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Time to get serious about solving Michigan’s septic problem

Editor’s note: This post is by MEC intern Matthew McLaughlin

A story of infrastructure long forgotten is developing in Michigan. While we rank number one in the country for most dissatisfaction for road conditions, the recent tragedy in Flint has forced all Michigan citizens to consider the infrastructure that we don’t see. Here and in other states, an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality has led to neglect of water lines, municipal sewers and other infrastructure.

That neglect is especially apparent when it comes to on-site wastewater treatment systems, commonly known as septic systems, used by homes that are not connected to a centralized sewer system. Michigan has about 1.3 million septic systems in its rural areas and sprawling suburbs. Once septics are installed, many homeowners simply don’t remember to have them inspected, or even emptied, unless a problem occurs. This history of neglect has led to a widespread problem of failing systems.

Surprisingly, given the central role fresh water plays in our lifestyle and identity, Michigan is the only state without a law that specifically regulates septics. Eleven counties exercise some oversight of septics, including regular inspections, but they are unregulated in the remaining 72 counties. The state has attempted to address the problem multiple times, including in 2004 when then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm created the On-Site Wastewater Treatment Systems Task Force. That year the task force released a white paper with recommendations for a statewide sanitary code regulating septics. To date, however, there has not been a legislative solution to the problem.

And it is a serious problem. Joan Rose, an expert in water microbiology, water quality and public health, and others at Michigan State University recently found that rivers in areas with high concentrations of septic systems have increased evidence of E. coli and B. theta, which are indicators of human waste. In fact, they found evidence of sewage in all 64 river systems that they sampled. The state’s water strategy, issued last year by the Department of Environmental Quality, estimated that 10 percent of the state’s septics—about 130,000 systems—are failing and leaking an astounding 31 million gallons of sewage every day into our rivers, lakes and ground water. That’s a conservative estimate, far lower than observed rates in other states. Read more

MEC staffer helps Traverse City schools harness the sun for energy and education

Editor’s note: Kate Madigan is MEC’s northern Michigan representative and climate and energy specialist.

Today I joined northern Michigan community leaders and Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) officials in a gym with 200 cheering elementary students to celebrate the completion of the first solar array installed on a school in Traverse City.

The morning started with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the 40 solar panels on the roof of Traverse Heights Elementary School that provide the school with sun-powered electricity, educational opportunities and much more.

“The solar panels are going to help fuel young minds and provide tangible ways to engage students in math and science, environmental stewardship and career exploration,” said Amy Six-King, principal of Traverse Heights Elementary School at the event. “We are appreciative of our community partners for their leadership in this effort, which provides our staff with a powerful tool to enhance teaching and learning.”

The leadership and can-do attitude of principal Six-King, who immediately saw the benefits to the school, were key to making this solar project happen.

This effort began more than a year ago when I got together with project leader Mary VanValin, a board member of the MEC member group Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities and a retired TCAPS teacher, to write a grant proposal to put solar panels on the school. We worked with the TCAPS leadership team to come up with a plan and we quickly raised all the funds needed for the solar project.

“Excitement about solar energy is contagious,” VanValin said. “When we started talking about the clean energy benefits of solar power and the hands-on educational and cost-saving possibilities it can provide to a school, the community support for this project went through the roof.” Read more

With spring in the air, MEC is shaping a plan to protect pollinators

Editor’s note: This post is by MEC intern Teha Ames.

A serious problem that should not be overlooked by the state of Michigan and its residents is the decline of pollinator populations.  Pollinators include bees, butterflies, beetles, hummingbirds and other animals that help flowering plants reproduce by transferring pollen from plant to plant. Pollinator population declines have been linked to habitat loss, parasites, pathogens, pesticide exposure, climate change and other factors. A global assessment of pollinators published in February found a growing number of pollinators are threatened with extinction.

The services pollinators provide are essential for feeding the world and for supporting agricultural jobs. In 2014, President Obama issued a memorandum highlighting why honey bees and other pollinators are important in the United States. “Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States,” it noted. The memorandum also established a Pollinator Health Task Force between several government agencies to combat the problem. In its 2015 strategy to protect pollinators, the task force laid out three clear nationwide goals: reduce honey bee colony losses during winter to no more than 15 percent within 10 years; increase the eastern population of monarch butterflies (which includes Michigan’s monarchs) to 225 million by 2020; and restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next 5 years.

