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For a more competitive Michigan, lawmakers must expand civil rights law

Everything we do at the Michigan Environmental Council is guided by our vision of a brighter future for our state. We work every day toward a healthy state powered by clean, renewable fuels; known for an irresistible mix of bustling urban areas and unspoiled wild places; connected by convenient buses, trains and trails; and defined by clean, abundant fresh water.

While a cleaner, healthier environment is a key feature of the future Michigan we envision, that future also will provide greater economic opportunities for residents across the state by creating the kinds of communities young professionals flock to.

So, though environmental protection is MEC’s focus, we occasionally feel compelled to speak up when something outside our usual purview threatens the thriving Michigan we’re trying to build. That’s why we’re urging lawmakers to correct Michigan’s failure to protect the basic rights of all residents.

Surprisingly, current law allows Michigan residents to be fired, passed over in hiring or denied housing based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.

That our state still permits such discrimination is, frankly, embarrassing. It’s also out of step with what Michiganders value.  Polling shows three-quarters of Michigan residents and 60 percent of small business owners support amending the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to outlaw those practices.

Legislators should heed calls from the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition to amend Elliott-Larsen—which prohibits workplace discrimination against anyone based on their religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status or marital status—to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Read more

Three key issues to watch as lawmakers return to Lansing

When the leaves begin to turn colors each autumn, the wardrobe around the MEC offices also undergoes an unmistakable change.

Friends, the glorious days of t-shirts, jeans and flip-flops are coming to an end. Now begins the season of the necktie. The Legislature is coming back to town.

Our summer dress may have been casual, but we’ve been working hard behind the scenes on issues we expect to make some waves in the next few months. There’s no time to waste; lawmakers will only be in session for nine days in September, three days in October and a smattering of lame-duck days after the November election.

Some of the fall’s meatiest environmental debates will be hammered out quietly through the administrative rulemaking process, not in the Legislature. And what follows certainly isn’t the only important legislation that will see action in the House and Senate chambers. But for our money, here are a few of the most interesting issues to watch in the new legislative session that begins Tuesday.

Oil and gas.

As oil and gas operations have moved beyond rural parts of the state to more populous residential areas, citizens have begun organizing to call for greater local control over drilling regulations.

A crowd of those advocates will greet lawmakers on their first day back in Lansing. The rally is in support of legislation introduced by a pair of Republican state senators from Macomb County—Jack Brandenburg and Tory Rocca—that would restrict drilling in townships with more than 70,000 residents. Read more

Labor Day Bridge Walk is an opportunity for action on Straits oil pipeline

Gov. Rick Snyder will lead about 40,000 people on a five-mile walk across the Mackinac Bridge on Monday, continuing a 57-year old Labor Day tradition.

Also on Monday—as happens every day—23 million gallons of crude oil will cross the Straits of Mackinac just west of the bridge, through a pair of pipelines a couple hundred feet below the surface.

The pipelines are older than the Bridge Walk tradition. They were installed in 1953, the first year of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, when Patti Page’s “The Doggie in the Window” topped Billboard charts and the U.S. Supreme Court was deliberating whether public school segregation was constitutional.

The kids were crazy for this sort of thing when the Straits oil pipelines were installed.

They are owned by Enbridge, the Canadian company responsible for the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history – the 2010 spill of about a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River, which is still being cleaned up. The Straits pipelines are older than the one that ruptured in the Kalamazoo spill, but Enbridge has made public very little information on their condition. In July, the state notified Enbridge it needed additional support structures to comply with state regulations.

Enbridge was responsible for more than 1,000 oil spills in the U.S and Canada between 1999 and 2013.

MEC and other groups from the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign will be at the Bridge Walk to gather signatures from participants on a petition urging Gov. Snyder to protect the Great Lakes from a disastrous oil spill. (Signing the petition is quick and easy; click here.) We’re asking the governor to immediately open a transparent, public process under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act to evaluate the threat posed by the pipelines and determine what actions should be taken to prevent a catastrophe. Read more

Lifelong Detroiter cautiously optimistic about Belle Isle

Editor’s note: This week the Detroit Free Press ran a story and an editorial providing a checkup on Belle Isle six months after the state assumed control of the park.

As it happened, Sandra Turner-Handy—MEC’s community outreach director and a lifelong Detroiter—visited the island over the weekend for the first time since management by the Department of Natural Resources began. Here is her own assessment of Michigan’s newest state park.

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Having grown up literally across the street, Belle Isle was my neighborhood playground as a child. My brothers and sisters and I walked across Jefferson Avenue and enjoyed the two-seat bikes, canoes, pony rides and zoo.

As I grew older and moved to a different part of Detroit, Belle Isle became the spot for family picnics on Saturdays. We stayed late into the evening to see the lights on the Scott Fountain change colors. Belle Isle was also the after-church spot, where we enjoyed ice cream treats from an island vendor. And as a teenager it was the dating spot with its beach, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, canoe rides and forest.

That slowly changed as the park lost its amenities and became overrun with trash, loud music and fights. For years I only went to the park for special events, and only in the daytime.

Last Saturday I went back to Belle Isle for the first time since the state took over in February. Because my family settled near the island after coming north from Tennessee in the early 1900s, it made sense to hold our family reunion picnic there. Read more

Friday linkaround: Algae, transit, birds and fly-fishing

Welcome to the weekend!

Whatever you have planned, it looks like the weather will be fantastic. Plus, meteors! Before you ask the boss if you can leave early, take a minute to review a few of the environmental stories that caught our eye this week.

Algae. The biggest environmental story in a while, of course, was Toledo’s drinking water crisis. The week began with Mayor D. Michael Collins toasting the half-million people—including some southeast Michigan residents—who endured a weekend without usable tap water after the city’s water supply was contaminated with toxic blue-green algae.

