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Lame duck update: The Ugly, the Good and the Bad

With Michigan’s lame duck session in full swing, we thought we’d update Michigan Distilled readers on what has been a very…interesting—yes, we’ll go with interesting—week at the Capitol.

The title of a particular Spaghetti Western film provides a useful way to sort out recent goings-on in Lansing. But one bill moving through the Legislature is so vile, odious and abhorrent that, with apologies to Sergio Leone, we have to start there.

And so, here’s a roundup of this week’s environmental legislation: The Ugly, the Good and the Bad.

Ugly

There’s bad legislation, and then there’s House Bill 5205, which that chamber approved Thursday. Introduced by Rep. Aric Nesbitt, a Republican from Lawton, this irresponsible bill would amend Michigan’s clean energy law, changing the definition of “renewable” to include old tires, railroad ties and other hazardous waste.

Calling dirty, nonrenewable materials clean and renewable would be laughable, but the bill has advanced too far to be funny, and its potential effects on the health of Michigan residents are no joke. Railroad ties, for example, contain dioxins and other chemicals known or suspected of causing cancer. Read more

MEC, ZWD urge lawmakers to send waste-to-energy bill to the trash heap

Update: The House has approved HB 5205. Please join MEC in urging your senator to stop this irresponsible bill from moving any further.

The Michigan Environmental Council and Zero Waste Detroit are urging lawmakers to vote down legislation approved by a House committee that would expand the state’s definition of renewable energy to include the burning of hazardous waste, warning that it would harm the health of Michigan residents and hobble the state’s growing clean-energy industry.

House Bill 5205, introduced by Rep. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) and approved this week by the House Energy and Technology Committee he chairs, would amend the 2008 Michigan law that requires utilities to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015. It would put scrap tires, plastics and hazardous materials in the same category as legitimate clean-energy technologies like wind and solar power.

The bill draws its list of fuels that should be considered renewable from a federal administrative rule that has nothing to do with renewable energy. In fact, the rule concerns how the Clean Air Act should be applied to facilities that burn waste materials, including hazardous waste with potentially toxic air emissions.

An amendment to the bill removed petroleum coke—an oil-refining byproduct—from the list of fuels that would be considered renewable. And some of the included materials, such as byproducts from pulp and paper mills, already were considered renewable fuels under the 2008 law. But the bill would add dirty fuels that create serious public health risks when burned. For example, it could include railroad ties, which contain dioxins and other chemicals known or suspected of causing cancer, and demolition waste including wood coated in lead-based paint. Read more

Celebrate Michigan wildlife December 9!

The following is reprinted from a Michigan Department of Natural Resources press release issued last December. MEC encourages all Michiganders to support wildlife conservation by making a donation to the nongame fund and attending the DNR’s Dec. 9 gala dinner to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Michigan’s Endangered Species Act. Read our recent blog post for more information on the dinner and nongame wildlife management in Michigan.

This is the time of year when charities and other nonprofit organizations remind citizens that they can lower their tax bills by donating to these organizations. The Department of Natural Resources can say the same: contributions to Michigan’s Nongame Fish and Wildlife Fund are tax-deductible and the fund is what provides state officials with the money to manage the 80 percent of wildlife species in this state that are not hunted or trapped. (Game species are managed with revenue from license sales.)

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Nongame Fish and Wildlife Fund has changed in several ways since its inception in 1983, though the three main goals remain the same:

• To restore populations of endangered species;
• To maintain healthy populations of animals and plants; and
• To promote — through education and first-hand opportunities to experience wildlife — appreciation for and awareness of Michigan’s diverse wildlife.

When it was first created, the nongame fund raised money through a check-off on the state income tax return. The check-off was discontinued in the 1990s when the fund reached $6 million. The fund continues to generate revenue from interest on the balance, by voluntary contributions, and, of course, the purchase of “Conserve Wildlife Habitat” license plates (Look for the Loon!).

Since its beginning, the Nongame Fish and Wildlife Fund has raised some $9.5 million to support conservation. Read more

Author challenges environmental groups to reimagine black relationship with nature

There’s plenty of evidence that American popular culture takes an off-kilter view of who cares about the environment and belongs in the outdoors. On the first night of MEC’s recent annual meeting in northern Michigan, members gathered around a stone fireplace in a cozy riverside lodge surrounded by woods to explore that concept with geographer and author Carolyn Finney.