Since Obama issued the memorandum, several states have joined the fight for pollinator protection. One state that has not created a pollinator protection plan yet is Michigan. Fortunately, MEC and other supporting stakeholders are helping the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to create such a plan.Honey bee Read more

On retirement day for some old coal plants, bad state policies keep others limping along

You may have noticed a lot of news stories lately about coal-fired power plants. That’s because—with federal regulations kicking in to protect public health—today marks the end of the operating permits for a number of coal plants in Michigan, including Consumers Energy’s oldest generating units, sometimes charitably described as the “Classic Seven.”

It’s good news that these coal plants are retiring—good for our health, good for our climate and good for our pocketbooks. In 2008, when Michigan enacted clean energy laws, 66 percent of our electricity came from coal. Thanks to those laws, coal now supplies less than half our electricity. With a continued, steady increase in affordable renewable power and energy efficiency, we can shrink coal’s slice of the energy pie to 35 percent by 2020.

Unfortunately, even as they retire their oldest power plants, our large, investor-owned electric utilities are still clinging to dirty coal. DTE Energy, for example, still generates over 70 percent of its electricity from coal and continues to spend millions of dollars a year to keep old plants operating, heaping the costs onto Michigan families.

And sadly, our Legislature is doing nothing to protect Michigan residents from skyrocketing energy bills or the public health impacts of dirty coal plants. Read more

MEC’s five-year fight for clean air ends with major win for Michigan families

This week brought a long-fought, hard-won victory for MEC—and anyone who breathes Michigan’s air.

On Monday, the Department of Environmental Quality announced that—in response to strong pushback from environmental advocates and the public—it is dropping a plan to deregulate air emissions of some 500 toxic chemicals.

This is a major win for clean air and public health in Michigan. Had DEQ gone through with the rule change, it would have allowed unchecked air emissions of about 250 chemicals that have never been tested for their impact on human health and could be cancer-causing. It also would have deregulated emissions of another 250 or so chemicals that, while not carcinogenic, are known to be somewhat toxic, allowing polluters to emit them in any quantity—despite the fact that even mildly toxic chemicals can have serious health impacts if people are exposed at high enough levels.

Among other arguments against the proposal, we warned that it ignored the science of toxic chemical exposure, and that it would deal a disproportionately heavy blow to the health of low-income residents and communities of color. You can find more details about the proposed rule change and our objections to it here.

“The DEQ’s decision to continue regulating these chemicals is consistent with the best available science on the health risks of exposure to toxic substances, and it’s the right decision for Michigan residents,” MEC Policy Director James Clift said in our press release praising the decision. “We hope this is a sign that the department is putting its focus back where it belongs, on protecting Michigan’s environment and the health of people who live here.”

At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, this victory is the direct result of MEC’s hard work. It’s also a good illustration of how MEC goes about protecting Michigan’s environment. Furthermore, it underscores the crucial role played by our financial supporters, who give us the resources to stick with an issue over the long-haul.

Here’s the successful formula that added up to a clean-air victory:

We were at the table early. The proposal to deregulate air toxics came from a Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs work group charged with paring down the state’s list of thousands of environmental rules by cutting unnecessary and redundant regulations. Thanks to his reputation as one of the top environmental policy experts in Lansing, MEC’s James Clift was appointed to that group. The proposal to loosen air toxics rules was among many that James opposed, but because of business support, it nonetheless made it into the group’s final recommendations to the Snyder administration in 2011. Read more

With lead in the spotlight, MEC-led coalition calls for more state funding to protect kids

A lot can change in five years.

MEC Health Policy Director Tina Reynolds convened lead advocates in 2010 to form the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes (MIALSH) because lead poisoning received almost no attention in Lansing, despite being a completely preventable condition and one whose health effects cannot be reversed once a child is exposed.

During the coalition’s first Lead Education Day at the state Capitol, Reynolds and allies were met with puzzled faces from many lawmakers who thought the lead problem was solved when lead-based paint was banned in 1978. (About 70 percent of Michigan’s housing stock was built before that ban, so thousands of our state’s children are still exposed each year to lead from paint in older homes.)

Wednesday’s fifth annual Lead Education Day, however, came at a time when lead poisoning could hardly be a more prominent issue.

The LG weighs in

The poisoning of Flint children from lead in corrosive city water is a profound tragedy and a staggering failure of government to protect public health. It also has put an unprecedented spotlight on lead issues, providing a must-seize moment to face Michigan’s lead problem head-on.

