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Toxic rule fouls DEQ’s clean air celebration

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality last week kicked off a “Year of Clean Air” to celebrate 50 years of protecting Michigan residents from air pollution.

Just days before launching the celebration, however, the department issued a draft rule that would substantially weaken the air quality program and put at risk the health of Michigan residents—particularly low-income families and communities of color.

Michigan has come a long way in preventing air pollution. Since the state’s Air Pollution Control Act went into effect in 1965, we have seen a significant decline in chemicals being emitted. Before this act went into effect, Grand Rapids designated days when burning cars was not permitted—not because burning cars creates ghastly pollution and is a crazy thing to do, but because people wanted to dry their clothes outdoors without having them ruined by the toxic smoke.

In addition to stopping the obvious “black smoke” sources of pollution, the DEQ has overseen a regulatory program that has dropped emissions of dangerous chemicals to much lower levels. Mercury emissions, for instance, have dropped from 30,000 to 7,000 pounds a year. Michigan has over 40 monitoring stations that actively track how much pollution is in the air, from things like ozone and sulfur dioxide to different sizes of particulate matter.

Michigan also has one of the most robust air toxics permitting programs in the country. We’re among the handful of states that regulate air emissions of all toxic chemicals. Before issuing a permit to an industrial facility, the state uses computer modeling to estimate the health impact based on the chemicals to be emitted, their quantity and where they will fall. To be on the safe side in protecting public health, the department assumes that chemicals with unknown potential human health impacts are highly toxic.

Under the draft rule, however, DEQ would remove approximately 500 chemicals from the list of 1,200 chemicals regulated by the state. A chemical’s impact on human health is a function of both its toxicity and its quantity, but the proposed rule removes quantity from the formula, allowing unregulated emissions of the 250 least-toxic, non-carcinogenic toxic chemicals. Though these chemicals are less toxic in small quantities, they can still pose a danger when emitted beyond a certain threshold.  It also deregulates 250 chemicals for which no health data are available. The proposed rule would eliminate the modeling requirement for those 500 chemicals. Read more

Guest post: Coldwater River fiasco highlights need for drain code reform

Editor’s note: This piece was contributed by Dr. Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited and a member of MEC’s board of directors. It originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Michigan Trout Magazine. It has been edited here for length.

In much of southern Michigan trout streams are a rare breed. There are a lot of reasons for this rarity, some natural, but many are the result of us turning this part of the state into a “working landscape.” It’s filled with urban areas and farmland that completely altered the natural hydrology of our southern Michigan streams, rendering them impaired or broken in terms of cold, clean water. So the rare handful of streams that have persisted cold enough and high quality enough to still support trout are coveted and revered around here, where most of the residents of the state live. These southern Michigan trout streams are analogous to a trillium flower growing up through a crack in a busy downtown sidewalk. The Coldwater River, located about 40 minutes west of Lansing, was one of these rare trilliums of a trout stream. That is until the local drain commission and its agents dug a 12-mile trench in the ground around that rare little blossom.

The river

The Coldwater River, also referred to as the Little Thornapple River, originates at Jordan Lake in the town of Lake Odessa, flows southward almost to Hastings, turns northwest and then flows downstream till it joins the Thornapple River, which then joins the Grand River. Despite originating from a lake and flowing through farm lands, this river kept temperatures cold enough to support brown trout.

Trout Unlimited (TU) members from Lansing to Grand Rapids frequented the river as their local trout angling waters, and over the last decade or so had invested significant time, energy and money into enhancement efforts in this watershed, including the removal of the Freeport Dam last year. Well-known Michigan trout guru Jim Bedford, who has fished more of the state’s trout rivers than just about anyone, identified the Coldwater River as having produced more trophy brown trout for him than any other river in the state. Normally I’d never divulge such privileged information, but unfortunately it won’t offer that kind of quality fishing any time soon. Read more

Guest post: Conservation champion Willard Wolfe enters Environmental Hall of Fame

Editor’s note: This post was contributed by noted writer, environmental historian, policy advisor and former MEC staff member Dave Dempsey.

When dentist and fly fisherman Willard Wolfe saw the destruction of the trout streams he loved and the unbridled alteration of stream and lake habitat across Michigan, he didn’t get mad—he got  to work.

