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March for Science matters for Michigan

In Washington and around the country on Saturday, scientists and concerned citizens will march to defend science and champion its role at the heart of sound public policy.

As the event website puts it, “The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.”

There are 14 satellite marches planned in Michigan. Click here to find one near you.

The marches come as many members of Congress and top federal officials—including the head of the Environmental Protection Agency—dismiss basic climate science. And they take place on Earth Day, which is appropriate, because we can’t protect life on the planet without the tools science provides to understand our world and develop solutions to environmental problems.

Good science is fundamental to our work at the Michigan Environmental Council. Time and again, MEC has partnered with university researchers and others to inject the latest science into debates at the state Capitol about policies that affect public health and our natural resources.

As we look forward to this weekend’s demonstrations, here are five examples of how science has played or is playing a central role in safeguarding the health of Michigan families and protecting the wild places and natural communities we have a responsibility to care for.

1. Dr. Mona’s simple experiment

There was nothing fancy about Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s experiment that proved Flint residents were being poisoned by lead-tainted water, but it was good science that had a huge impact. As we wrote in a piece about why MEC chose her as the recipient of our 2016 Helen and William Milliken Distinguished Service Award, “Hanna-Attisha ran a simple before-and-after analysis of hospital records, which revealed that children’s blood lead levels had doubled—or tripled, in some parts of the city—following the drinking water switch. She called a press conference to announce her findings, but state officials immediately tried to discredit her announcement in the media as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘near hysteria.’ A week later, they acknowledged that Hanna-Attisha’s findings were accurate—that, in the middle of the Great Lakes, an entire city’s drinking water had been poisoned.”

Fittingly, Hanna-Attisha has been named honorary co-chair of the March for Science.

2. Michigan scientists stand up for biodiversity

In the past two legislative sessions, MEC and allies have beaten back proposals that would have prohibited state agencies from designating land to protect biological diversity, even though science tells us diverse ecosystems are more productive and more resilient in the face of disaster and disease. Read more

Snyder takes action to combat lead, enlists MEC staffer in the fight

MEC is proud to announce that Tina Reynolds, our health policy director, has been appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to serve on a new Child Lead Exposure Elimination Commission. Snyder signed an executive order creating the commission on Thursday and said it will be a permanent body.

Also on Thursday, Snyder outlined tougher state standards for implementing the federal Lead and Copper Rule—changes he says will ensure that Michigan communities are able to provide safe, clean drinking water.

New commission to protect Michigan kids

The 15-member commission will advise the governor and the Department of Health and Human Services on policies and programs to meet an ambitious but achievable goal: ending childhood lead poisoning in Michigan.

That’s also the ultimate goal of the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes (MIALSH), which Tina has helped to lead since she joined MEC in 2010. Last year, MIALSH succeeding in maintaining funding at $1.75 million for the 2017 budget, bringing the total funding for the past four budget cycles to more than $6.5 million. Before MIALSH formed in 2010, there hadn’t been significant state funding for lead cleanup programs in decades.

Tina is one of three commission members appointed to serve an initial three-year term; other members will serve one- or two-year terms. The commission also includes MIALSH members Rebecca Meuninck, deputy director of the Ecology Center, and Paul Haan, executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who became a hero of the Flint water crisis and won MEC’s 2016 Milliken Award, also will serve on the commission.

“I am honored to join this commission and grateful to Gov. Snyder for creating it,” Tina said. “Protecting Michigan kids from lead hazards has been a top priority of my work since I joined MEC. There’s an impressive level of collective expertise on this new commission, and I think we have a great opportunity to achieve real, meaningful progress toward making lead poisoning a thing of the past in Michigan. It’s not going to happen overnight, but the governor has demonstrated that he is serious about doing what it takes to make Michigan lead-safe.” Read more

With encouragement from Lt. Gov. Calley, advocates rally in Lansing to end lead poisoning

About 60 environmental advocates, public health professionals, lead-abatement contractors and other citizen-lobbyists gathered in Lansing on Wednesday for the fifth annual Lead Education Day organized by the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes (MIALSH). MEC Health Policy Director Tina Reynolds is coalition manager for MIALSH.

