leaders, Seward said. At least 30 people will be making the trip, he said.

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