Choke hold 

Take a deep breath, residents of Wayne County. News Hits has learned that the county plans to close its Air Quality Management Division and let the state run the program. And you can bet Gov. John Engler’s business-friendly administration isn’t exactly going to be dropping the hammer on polluters.

Wayne County’s air quality program — paid for in part by fees collected from polluters — has been drastically underfunded for at least five years. It’s operating at a $1.2 million shortfall this year alone, says Wendy Barrett, Wayne County Air Quality Management Division director.

So now the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is taking the helm. Just when and how, Barrett doesn’t know. The county is still waiting for the DEQ to submit a plan.

When the changeover occurs, our lungs will be in the hands of DEQ Director Russell Harding, who has a piss-poor record to say the least. (If you don’t trust us on this, check out “Dereliction of Duty” at www.mecprotects.org/newsmain.htm, a report by the Michigan Environmental Council.) Harding bows down to business interests at every turn.

For instance, about every three years, state lawmakers — with some public input — determine polluter fees based on the amount of pollutants discharged. New fees are to be set this summer. A task force consisting of environmentalists, industry folks, the DEQ and others have been meeting to help determine them.

Initially, task force members agreed to fees that would be expected to generate $12.8 million. But business folks quickly balked, and Harding fell in line, according to James Clift, Michigan Environmental Council policy director and task force member. The DEQ now supports the $11.5 million figure contained in a bill that was introduced in the House last week.

“If we thought this wasn’t going to cut it we wouldn’t do it,” DEQ spokesperson Ken Silfven told News Hits. “You have to be willing to compromise when working with stakeholders.”

Nothing wrong with compromise. But environmentalists, who originally lobbied for $14.5 million in fee-based funding, say the $12.8 million was already a compromise.

All of this is particularly important to Wayne County, which, according to Barrett, is home to 20 percent of the state’s population and 30 percent of its major polluters. Rather than having industry cough up the cash, it appears Harding would rather have the rest of us just coughing.

Ann Mullen contributed to News Hits, which is edited by Curt Guyette. He can be reached at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com

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