The group met with 40 legislators or their staff members to provide updates on MIALSH’s policy priorities for addressing the continuing statewide lead crisis. Among those priorities are:

  • Universal lead testing for all Michigan children at ages 1 and 2. In 2015 at least 4,791 Michigan kids had an elevated blood lead level. But the true total is likely much higher, because only about 20 percent of the state’s children under 6 years old are currently tested for lead exposure.
  • Switching the burden of proof in rental housing so that landlords must demonstrate their property has been made lead-safe if the rental unit has previously poisoned a child. Today, some rental properties repeatedly poison the children of tenant after tenant. The majority of Michigan’s lead-poisoned children live in rental housing.
  • Continuing state general fund support for the lead program to ensure state priorities and federal match requirements can be met. Last year, MIALSH succeeding in maintaining funding at $1.75 million for the 2017 budget, bringing the total funding for the past four budget cycles to more than $6.5 million. Before MIALSH formed in 2010, there hadn’t been significant state funding for lead cleanup programs in decades.

    MIALSH members meet with a staffer for Rep. Chris Afendoulis

“Your advocacy and your timing could not be more perfect, and it does make a difference,” said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who met with MIALSH members to answer questions and share insights on the recommendations issued in November by the state’s Child Lead Poisoning Elimination Board, which he chaired.

Some of those recommendations—which focus on primary prevention of lead poisoning—align with MIALSH priorities, Calley noted. For instance, the board reported that rental properties represent a major opportunity to better protect Michigan children. He also said the state could pursue policies to take advantage of home sales as an opportunity for action to make homes lead-safe. Calley added that there are opportunities to weave lead abatement projects together with energy efficiency upgrades, noting for instance that windows are usual suspects for both containing lead-based paint and causing energy-wasting drafts.

Calley said that Gov. Rick Snyder later this week would announce additional steps he’s taking to protect Michigan families from lead poisoning, and emphasized that the ultimate aim is to end lead poisoning altogether in Michigan—a daunting goal, but one that is achievable.

“It’s not called the lead poisoning reduction board, it’s the lead poisoning elimination board,” he said. “It’s still realistically a generational issue. But why not start now, and start big?”

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Action opportunity: Speak out for clean air in Detroit

MEC and our partners at Zero Waste Detroit urge southeast Michigan residents to attend an important public meeting Wednesday night and call on state environmental regulators to get tough on one of the city’s worst polluters.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will host an information session and public hearing beginning at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 8, at the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit, Hall of Nations, 111 East Kirby Street in Detroit.

Since January 2015, the Department of Environmental Quality has cited Detroit Renewable Power 19 times for violating emissions limits on carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter at the trash incinerator it owns and operates in Midtown.

However, a draft consent order between DEQ and DRP only penalizes the company for six of those violations, for a total of just $149,000.

By contrast, the health impacts of pollution from the incinerator total $2.6 million each year, according to Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments, a community-based research partnership housed in the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

In a letter to the department, MEC, ZWD and several other environmental justice and health groups call the incinerator’s history of illegal emissions “a clear environmental justice issue.” The letter notes that 87 percent of Detroiters living within a mile of the facility are people of color and 60 percent live below the federal poverty line. The community has a high rate of asthma and other respiratory illnesses that are triggered by pollution like that coming from the facility’s smokestack.

Adding to the injustice, about 65 percent of the waste burned in the facility is trucked in from Oakland County—the state’s wealthiest county—with just 25 percent coming from Wayne County.

If you plan to attend the meeting and have questions about this issue, please contact Zero Waste Detroit Convener Margaret Weber at (313) 938-1133. Thank you!

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Michigan farms among those most at risk from wild bee decline, study shows

Seven agriculture-heavy Michigan counties are among the nation’s most likely to be impacted by the loss of native pollinators, according to the first study to map wild bees in the United States.

Both honeybees and wild pollinator populations are shrinking, a trend that’s been linked to habitat loss, parasites, pathogens, pesticide exposure, climate change and other factors. A global assessment of pollinators published last February found a growing number of them threatened with extinction.

Scientists say more than $3 billion of the country’s agriculture economy depends on the free services provided by native pollinators, including more than 4,000 species of wild bees. That’s on top of the $15 billion impact from European honeybees raised to pollinate crops and produce honey.

The study, led by the University of Vermont with contributions from Michigan State and other universities, paired expert knowledge with models of land-cover change to estimate that wild bee abundance in the contiguous U.S. decreased by 23 percent from 2008 to 2013. The results also show that 39 percent of croplands that depend on pollinators face a widening gap between the demand for pollination and the supply of wild bees, suggesting that successful future harvests in those areas may depend more and more on managed honeybees.