During Finney’s informal evening discussion and reading, she shared selections from her new book, “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.” She also read from “Ode to New York: A Performance Piece,” which she wrote in answer to the question, “How is nature critical to a 21st century urban ethic?” It reads, in part:

We, the human animal, are one of the faces of nature and the city is our home place where we get to build, experiment, blend and grow…Get down, put your ear on the ground. Together with the sound of the subway and cars and footsteps of hundreds of people marching in tune to their faith and their hope, you can hear the soil, the water, the roots of the trees, the insects, the plants, the energy bursting forth, connecting us to ourselves and the places in which we live.

The lodge itself—tucked out of the way in the heart of the Manistee National Forest—provided the perfect setting for the open, intense and challenging discussion that followed. It’s a haven for fly fishers and kayakers, and a good jumping-off point for other Pure Michigan adventures like backpacking, trail running and birdwatching.Carolyn Finney fireside

Such natural places, Finney suggests, are too commonly seen as a “white” domain. In reality, African Americans have their own long history of connection to natural places, such as Idlewild, the black resort just down the road from the lodge. The black experience of nature, and the American legacy of racism and exclusion that long defined it, provides groups like MEC with fertile ground to broaden the conversation about where nature is found and who cherishes it—and by extension, what voices are valued in the environmental movement itself.

“We talk about changing our relationship to nature,” Finney said, “but first we need to change our relationship to each other.” Read more

DNR dinner spotlights wildlife funding gap

The numbers confirm what we Michiganders know from experience: We love wildlife. Michigan’s 3.2 million wildlife watchers add $1.2 billion to the state economy every year, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

In fact, while hunting and fishing are cornerstones of our state’s outdoor heritage and recreation economy, far more residents pursue wildlife with binoculars or camera than with hook or bullet. A 2011 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that 39 percent of Michigan residents watched wildlife, compared to 21 percent who hunted or fished.

The DNR aims to tap into that enthusiasm with a Dec. 9 dinner to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Michigan’s Endangered Species Act. The law has been instrumental in protecting and recovering rare species such as the peregrine falcon and Kirtland’s warbler.

More than just a celebration, DNR officials hope the dinner will provide critical funding for the state’s Nongame Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund, which supports management of species that aren’t hunted, trapped or fished, but form the vast majority of Michigan’s web of life. Tickets are $100, with all proceeds benefiting the fund. (Seating is limited, so get your tickets today!)

Karner blue butterfly

Karner blue butterfly.

Many residents may be surprised to learn that, while 80 percent of Michigan species aren’t hunted or trapped, nongame species receive only five percent of the DNR’s wildlife management budget. In 2013, state funding to manage nongame wildlife totaled just under $472,000. (State nongame dollars also help leverage about $1 million a year in federal grants to Michigan.) By comparison, turkey management received $754,000 in state funding, and the Deer Range Improvement Program alone netted nearly $1.5 million. Read more

Historic climate march creates ripples of hope

With the sun setting on the New York City skyline behind us, Bill Latka, a filmmaker and leader of the Traverse City chapter of 350.org, read the following passage over the loudspeaker to the 55 exhausted and exhilarated travelers as we began our 18-hour bus ride home: “Organizing a big march is like throwing a rock in a pond: the splash is exciting, but the real beauty is in the ripples.” It was written by one of the organizers of the People’s Climate March, and it rings so true.

The march was exciting, and it was the kind of big splash that can turn the tide of a movement. There were more than 400,000 people marching through the streets of New York. There were so many people that we filled a city street for four miles. There were so many people that those of us in the middle of the pack didn’t even start marching until two hours after the march had begun.

The march was led by indigenous people and frontline communities—the people first- and most-impacted by climate change. Joining them were New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, former Vice President Al Gore, and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio. Filling the streets were parents with babies, elementary school classes, senior citizens, marching bands, artists, and 50,000 college students. There were people from all over the world and the U.S., including six busloads of people from Michigan. This really was a people’s march.

Kate and Elizabeth

Elizabeth Dell of the Citizens Climate Lobby (left) and MEC's Kate Madigan.

On my bus were physicians, teachers, parents, store clerks, retired couples and college students. We chose to sleep two consecutive nights on a bus because we had to get back to our jobs, classes, and young children. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.
Read more

Friday linkaround: Big trees, buses and Ban Ki-moon

With lawmakers back in town following their summer break, the pace of things is picking up here in Lansing.

That said, none of what you’re about to read has much to do with the legislature. Still, we think they’re important stories to keep an eye on, and we hope you enjoy digging into them. Thanks for reading!

Here’s your Friday linkaround:

Bus stop swap. We learned recently that Detroit Metropolitan Airport is planning to change the boarding location for SMART and AirRide, the two public transportation providers that serve the airport. The buses now drop passengers curbside at the McNamara Terminal, but the new location—shared by cabs, charter buses and several shuttle services—is some 500 feet from the terminal, according to MLive. Our colleagues from Trans4M rode a bus to both the current and proposed boarding sites on Monday, along with a transit advocate who uses a wheelchair. As detailed in a blog post, they came away with concerns about how the change would affect passengers, particularly those with disabilities.