Thanks to his vision and leadership, a strong draft bill was handed to activists who got it passed. Michigan had an historic lakes and streams protection law less than two years later. The 1972 Inland Lakes and Streams Act has saved countless Michigan water resources from damming, channelizing and filling.

For initiating, choosing, and chairing the statewide ad hoc committee that authored that law, and for a life of conservation activism, Wolfe was inducted into the Michigan Environmental Hall of Fame in May. A project of the Muskegon Environmental Research and Education Society (MERES), the Hall of Fame welcomed several other past and present advocates into its ranks in the same ceremony, held in the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids.

For those who knew Will, who died in 2011, the recognition was fitting.  A gentleman with a quiet but firm persistence, he sought no reward for his conservation work—yet that work had lasting, statewide significance.

“His long-standing commitment to the joys of trout fishing on Michigan’s beautiful natural rivers made him a logical leader in the effort to provide effective controls,” MERES said in announcing Will’s induction. “This resulted in the Inland Lakes and Streams Act to protect the natural characteristics of our lakes and streams. Michigan led the nation in those years to provide adequate protections for these natural values.”

As is true of many conservationists, Will’s activism had roots in childhood. Growing up on Grosse Ile in the Detroit River, he was surrounded by nature.  “As an Eagle Scout, he learned the names of the wildlife and many plants,” said his wife Joan. “As an enthusiastic small-boat builder and sailor, as well as just living on the river, he also learned to love wildlife. While his best friends hunted ducks and geese, he was content to just learn about them.” Read more

Green infrastructure is gaining ground in Michigan

Stormwater runoff is a major source of pollution in our waterways. The sediment, nutrients and chemicals that are introduced to our lakes and streams from stormwater are hurting fish populations and affecting human health and safety.

The cause of this runoff is the mass amount of impervious surface in our cities, approximately 15 percent of Southeast Michigan is covered with impervious surface, mostly pavement. We have attempted to remove water from our properties and streets and funnel it to treatment plants, without realizing that nature had been diverting and treating stormwater for millennia. The green infrastructure movement is all about getting our modern day infrastructure and technology to do what nature always did before we altered it.

What makes infrastructure green is not some advanced technology. It is instead simply a new way of thinking about an old problem. The old design of storm drains and pipes that pushed stormwater to the nearest body of water simply made those bodies of water unfit for human use. Prior to human intervention in the process, most rain was absorbed into the ground and filtered through the earth to recharge groundwater, or filtered through a wetland before draining, clean, into a main body of water. Green infrastructure is designed to put water through that process again. This means fewer pipes and impervious surfaces, and more rain gardens and permeable pavement.

Many companies and municipalities are already making a commitment to green infrastructure. While at the Department of Environmental Quality’s Northern Michigan Green Infrastructure Conference this month, I had the opportunity to tour two such projects and hear about many more. Read more

Success! New budget continues funding to prevent lead poisoning

The $54.5 billion state budget approved yesterday by the Legislature includes $1.75 million for programs to prevent lead poisoning, marking three straight years of budget success by MEC and our partners in the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes (MIALSH).

The continued funding for the Department of Community Health will help to remove lead hazards from homes across the state, protecting Michigan children from the devastating effects of lead poisoning.

“I’m really proud of our team and very grateful to the Legislature for making this wise investment in our state’s future,” said Tina Reynolds, MEC health policy director. “Our ultimate aim is to end lead poisoning in Michigan. It’s an ambitious goal and will take a lot of time and resources to achieve, but our efforts in that direction are picking up steam, thanks to the Legislature’s continued support.”

MEC is part of the leadership team for MIALSH, which includes public health agencies, lead-affected families, lead contractors and inspectors, environmental health organizations and the landlord community, among others.

MIALSH formed in 2010 and has been successful in educating legislators about lead hazards and advocating for state investment in lead abatement. Thanks to those efforts, the fiscal year 2014 state budget for the first time included $1.25 million set aside for lead cleanups in homes. MIALSH successfully increased that funding to $1.75 million for the 2015 budget year, and maintained that funding level for 2016, despite budget pressure created by business tax credits, growing health care costs and much-needed road repairs.

The 2014 funding made possible inspection and lead removal in 122 homes, creating a safe environment for hundreds of kids and providing job opportunities for more than 15 lead abatement contractors.

Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign the new budget later this month.

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Photo courtesy Michele Truex via Flickr.

