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New fund supports expansion of healthy food across Michigan

A new loan and grant fund aims to improve public health and drive economic growth in Michigan by expanding access to healthy food in underserved communities.

The Michigan Good Food Fund, a public-private partnership launched in June, will provide funding to food producers, distributors, processors and retailers, who are often overlooked by traditional banks. The fund’s supporters say the loans and grants are an important step toward decreasing obesity rates among the 1.8 million Michiganders—including 300,000 children—who live in communities with limited access to healthy food.

The fund’s core contributors are Fair Food Network, Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems, W.K Kellogg Foundation and Capital Impact Partners. By 2020, the partners plan to raise $30 million for the fund and ensure that 80 percent of residents have healthy food options, with 20 percent of the food consumed in Michigan sourced from within the state.

The fund is a positive step that is well-aligned with efforts by the Michigan Environmental Council and the Healthy Kids Healthy Michigan coalition to reduce childhood obesity, said Tina Reynolds, MEC health policy director.

“We will work alongside partners from the American Heart Association who are trying to put together state dollars to help seed the fund,” Reynolds said. “We will be involved with legislative meetings, education and outreach, and engaging key members of the Legislature to support these dollars.” Read more

Ten surprising facts in Michigan’s new water strategy

Crafting a 30-year strategy to position Michigan’s abundant (and awesome) water assets in a national and global context is no easy feat. MEC is grateful to Governor Snyder for asking for such a plan, and to Jon Allan and his team at the Office of Great Lakes (OGL) for pulling a laudable draft of one together.

More discussion of the water strategy is below, but first, here are the top ten surprises I found in digging through the document. Take a look for yourself, and see what surprises you!

  1. Michigan has more than 1.3 million on-site wastewater systems (septics), but is the only state without a specific law regulating them. No central system exists to track the locations or conditions of these systems as Michigan lacks a statewide sanitary code that would require inspections. Only 11 of Michigan’s 83 counties conduct septic inspections at time the time of real estate transaction.
  2. More than half of all new single-family houses built today in Michigan are not serviced by a public wastewater utility but instead rely on individual septic systems.  The report estimates that at least 130,000 systems statewide are likely failing and discharging as much as 31 million gallons of sewage per day.
  3. Michigan has more than 1 million private domestic wells, more than any other state in the U.S. While public water supplies are subject to oversight and frequent inspections to ensure their quality and safety, individual residential water well owners are responsible for the maintenance of their own wells, and the siting and construction of these wells is handled at the local level rather than at the state level.
  4. The state has an estimated 2 million improperly abandoned wells, each of which poses a risk to groundwater resources by providing a potential conduit between the surface and underground aquifers, or between aquifers.
  5. Michigan has more than 8,500 leaking underground storage tanks and more than 9,700 other sites of environmental contamination. Twelve of Michigan’s original 14 designated Areas of Concern remain on the list of areas with legacy contamination. Cleanup funds and monitoring funds from previous statewide bonds are within a few years of disappearing, and no replacement source has been identified. Read more

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