The algae blooms are nothing new, and by now most of us know the story:  Fed by excess phosphorus, they plagued Lake Erie in the 1960s and ‘70s but largely disappeared after public outcry led to sewage treatment upgrades and restrictions on phosphorus in detergents. In recent years, though, the blooms have again become an unwelcome annual visitor. Read more

True leaders needed to make new Michigan Dream a reality

John Austin and the Michigan Economic Center at Prima Civitas (a new and exciting player in Lansing policy discussions that we jokingly refer to around here as the “other MEC”) recently launched the new “Michigan Dream At Risk” project that’s worth a look. In short, it showcases in images, words and numbers the uncomfortable but unsurprising reality of Michigan’s perpetually beleaguered economy.

Using Michigan’s historic and current state and local budget allocations as proxies for priorities, the Michigan Dream at Risk project’s narrative and four-minute video intro highlight our shared shame—potholed roads and shuttered storefronts, struggling families and failing schools—and prescribe a healthy dose of investment in a few critical areas: education, infrastructure and community services, a clean environment, etc.

Coupled with the new “State Policies Matter” report and accompanying “Tale of Two States” blog series from the team at Michigan Future, Inc., a clear case is made for increasing investment in public goods, rather than cutting our way to prosperity.

The problem is that Michigan voters rarely face that kind of clear-cut choice, and our elected leaders seem unwilling to raise revenue themselves. Instead, we get convoluted ballot initiatives like Proposal 1, in which funding is provided for our communities but only if businesses get (more) tax breaks and the actual revenue burden gets shifted (again) into an unknown future. Or for an even more frustrating example, look at the failure of transportation funding initiatives; despite polling with broad support, the issue of raising the basic revenues needed to fix our existing roads gets tied up in knots in the Legislature and goes nowhere – not even to the ballot. The roads stay the same: bad.

Anyone who watches the news—here or anywhere in the country—knows some version of Michigan’s economic and social struggles. Our decades-long fall from grace is a narrative with easy and all-too memorable icons: Big 3 bailouts, bankrupt Detroit, etc., etc.

But Michigan residents are ready to move out of the past. And we need to put some new icons on the map to do it. Read more

5 reasons Michigan utilities should give us solar

The Michigan Public Service Commission recently issued a report summarizing the work of a group assembled to find ways to deploy more solar power in Michigan. The report offers possibilities for expanding the small programs offered by Michigan’s two biggest utilities for customers who want to generate solar power at home, but it doesn’t compel the utilities to take any action.

However, the commission any day will issue an order on Consumers Energy’s plans for renewable power – one that could have some legal teeth. MEC and other allies are urging the commission to use the opportunity to order Consumers and DTE Energy to expand their solar offerings.

If you support clean solar power for Michigan, we urge you to share your thoughts with the commission and the utilities. It’s quick and easy – just fill out this very brief form.

And if you need some convincing, below are the top five reasons—and there are many others not listed here—why it’s so important that Michigan’s two biggest utilities expand their solar power programs.

  1. We’ve already paid for it. DTE and Consumers together are sitting on about $26 million in surcharges they’ve already collected from Michigan customers. That’s because they overestimated the cost of developing renewable energy projects. Read more

Tell the DEQ: proposed fracking rules fall short

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality hits the road this week to gather public input on proposed rules on fracking for oil and gas.

Tonight the department will hold a meeting at Treetops Resort, 3962 Wilkinson Road in Gaylord. Wednesday evening there will be a second meeting at the Lansing Center, 333 East Michigan Avenue, down the road from the Capitol. Both meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.

If you’ve got the time, this is a great chance to have your say on a very important issue. And if you can’t make it to a meeting, you can submit written comments to DEQ-FrackingRules@michigan.gov until July 31.

You can review the proposed rules here.

Our take: The rules don’t go nearly far enough to protect Michigan’s streams, wetlands and groundwater. Here are the main shortcomings.

They don’t require chemical disclosure before drilling. We believe local residents have a right to know what chemicals are in the fracking fluid pumped underground to release oil and gas trapped in shale formations. Read more

Visiting a state park this weekend? We need your help!

Many Michigan families and visitors from other states will enjoy fireworks and festivities this holiday weekend at one of Michigan’s 102 state parks.

Those campers will eat a lot of junk food. And that’s fine – part of the fun of camping is indulging in plenty of chips, pop, hot dogs and s’mores.

But many people also visit the state parks to enjoy healthy physical activity and outdoor adventures like biking, swimming and kayaking. And those folks often want to refuel with more nutritious food choices.

That’s why MEC and our partners in the Healthy Kids, Healthy Michigan coalition recently commissioned a study of the food offerings from vendors at state parks. Michigan State University researchers visited a sampling of parks to see what items were available from camp stores, concession stands and vending machines. They also surveyed park visitors to find out what they think about the available food options. Read more

Friday linkaround: Rail line creates buzz, pesticide wipes out bees

Oh, man. It’s Friday and it’s summertime. Does it get any better?

We hope this weekend’s a classic for you: family and friends, time outdoors, maybe a Michigan-made beer or two, if that’s your thing.

Meanwhile, why not wrap up the week with a look at some environmental news and events? Here’s your linkaround:

Energy fair: If you’re interested in renewable power and our energy future—and of course you are—see if you can carve out a few hours to attend the 10th Annual Michigan Energy Fair this weekend at the Ingham County Fairgrounds. Our friends at the Michigan Land Use Institute have a nice backgrounder on why the popularity of this event just keeps growing. By the way, the event’s keynote event is a talk and book signing by big-tree champion David Milarch, whose work we explored in a recent issue of MEC’s newsletter. He’s a fascinating guy and you’re going to want to hear what he has to say. Read more