“Now it’s something everybody is thinking about,” said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who kicked off Lead Education Day with remarks to the nearly 50 MIALSH members from all over the state who braved a snowstorm to meet in Lansing with legislators and urge increased state investment in successful lead-abatement programs. “I think it is time that we set some very ambitious or bold goals when it comes to eradication. We have an open door here.” Read more

Another way to help Flint

We’ve been getting calls in our office lately from people concerned about the Flint water crisis—folks from as far away as West Virginia and New Mexico—who want to know what they can do to help.

One easy answer: Head over to helpforflint.com, where you can easily donate to community organizations working to help Flint residents, or sign up for a volunteer shift. Please consider volunteering, and ask for help from your family, friends, coworkers or members of any groups you belong to. (MEC staff members had a wonderful experience volunteering with the Red Cross this past weekend. We had great leadership from a pair of seasoned disasater-response veterans, got some exercise and delivered four truckloads of water and filters to Flint residents. It was definitely a day well spent.)

Donating money and volunteering your time are good, helpful steps, and we encourage everyone to chip in however they can.

In addition, we’d like to propose another way to help: Visit Flint.

A Flint crowd enjoys live music

The serious health impacts and human suffering caused by the disaster are outrageous, and we need to do everything we can to help the people of Flint. We also should do what we can to support the city. Flint has faced serious challenges for years, and the water crisis certainly hasn’t helped its reputation.

But anyone who has spent time there knows Flint has a lot to offer. (And it’s worth noting that, while the Flint River’s reputation has taken a beating during the drinking water crisis, it’s an outstanding recreational asset for the region, and its water quality is improving. The problem was improper treatment of the water, not the river itself.)

So, we encourage you to spend a day exploring Flint, support some local businesses and tell your friends about the good stuff you find. Here are just a few options.

Shop and dine at one of the country’s great farmers markets.

Did you know Flint has a world-class farmers market? In 2009 it was named the “Most Loved Market in America” in an online contest, smoking the closest competition by more than 1,000 votes. Established in 1905, the market moved to a new location downtown in 2014. The American Farmland Trust ranked the Flint market number three in the nation last year, and the American Planning Association listed it among just six designated Great Public Spaces.

There’s a wide range of foods available at the market, from local produce to gourmet popcorn, cheeses, chocolates, Middle Eastern cuisine and barbecue. Classes and workshops also are available. It’s open year-round, but only on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9-5, and Saturdays from 8-5, so plan accordingly. Read more

Report finds rapid growth in Michigan solar jobs

Michigan’s solar industry employed 2,779 people in 2015, a 32 percent increase from 2014, according to industry data released Wednesday.

The ranks of solar employees in Michigan are expected to swell by more than 14 percent in 2016, compared to the state’s overall anticipated job growth of .4 percent, according to the Solar Foundation’s State Solar Jobs Census.

And, the report notes, job growth could be significantly greater in the year ahead, because the hiring estimates were based on employer surveys conducted before Congress extended the federal investment tax credit for solar in December.

Michigan ranked 18th among states for the number of solar workers, up from 20th place in 2014. California took first place with a stunning 75,598 jobs and added more than 20,000 solar jobs in 2015. Massachusetts, Nevada, New York and New Jersey rounded out the top five.

Michigan came out ahead of nearby states like Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, but was topped by Midwestern neighbors Ohio with 4,811 solar jobs and Illinois with 3,483.

Nationally, the solar industry employs 208,859 workers, which is more than the total number of jobs in oil and gas extraction. The industry saw a more than 20 percent increase in nationwide jobs over the prior year—the third consecutive year of a better than 20 percent growth rate. Solar installation jobs pay well above the hourly wage for the overall U.S. work force, the report says. Read more

Momentum growing in push to keep factory fish farms out of the Great Lakes

Today was a big day in the ongoing effort to protect our fisheries and fresh water by keeping factory fish farming out of the Great Lakes.

Sean Hammond, MEC deputy policy director, testified this morning at a standing-room-only meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee in support of House Bill 5255. Sponsored by Rep. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, the bill would ban net-pen aquaculture in Michigan’s Great Lakes and connecting waters. Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, has introduced companion legislation, Senate Bill 526.

MEC was among numerous environmental, conservation and angling groups and concerned citizens at the hearing to speak out in favor of banning commercial aquaculture in the Great Lakes. Only one person—who happens to have a financial stake in a proposed fish farm—testified against the ban.

And at a noon press conference, Sean joined Rep. Bumstead, Sen. Jones and Dan Eichinger, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, in releasing the results of an EPIC-MRA poll showing that nearly 7 in 10 Michiganders oppose allowing fish farms in our Great Lakes. The opposition cut across geographic, political and geographic lines and—here’s the kicker—grew stronger when survey participants heard arguments from both sides of the issue.

