Gov. Jennifer Granholm issued an executive order on May 24 to abolish Michigan’s distinguished Environmental Science Board. The action was necessary, the governor claimed, to "contribute to a smaller and more efficient state government." But elimination of the MESB will result in higher costs to taxpayers. The state Senate should restore the state’s most cost-effective and reliable source of scientific expertise.
The MESB was created by Gov. John Engler in 1992 as an independent state agency for the express purpose of providing expert advice on environmental protection and natural resources management. The MESB consists of an executive director and nine members appointed by the governor. The board has no paid staff and all members serve voluntarily. Each has expertise in one or more of the following disciplines: engineering, ecological sciences, chemistry, physics, toxicology, pharmacology, biological sciences, human medicine, statistics, risk management, geology, economics and other academic disciplines as necessary.
The MESB is unique to state government for the following reasons:
It does not serve as a policy body or advocate for or against any particular environmental or public health concern;
Any and all advice is based solely on the scientific and/or technical merits of the issue and is purposely designed to be unbiased by personal opinions or vested interests of its members;
All conclusions and recommendations are based on consensus, supported by compelling scientific data and rationale;
It operates only when given an investigative charge by the governor. The board does not cost the state anything when it is not involved in an investigation; and
The board’s only costs are for travel reimbursements of its scientists and the publication and distribution of reports.
Since 1992, the MESB has prepared 18 scientific reports on a variety of significant Michigan issues, including evaluations of the environmental and human health impacts from exposure to mercury, chlorine, lead and low-level hydrogen sulfide; the efficacy of Michigan’s fish advisories, air quality standards and environmental standards to protect children’s health; and the probability of occurrence of certain types of cancer among firefighters. MESB reports have served as the scientific underpinning for state environmental policy, and its expertise and credibility have been recognized by numerous Michigan and other state governmental agencies. In addition, the MESB was recognized in 2002 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the primary scientific peer review resource serving Michigan government.
During the past four years, the Granholm administration has chosen to avail itself only once of its own all-volunteer, on-call, nationally recognized body of science and technology experts. In 2003, the governor asked the MESB to conduct an evaluation of a study proposal from the Michigan Department of Community Health concerning human chemical exposures in Michigan. The MESB evaluation concluded that MDCH’s proposal failed to demonstrate a basic understanding of "biomonitoring," as well as an understanding of the basic principles of toxicology necessary to conduct valid research. The MESB recommended ways to improve the proposal, but the proposal was never revised.
The governor never again requested the MESB’s scientific evaluation of any environmental issue. Instead, the administration has chosen to pay substantial sums to outside experts and consulting firms for advice on such issues as the exposures to dioxin along the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers; the environmental impacts of mining in the Upper Peninsula; mitigation strategies for the emerald ash borer; and the effects of groundwater withdrawals. But, the MESB can provide the state with the requisite scientifically credible advice for a fraction of the cost paid to outside consultants.
The elimination of the MESB will result in the state’s inability to subject critical statewide environmental decisions, regulations and policies to the rigors of a thorough and unbiased scientific evaluation. In addition, the move will require the state to expend scarce funds for outside and, often times, marginal scientific evaluations and advice on complex environmental issues.
Legislation was introduced last year to create an agency like the MESB within the legislative branch of state government. This was a response, in part, to the governor’s failure to utilize the board. If the governor doesn’t reconsider her executive order, the Senate should either block her action or establish a legislative branch version of the board.
At a time when elected officials claim to be strapped for revenues, it makes no sense to eliminate a renowned, cost-effective board. Michigan lawmakers and residents alike benefit from objective, professional advice on important scientific matters.
Keith G. Harrison served as executive director of the MESB from 1992 until 2005 and currently serves as a science adviser for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He also served as the Director of the Office of Special Environmental Projects for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality from 1997 to 2005. Mr. Harrison is founder of KGH Environmental PLC and currently serves on the Ecological Effects Subcommittee for the U.S. EPA’s Advisory Council on Clean Air Compliance Analysis. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.