Attorney General Takes Online Environmental Complaints

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LANSING — Michigan residents have a new way to report environmental crimes. Attorney General Jennifer Granholm says her Web site that allows online “environmental incident” reports will increase public access to government and help state agencies cut complaint response time.

“People see contamination sites in their towns and while they’re driving — this is an easy way to report those sites, anonymously if they choose,” said Granholm. Examples include air pollution from factories and destruction of wetlands by developers.

Online complaints filed with the Attorney General’s office are investigated and sometimes referred to the Department of Natural Resources or the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for investigation and possible action. The form, which has been available on the Web since mid-October, requires a description of the nature and location of the incident, but allows the submitter to remain anonymous.

Dave Dempsey, a policy adviser for the Michigan Environmental Council, said the online form is a good start but the state needs to make a greater effort to respond to citizen complaints.

“We can only benefit from having new ways for people to voice concerns, but people also need to feel that filling out those forms will lead to some real action taken.”

Council President Lana Pollack said she’s glad Granholm’s office is taking on some of the work, but added that changes within the DEQ are necessary to improve the system.

“Unfortunately, the DEQ leadership is so inefficient that there’s rarely any response to public complaints. The attorney general can pick up some of the slack, but her hands are tied because our constitution gives the DEQ responsibility for responding to these complaints,” Pollack said.

Ken Silfven, the press secretary for the DEQ, called Pollack’s allegations “empty rhetoric” and said: “Our record speaks for itself. We’re doing more enforcement than ever before, and our caseload is steadily rising. We take every complaint and case very seriously.”

Silfven says part of taking complaints seriously involves in-depth investigations, which can’t be “opened and closed overnight.” He says responses aren’t immediate because thorough investigations can take weeks, months or even years.

The DEQ’s caseload rose from 76 new criminal cases in 1998 to 228 new cases in 2000, Silfven said.

While he wasn’t aware of the attorney general’s new online complaint form, Silfven said tips are important to his agency. “The public is a big source of information for us, and we certainly appreciate it. Sometimes those tips pay off, and sometimes they concern something that’s perfectly legal, but we look carefully at them all.”

The attorney general’s Web site (www.ag.state.mich.us) also allows online complaints for consumer concerns, computer crime, Medicaid fraud and patient abuse. In addition, there’s a toll free number (877-SOLVE-88) for making complaints.

Granholm said that since her office has added the online forms and a toll-free complaint hotline, the number of complaints received per year has doubled, while her office’s response time has improved by 75 percent.           

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