MEC joins clean air crusaders at Mama Summit

MEC rallied at the Capitol this week with dozens of concerned parents to educate legislators about the negative health impacts coal plants have on children.

It was the second annual “Mama Summit” coordinated by Moms Clean Air Force, a community of hundreds of thousands of parents advocating for children’s health. Participants gathered to share key facts and personal stories to build support among legislators for clean energy as a means to fight air pollution.

MEC Health Policy Director Tina Reynolds and Energy Program Director Sarah Mullkoff helped to plan the summit and took part in a press conference and other activities. Mullkoff also led the group discussion in five meetings—four with legislative staff members and one with a senator.

“It’s wonderful to see so many parents and advocates for children here at the Capitol to voice their support for clean energy and a healthy environment,” Mullkoff said. “One of the best things state leaders can do for the health of Michigan’s youngest residents is to transition away from dirty coal plants by increasing energy efficiency and investing in more renewable power.” Read more

Lawmakers should support reasonable protections for threatened bats

A plan to protect threatened bats from a deadly disease has drawn surprising criticism from a pair of lawmakers who say setting aside just one quarter of one percent of Michigan’s forested land area will have a “chilling effect” on the state’s logging and mining industries.

White-nose syndrome has devastated bat populations across the eastern United States, wiping out more than 90 percent of some colonies. The syndrome is caused by a fungus that infects hibernating bats.

In 2014 the disease was first spotted in Michigan on northern long-eared bats. The Department of Natural Resources expects to see populations of cave-dwelling bats decline by 50 percent to 90 percent over the next two years. In human terms, that’s like a disease that reduced the world’s population to the population of the United Kingdom. Since bats typically only have one or two pups a year, these populations will take many generations to rebuild. (One bright spot: Scientists last week announced that a common bacterium could help protect bats from the disease.)

To address the steep decline of these bats, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has proposed to list the northern long-eared bat as threatened with a special rule that bars interference with the species unless certain exemptions are met. Read more

MEC’s House Energy testimony: 5 takeaways

Spring temperatures aren’t all that’s heating up in Lansing. With Michigan’s 2008 clean energy laws set to plateau at the end of the year, policymakers are debating a handful of competing proposals for what our state’s energy future should look like. (We say “plateau” and not “expire” because, if lawmakers took no action, utilities would have an ongoing requirement to meet the existing standards.)

Gov. Snyder’s plan calls for as much as 19 percent renewable energy by 2025, along with a significant increase in energy efficiency and a shift away from coal and toward more natural gas. The Democrats have proposed generating 20 percent of Michigan’s electricity from renewable sources by 2022 and doubling the state’s annual energy savings from 1 to 2 percent.

Today the House Energy Policy Committee held a hearing on another package introduced by Rep. Aric Nesbitt, the committee’s Republican chair. The bills propose a number of actions that would turn back the clock on the economic development, cost savings and carbon reductions Michigan has achieved since 2008. For instance, they would repeal the energy efficiency standard and reclassify hazardous waste materials like scrap tires and railroad ties as “renewable” fuels.

MEC Policy Director James Clift and Energy Program Director Sarah Mullkoff testified at length during today’s hearing, making the case that Michigan needs a comprehensive energy plan that controls costs, maintains electric reliability, minimizes risks to ratepayers like you and me, promotes economic development in Michigan and protects natural resources. (You can view their presentation here.)

Here are five highlights from their testimony:

Households bear the brunt of energy costs. Electricity rates in Michigan have been increasing for years across sectors, but recently those costs have been shifted from large industrial users onto the backs of residential ratepayers. In fact, our residential rates are the highest in the region and among the highest in the country. If the Michigan Public Service Commission grants utilities permission to collect the rate increases they’re now seeking, our residential rates would increase an additional 15 percent over the next three years.  On top of that, Michigan taxpayers are subsidizing a fleet of old, inefficient coal plants whose performance is well below the industry average. Read more

Transportation funding: An exciting future is within reach

Editor’s note: This is the third and final post in a series on transportation funding leading up to the May 5 special election. Read the previous installments here and here.

A lot of what you’ve read about Proposal 1 has probably been about the price Michigan is paying today for our history of inadequately funding our transportation system. Past mistakes—like our flat-rate fuel tax that hasn’t kept pace with inflation—have left us with roads so bad that many local governments are opting to turn them back into gravel, and “structurally deficient” bridges that, in some cases, you can see right through.

