Cut federal strings on beach testing

Michigan is enjoying the rare satisfaction of telling the federal government to keep its money and the strings that go with it in refusing to bow to new rules on the testing of water quality at beaches.

The Environmental Protection Agency wants states to adopt tougher pollution standards that Michigan and other states fear will lead to the unnecessary closing of many beaches. Beaches in Michigan, Florida and other places are tourist magnets, and an integral part of the economy.

Closing them when there’s no real threat to public safety is a heavy burden for those states to bear. So Michigan isn’t bowing, even though not meeting the new standards will cost it more than $260,000 next year in federal dollars that pay for beach testing.

The Department of Environmental Quality is asking the EPA to ease off the regulations. But given the track record of the agency, that’s a slim hope. So the state has budgeted its own dollars to pay for the tests, and that’s probably best in the long run.

Washington rarely provides an outright gift for state or local governments to use as they see fit. As in the case of the beach tests, the trade-off for accepting federal dollars is often accepting the imposition of rigid federal rules.

But most often states and local governments are better equipped than the federal government to to decide policies affecting their regions and citizens.

For decades, Michigan has used a standard – one the EPA previously approved – of 235 E.coli bacteria colony forming units per 100 millimeters of water per sample. The EPA wants to lower that to 190 units.

The result will be three to seven times more beach closings, Michigan officials predict.

Fortunately, unlike federal highway and education funds, which are vital to Michigan’s budget, the amount of money involved is small enough that the state can thumb its nose at this EPA demand.

Adopting the EPA beach testing standard could make Michigan’s beaches less safe. The state currently uses three samples per site to guard against a single tainted sample from skewing results. The EPA calls for just one sample. And environmental experts in Michigan say current standards are tight enough to protect swimmers.

Changing the way water quality near beaches is tested would require approval of the Legislature.

That’s not likely. So Michigan is cutting the federal strings. Next year’s state budget includes $500,000 to speed the development of better testing technology.

It’s not often a state can push back like that against a federal agency. But it’s a satisfying feeling, and an important lesson in the risks of getting too attached to the federal money line.

– The Detroit News