We testified and submitted written comments Thursday at meetings of the State Transportation Commission and the Wayne County Airport Authority, requesting that plans to change the boarding location be put on hold pending more public outreach and discussion. Stay tuned for more on this issue.

Latest on Enbridge. There has been interesting news lately about the Enbridge pipelines that carry 23 million gallons of oil a day through the Straits of Mackinac. Read more

For a more competitive Michigan, lawmakers must expand civil rights law

Everything we do at the Michigan Environmental Council is guided by our vision of a brighter future for our state. We work every day toward a healthy state powered by clean, renewable fuels; known for an irresistible mix of bustling urban areas and unspoiled wild places; connected by convenient buses, trains and trails; and defined by clean, abundant fresh water.

While a cleaner, healthier environment is a key feature of the future Michigan we envision, that future also will provide greater economic opportunities for residents across the state by creating the kinds of communities young professionals flock to.

So, though environmental protection is MEC’s focus, we occasionally feel compelled to speak up when something outside our usual purview threatens the thriving Michigan we’re trying to build. That’s why we’re urging lawmakers to correct Michigan’s failure to protect the basic rights of all residents.

Surprisingly, current law allows Michigan residents to be fired, passed over in hiring or denied housing based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.

That our state still permits such discrimination is, frankly, embarrassing. It’s also out of step with what Michiganders value.  Polling shows three-quarters of Michigan residents and 60 percent of small business owners support amending the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to outlaw those practices.

Legislators should heed calls from the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition to amend Elliott-Larsen—which prohibits workplace discrimination against anyone based on their religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status or marital status—to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Read more

Three key issues to watch as lawmakers return to Lansing

When the leaves begin to turn colors each autumn, the wardrobe around the MEC offices also undergoes an unmistakable change.

Friends, the glorious days of t-shirts, jeans and flip-flops are coming to an end. Now begins the season of the necktie. The Legislature is coming back to town.

Our summer dress may have been casual, but we’ve been working hard behind the scenes on issues we expect to make some waves in the next few months. There’s no time to waste; lawmakers will only be in session for nine days in September, three days in October and a smattering of lame-duck days after the November election.

Some of the fall’s meatiest environmental debates will be hammered out quietly through the administrative rulemaking process, not in the Legislature. And what follows certainly isn’t the only important legislation that will see action in the House and Senate chambers. But for our money, here are a few of the most interesting issues to watch in the new legislative session that begins Tuesday.

Oil and gas.

As oil and gas operations have moved beyond rural parts of the state to more populous residential areas, citizens have begun organizing to call for greater local control over drilling regulations.

A crowd of those advocates will greet lawmakers on their first day back in Lansing. The rally is in support of legislation introduced by a pair of Republican state senators from Macomb County—Jack Brandenburg and Tory Rocca—that would restrict drilling in townships with more than 70,000 residents. Read more

Labor Day Bridge Walk is an opportunity for action on Straits oil pipeline

Gov. Rick Snyder will lead about 40,000 people on a five-mile walk across the Mackinac Bridge on Monday, continuing a 57-year old Labor Day tradition.

Also on Monday—as happens every day—23 million gallons of crude oil will cross the Straits of Mackinac just west of the bridge, through a pair of pipelines a couple hundred feet below the surface.

The pipelines are older than the Bridge Walk tradition. They were installed in 1953, the first year of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, when Patti Page’s “The Doggie in the Window” topped Billboard charts and the U.S. Supreme Court was deliberating whether public school segregation was constitutional.

The kids were crazy for this sort of thing when the Straits oil pipelines were installed.

They are owned by Enbridge, the Canadian company responsible for the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history – the 2010 spill of about a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River, which is still being cleaned up. The Straits pipelines are older than the one that ruptured in the Kalamazoo spill, but Enbridge has made public very little information on their condition. In July, the state notified Enbridge it needed additional support structures to comply with state regulations.

Enbridge was responsible for more than 1,000 oil spills in the U.S and Canada between 1999 and 2013.

MEC and other groups from the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign will be at the Bridge Walk to gather signatures from participants on a petition urging Gov. Snyder to protect the Great Lakes from a disastrous oil spill. (Signing the petition is quick and easy; click here.) We’re asking the governor to immediately open a transparent, public process under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act to evaluate the threat posed by the pipelines and determine what actions should be taken to prevent a catastrophe. Read more