It’s all been pretty gloomy. That’s why we wanted to end this series on a hopeful note by offering some glimpses of what Michigan’s transportation future can look like if voters approve Proposal 1. Yes, it will take some time to address the backlog of projects needed to get our infrastructure back in decent shape. But before long, the new funding will support exciting projects that will ultimately add up to the 21st-century transportation system Michigan needs.

Playing catch-up

Roads and bridges are crucial pieces of that system, no doubt. But MEC’s transportation focus is on the environmental, social and economic benefits Michigan will enjoy from improved and expanded passenger rail, public transit and complete streets that address the needs of all users. If Proposal 1 passes, those pillars of our transportation system will see a $116 million annual funding increase.

That sure sounds like a lot, but what does $116 million really get us? Well, to put it in context, the entire startup cost of the planned WALLY commuter rail line from Howell to Ann Arbor is $30 million, plus about $5 million a year to operate the service. The influx of new funding will help get WALLY and similar projects off the ground sooner by providing the matching funds needed to unlock significant federal grants.

Of course, public transportation has a lot of catching up to do in Michigan, since it hasn’t seen a structural funding increase in nearly three decades. Like our roads, public transportation is crumbling in many communities. Some local bus agencies are reducing service and even eliminating routes.  So in addition to launching new projects, Proposal 1 would strengthen the foundation of our public transportation network with basic improvements to existing services. A large portion of the new revenue would support local bus operating expenses, which could mean that transit service in your community extends service hours, increases frequency or provides additional route options.

That’s important, because people all over Michigan depend on public transit to accomplish the basic tasks of daily life. It’s how many rural residents get to the grocery store. Seniors and people with disabilities take buses to the doctor’s office or to visit family members. In some urban districts, public buses are the only way for kids to get to school. Without transit, many of our friends and neighbors couldn’t get to the college classes or job interviews that will bring their families new possibilities and stability. The 260,000 rides Michiganders take on public transit every day are essential gateways to opportunity for economic advancement.

Young people on DC Metro

Research shows good transit is increasingly important for attracting young talent.

On track to prosperity

The benefits of these investments will extend beyond the day-to-day convenience and access to opportunities they provide for millions of Michiganders, though such benefits are significant. Whether or not we build a modern, complete transportation system will be a deciding factor in Michigan’s economic competitiveness. Report after report tells us that Americans across all age groups are looking for more and better options for getting around. Millennials are getting their licenses and owning cars at ever-decreasing rates. Baby boomers are rethinking the auto-centric lifestyle they grew up with and moving away from car-reliant suburbs. Cultural shifts among these two huge demographic groups demand that we think about our transportation system in a more comprehensive way if we want to attract and retain talent and improve quality of life for everyone.

Read more

Curbside collaboration: Help us put recycling within reach for Detroit families

For years, Detroit was the largest city in the country without a curbside recycling program. That dubious distinction ended last year when a curbside pilot program for single-family homes expanded citywide.

Still, the city’s recycling potential remains largely untapped. That’s in part a problem of awareness—the program is fairly new and not everyone knows it’s available—but it’s also a problem of access. Households that want to participate in curbside recycling must first pay $25 for a 64-gallon cart—a significant barrier for many Detroit residents.

And that’s where you come in.

MEC and our partners with the Zero Waste Detroit coalition (ZWD) today launched a project that lets individuals, businesses and other organizations donate $25 or more to help city residents take part in the curbside program.

Please take a moment today to support this effort. It’s simple: Visit the donation website, select an amount and make your contribution by credit card or via PayPal.* MEC and ZWD will work with the city and its waste-hauling contractors to purchase and distribute the carts to households that have indicated a desire to recycle and a need for assistance to pay the fee. Every penny you give will go directly toward the purchase of a recycling cart.

Sandra Turner-Handy recycles.

MEC's Sandra Turner-Handy is among the only residents in her neighborhood participating in Detroit's curbside recycling program.

“Twenty-five dollars might not sound like much, but a lot of folks in the city are struggling to make ends meet, and anything non-essential just doesn’t make it into the monthly budget,” said Sandra Turner-Handy, MEC community engagement director and a lifelong Detroiter in a press release we issued today. “This program allows anyone to play a role in Detroit’s transformation and re-energize residents to take part in their hometown’s rebirth as a thriving, sustainable city.” Read more