“The shortfall is most dramatic in areas that focus on specialty crops like apples and berries, which are especially reliant on pollinators,” the Christian Science Monitor reported. That’s particularly worrisome news for Michigan growers, who produce the country’s second-most diverse array of food, including many pollinator-dependent specialty crops. Read more

Latest headlines show renewable energy going mainstream

I start most mornings at MEC by browsing the day’s environmental headlines, mainly from email newsletters that I highly recommend—Midwest Energy News, InsideClimate News, Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate and Food and Environment Reporting Network, among others—so I’m used to seeing plenty of promising news about the rise of renewable energy.

But the past few days have been exceptional, energy news-wise. One story after another has driven home the reality that a future powered primarily by clean energy is not far off. It wasn’t so long ago that wind and solar were seen as feel-good gimmicks for the tree-hugging fringe, but those days are gone. You don’t hear them called “alternative energy” much anymore. Renewables have gone mainstream.

That’s good, because we need to shift away from fossil fuels, fast. Last year was the hottest ever recorded, marking three consecutive years of record-breaking warmth. (To see how much warmer than average your hometown was last year, check out this cool tool.)

Here are some of the renewable energy stories that grabbed my attention over the past few days.

Surge in solar installations

The news: New solar photovoltaic installations in the U.S. totaled a record 14.6 gigawatts in 2016. That’s almost twice what was installed in 2015, which was itself a record year.

Why it’s a big deal: For the first time, solar was the largest source of new electric generating capacity nationwide. It made up 39 percent of new capacity, more than natural gas (29 percent) or wind (26 percent). To be clear, capacity is how much electricity a power source is capable of producing, and is different from generation, which is how much power actually gets produced. Solar was still less than 1 percent of U.S. generation in 2015, though experts expect that number to double by the end of this year and continue growing steadily.

“What these numbers tell you is that the solar industry is a force to be reckoned with,” says Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “Solar’s economically winning hand is generating strong growth across all market segments.”

 

Wind power sets a record

The news: For a short time on the morning of Feb. 12, wind power met more than half of electric demand for the region of 14 Western and Midwest states whose grid is overseen by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP). Read more

Proposed school closings could include Denby High, a community hub and catalyst for transformation in Detroit

As I entered the school last week I noticed a quiet I had never associated with this building. The usually boisterous students moved almost silently from one class to another. I missed the normal yelling and jostling of my young people at Denby High School. A student in the hallway asked me, “Ms. Sandra, do you know they are going to close our school?”

Sadly, I do. While the graduation rate at Denby has been steadily rising, test scores remain low. As a result, the state School Reform Office listed Denby among 38 schools that could be shuttered. Standing in the hallway, I realized that this silence might become the new normal.

Closing Denby would mean the end of what has become a hub for a Detroit community—one where students and residents have worked together to move beyond vacant land and buildings, overgrown foliage, flooding, crime and a lack of amenities, and have begun the transformation to a clean, safe and healthy community.

More than just an innovative approach to education, the model we pioneered at Denby is a way to build more vibrant, walkable neighborhoods with improved access to fresh food, more opportunities for healthy outdoor recreation and residents who are more empowered to advocate for the health of their neighborhood and their families. It’s about creating healthier, more sustainable communities—that’s why the Michigan Environmental Council has been a strong supporter.

I had hoped to expand our work at Denby to other schools and neighborhoods in Detroit, but now that looks doubtful.

Where education meets engagement

Over the past three years, I have been honored to help lead a project at Denby that connected students to their neighborhood and the future of their city, merging academic learning with community activism. Through this project, Denby students learned about Detroit’s history, its current challenges and the impact of the built environment on education and economic opportunity. Read more

Making connections and moving forward at MEC’s legislative breakfast

Good food, good conversation and a good turnout—despite an overnight snowstorm—made the Michigan Environmental Council’s legislative breakfast on Tuesday perhaps our best yet.

We host this gathering at the House Office Building in Lansing at the beginning of each legislative session to welcome new and returning lawmakers and their staff, and provide an opportunity for them and other state officials to meet with staff from MEC and our member groups across the state.