Sean testifies

Sean testifies before the House Natural Resources Committee.

You can read more about the poll in our press release.

As we’ve written here before, proposals to open the Great Lakes to net-pen aquaculture—which involves cramming thousands of fish into floating cages and fattening them on food pellets—pose a serious risk to fish populations, water quality and the recreational value of our greatest natural resource. Among other concerns, fish farms would introduce the threat of disease transmission from farmed fish to wild populations and concentrate huge amounts of fish waste in bays and harbors, potentially triggering toxic algae outbreaks.

To get up to speed on our concerns about Great Lakes fish farming, read more here, here, here and here.

It’s important to note that MEC and our partners support aquaculture done the right way, and hope to see that industry thrive in Michigan. Contained, land-based systems that properly manage fish waste are a welcome and sustainable source of good, local food. But Michigan residents shouldn’t be forced to subsidize the abuse of our Great Lakes by letting companies use our shared water as a sewer. Especially not when the proposed fish farms would create—at best—just 44 jobs.

We appreciate the leadership shown by Sen. Jones and Rep. Bumstead, and we’re confident we will achieve the right outcome for the Great Lakes.

But this is far from a slam dunk. On Wednesday, in fact, Sean will testify once again—this time in front of the House Agriculture Committee—to oppose a set of bills that would lay out the welcome mat for high-risk Great Lakes aquaculture. And we’ll be there when the natural resources committee continues taking testimony next week on the proposed ban.

Now would be a great time to pick up the phone and let your state legislators know where you stand. You can find your representative here and your senator here.

Since there are multiple bills on both sides of the issue, let’s keep the message simple: Net-pen fish farms are all risk and no reward for Michigan, and the Legislature should act now to keep them out of the Great Lakes.

Thank you for helping urge state leaders to live up to their role as stewards of the greatest freshwater resource on Earth. Together, we’ll chalk up a crucial win for the Great Lakes.

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Net-pen fish farm photo courtesy Sam Beebe via Flickr.

A look at MEC’s policy priorities for 2016

A new year brings new opportunities, and at the Michigan Environmental Council, we’re ready to seize them.

What follows isn’t exactly a wish list for 2016, because we’re going to do a lot more than ask for these things and hope they come true. It’s also not a comprehensive list—we’ll be working on many other issues ranging from mining regulations to promoting recycling to getting more healthy food into schools.

That said, here are some of the key areas where we think our hard work—and the generous support of our financial contributors—will pay off in 2016.

Increased funding for programs that prevent lead poisoning. The Flint drinking water crisis has put a spotlight on the perils of lead poisoning. MEC President Chris Kolb was appointed co-chair of the state task force charged with reviewing what went wrong in Flint and recommending policies to prevent similar disasters elsewhere. The $28 million Gov. Snyder requested for Flint in his State of the State address is a necessary first step, but it’s only a down payment on what must be a long-term commitment of resources for Flint. MEC will hold the governor accountable to his pledge to set things right in Flint, and we will push for the necessary policy changes to ensure that drinking water is safe in other communities and that nothing like the Flint crisis happens again.

Our drinking-water-focused efforts will be part of MEC’s ongoing push this year and beyond to end lead poisoning in Michigan from all sources. Drinking water is one way our children are exposed to lead, but hazards also lurk in paint, dust and soil. Lead-based paint is a far-too-common exposure pathway all over the state. About 70 percent of the state’s homes were built before 1978, when lead paint was outlawed.

Statewide, more than 5,000 children in 2014 had blood lead levels above the threshold that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, requires case management. Only 20 percent of children are tested each year, so the true figures are likely much higher. The CDC also notes there is no safe level of exposure to lead.

MEC and our partners in the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes have secured much-needed state funding in each of the past three years for programs to prevent lead poisoning and provide help to afflicted families. The state’s 2016 budget includes $1.75 million for those programs.

This year, the coalition’s goal is to increase state spending on these successful lead programs to $2 million for the next budget cycle.

A solid clean energy package. Last year came to a close without an overhaul of Michigan’s energy laws, which means the state’s renewable energy standard—the portion of their power utilities are required to generate from clean sources—is stuck at 10 percent. (By comparison, Minnesota has a goal of 25 percent renewable by 2025, and has already passed the 15 percent mark.) Putting a new energy package on the governor’s desk is a top legislative priority in the early months of 2016. Read more