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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

MEC adds on-site solar in ongoing sustainability effort

When we acquired MEC’s current home in 2012, we committed as an organization to operating our building in a way that embodies the environmental values at the heart of our mission.

We recently completed the newest project in that effort. Srinergy, a solar project developer from Novi, installed eight solar panels on MEC’s south-facing roof, which will generate an estimated 2,839 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year.  That will offset about 11 percent of the electricity used each year in our 5,800-square-foot property, which houses 20 full-time workers (employees and tenants) along with several interns and fellows.  We’ll save about $400 a year in avoided electric costs.Solar installer does electric work.

MEC is implementing this project with financial support from the Wege Foundation of Grand Rapids.  In 2013, we invested the first installment of a two-year Wege Foundation grant in an intensive insulation project, state-of-the-art heating and cooling equipment with smart thermostats, and highly efficient plumbing fixtures and toilets.  We’ve also implemented procedures to reduce and recycle solid waste and emphasize sustainability in all of our purchasing, from office supplies and cleaning products to coffee and electronics. Together, those measures earned us LEED Platinum Certification, the highest level awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council’s program for existing buildings.

The solar project will further strengthen our building’s environmental performance, as will other upcoming projects. For instance, we’re working on providing ample, convenient bike parking on site. We also have plans to reduce stormwater runoff. We’ll do that by collecting rainwater in a cistern and by replacing some of our asphalt parking spaces with more porous materials that can absorb and filter rainfall, rather than sending stormwater and pollutants straight to the sewer drain. We’ll provide updates on these projects as they develop. Read more

Q&A: Legal scholar proposes world’s longest walking trail around Great Lakes

Here’s a figure to impress the guests at your next cocktail party: The Great Lakes shoreline in the United States and Canada is more than 10,000 miles long—nearly half the circumference of Earth.

Now imagine a walking trail around that shoreline. It would be longer than the Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails combined. In fact, it would be the longest public walking trail in the world.

Such a footpath is more than a hypothetical idea. Melissa Scanlan, director of the Environmental Law Center at the Vermont Law School, proposed a Great Lakes Coastal Trail in a recent article in the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law. Scanlan argues that the trail would provide a tangible way to restore the public’s coastal history and build local tourist economies.

Intrigued, we checked in with Scanlan by email to learn more about her ambitious vision for the trail.

MEC: Why does someone in Vermont care so much about the Great Lakes? What’s your connection to the lakes?

Melissa Scanlan: I grew up in the Lake Michigan Basin of Wisconsin, founded and directed Midwest Environmental Advocates, where I worked as a lawyer to protect the Great Lakes, and have spent many hours enjoying the lake shores, so I understand what a precious and beautiful resource they are for the region. I also saw through my prior work that we need to focus the public’s attention on the significance of the lakes for the region as a cohesive, binational whole. To address this need, build on existing water and property law, and engage the public, I’ve created a blueprint to establish a Great Lakes Coastal Trail on the shores of the Great Lakes. The trail will link together 10,000 miles of coastline and provide the longest marked walking trail in the world. Unlike other National Scenic Trails where most of the trail required new easements, this one will demarcate an already existing, yet largely forgotten, public trust easement. You don’t have to be born rich to be a beneficiary of this trust fund; the Great Lakes Coastal Trail will allow the public to enjoy their common heritage in the lakeshore, which is held by the government in trust for them. Read more

Q&A: With climate declaration, Brewery Vivant continues striving to “Beer the Change”

As if making delicious beer wasn’t enough to win us over, America’s craft brewers have also been strong leaders in showing that businesses can thrive while giving back to their communities and finding innovative ways to protect the environment.

Case in point: Two dozen craft brewers announced this week they had signed a Brewer’s Climate Declaration, which says the companies will take action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and will engage with policymakers to support political action to halt climate change. Those breweries already are taking steps to reduce energy use, cut transportation emissions and conserve water, among other sustainability measures.

“It’s good for business, it’s not just good for the environment,” Craft Brew Alliance sustainability manager Julia Person told the Huffington Post. “We’re lowering our operating costs. It’s doing the right thing and having a benefit.”

So far, two Michigan companies—Rockford Brewing Company and Brewery Vivant—have signed the declaration.

In reading up about the climate declaration, we were impressed to learn that Brewery Vivant in 2012 became the first brewery in the country to attain LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. We checked in with co-owner and sustainability manager Kris Spaulding to learn more about how the Grand Rapids brewery is striving to support its community and shrink its environmental impact.

Kris Spaulding

Brewery Vivant's Kris Spaulding.

MEC: Why did Brewery Vivant decide to sign on to the climate declaration? More generally, why have you made sustainability such a priority?

Kris Spaulding: Sustainability is one of the values we founded our business on. We believe that a great business exists because of the support of the local community. Therefore a business should be an active member of the community and should strive to find meaningful ways to engage with it and give back to it. These are values we hold personally, but that we believe all businesses should be thinking along the lines of the triple bottom line.

As for the declaration itself, climate change is going to continue to impact our industry and our world so I think it is best to work towards solutions now rather than waiting for more catastrophic events to finally lead to change happening. I like that the declaration challenges businesses to innovate and work towards solutions rather wait and see what someone else will do. Read more