The legislative breakfast also gives MEC an opportunity to introduce our updated policy agenda. Our latest policy priorities include testing all children for lead exposure, passing a statewide code for septic systems and becoming the first state east of the Mississippi River to open an Office of Outdoor Recreation. You can learn more about our policy agenda in our press release, or dive right into our priorities here.

Based on remarks from four speakers at the breakfast, we can look forward to continuing our solid working relationships with legislative leaders and administration officials who share many of our priorities. Read more

Big win for the Great Lakes: Schuette says no to fish farms in public waters

MEC and allies have argued for more than two years that commercial fish farms have no place in our Great Lakes. This week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette agreed.

“In an opinion released Tuesday, Schuette said net-pen aquaculture operators would have to register with the state, and laws related to aquaculture don’t permit registration of such facilities in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters,” the Associated Press reports.

While Ontario has allowed some fish farms along its Lake Huron shoreline, they have not been permitted in Michigan or other Great Lakes states. When proposals emerged for net-pen operations near Rogers City and Escanaba, MEC and a number of partners researched the risks, identified serious environmental and economic concerns and mounted a strong opposition.

“The Great Lakes are an irreplaceable resource that we must carefully steward, not only for our use but for future generations,” Schuette tells Michigan Distilled. “It is a priority of mine to protect these waters. The professional work relationship the MEC has provided, along with their expertise, has helped me carry out my duties on such issues as this important opinion on aquaculture.”

Schuette’s opinion was the latest in a series of statements from state officials sharing our view that net-pen aquaculture is too risky for the Great Lakes.

  • The MIRS newsletter reported (subscription required) Jan. 3 that Jamie Clover Adams, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, “doesn’t envision a day when commercial net pen aquaculture would be allowed by Michigan in the Great Lakes.”
  • Last March, three state agencies recommended against allowing aquaculture in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters, citing serious environmental and economic risks identified by MEC and partners. The recommendation came a few weeks after statewide polling found nearly seven in 10 Michiganders were against opening the state’s Great Lakes waters to fish farming. Read more

Guest post: Make your holiday celebration more sustainable!

Editor’s note: This post is by Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, an MEC member group.

The festivity of the holiday season is upon us. No doubt you’ve already begun to stock up on goodies for the various gatherings and the more subdued and cozy time you’ll have at home. It’s likely you’re still shopping.

You probably have a sense of it already, but did you know that in general we throw away 25 percent more trash during the holidays? It’s really not that surprising when you consider the entertaining, gift giving and travel.

It’s not my intention to make you feel guilty about any of it. The holidays are an important reminder of our humanity and connection to others. I do think, however, that it’s important to think about the waste that will come from all this. Many of us aren’t in that habit, and much of that waste is likely to be with us for a long time.

You can help change that. Consider being the person at your holiday gathering who organizes the piles for recycling, suggests a new gift-giving strategy now that the kids have grown up, or organizes a joint donation to a worthy charity. There are truly a variety of ways to reduce your environmental impact without lessening the fun!

Here are some holiday waste reduction reminders:

  • Practice sustainable habits when serving your holiday feast. Buy only what you need, buy food with minimal packaging, compost any food scraps, and serve food on reusable dishes.
  • Buy local. Consider the environmental impact of shipping goods.
  • Give a consumable gift and support local artisans. Local cheese, spirits and other goodies can be shared too.
  • Give an experience. Instead of giving a material gift, give an experience such as concert tickets, cooking classes, fitness classes, sports events, or a museum membership.
  • Re-gift or host a white elephant gift exchange. There’s no shame in putting something to good use.
  • Don’t forget to bring reusable bags on holiday shopping excursions, and when wrapping gifts use newspaper, old maps or reusable textiles.
  • When purchasing gifts, give some thought to what will happen to that item when it is used up. Can it be recycled? Can it be reused?
  • Want a unique gift idea? Give a gift that will be around for years. Give the gift of a tree. By planting a tree for your neighbor, friend or relative, you will be showing how much you care for them and for our environment.
  • Celebrating Christmas? Don’t forget to recycle your tree! Many cities offer curbside Christmas tree recycling. Check with your city or town’s sanitation department to see if this is available to you.
  • Make a resolution to recycle and compost more. Start building your recycling pile with used newspapers, magazines and junk mail, and make an effort to recycle harder-to-recycle items such as batteries and old electronics.

Thanks for making your celebration more sustainable. Happy Holidays to you and yours!

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Photo courtesy ohsohappytogether via Flickr.