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Tug of war: Senate approves trails package while House panel cuts funding for—you guessed it—trails

The Senate today approved a package of bills to establish a Pure Michigan Trail Network – an encouraging sign that state lawmakers recognize the important role world-class trails and other outdoor recreation assets can play in growing local economies and enhancing quality of life.

The Senate package allows the director of the Department of Natural Resources to give trails and towns the Pure Michigan designation upon recommendation from the Natural Resources Commission. It also gives a nod to our state’s outstanding paddling by allowing the director to designate Pure Michigan Water Trails.  The bills also would change the Snowmobile and Trailways Advisory Council to the Trails Advisory Council.

“This package will bring the entire Michigan trails system into the spotlight,” said Nancy Krupiarz, executive director of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. “We have an incredible array of trails of all types, and we want to recognize them all and the towns that embrace them.”

The legislation makes place-based investments in outdoor assets a centerpiece of Michigan’s reinvention strategy, said Brad Garmon, MEC’s director of conservation and emerging issues. It also celebrates best-in-class trails that showcase Michigan’s natural beauty and cultural sites, rather than slapping the Pure Michigan label on lower-profile trails that serve an important practical purpose but don’t reinforce the Pure Michigan brand. Read more

Legislation: Toxic industrial fill someone puts on your property is, well, none of your business

Should a property owner know if a contractor is placing a four-foot thick bed of toxic industrial waste below their businesses’ new parking lot? Should a homeowner know if the same industrial waste is going underneath the road in front of their home?  Should you be informed if industrial byproducts are present on a parcel of property you are buying?

Not under bills being considered in the Michigan legislature that allow for expanded use of industrial byproducts  – like fly ash from coal-fired power plant smokestacks, foundry sands, and sludge from pulp and paper mills.

Under these bills, no permission would be needed from property owners before industrial byproducts can be used as construction fill or for road beds or in parking lots.  Current owners would be left in the dark, and future owners may never know of the liability inherent in the properties they purchase.  In many cases, that fill should permanently alter what that property can be used for in the future to protect public health.

The Michigan Environmental Council supports the reuse of industrial by-products when protection of public health can be assured and use of the materials is monitored and tracked in a way that reasonably controls public exposure.  That is not the case with House bills 5400, 5401 and 5402.

A vote in the House Natural Resources Committee is currently scheduled on the legislation this Thursday, April 17. Please contact your local legislator and ask them to oppose HB 5400 through 5402 until these concerns can be addressed. 

Our number one concern is the failure of the bills to require people who use these materials to get permission from property owners.  The bills allow impairment of property rights, without permission from the landowner or compensation for the restrictions on the future uses of the property.

Other issues include:

Read more

Remembering an icon of environmental law

While we’re embarrassingly late in doing so, we want to note the passing of a giant of environmental law. Joseph Sax, who died March 9 at 78, taught law at the University of Michigan from 1966 to 1986 and pioneered legal principles for natural resources that remain the bedrock of many environmental protections today.

According to Berkeley Law,

Sax began his environmental legal work in the mid-1960s before environmental protection was even recognized as a legal field, and authored the groundbreaking Michigan Environment Protection Act. Popularly known as the “Sax Act,” it was the world’s first modern environmental law based on the public trust doctrine, which identifies natural resources as a public trust that demands protection.

In short, the law enshrined the right of ordinary citizens to take action in the courts to protect air, water and natural resources from pollution or other damage.

As a New York Times obituary notes, the public trust doctrine Sax developed was used in close to 300 state and federal cases between 1997 and 2008, and has been adopted in numerous other countries.

The Sax Act provided the legal framework for one of Michigan’s best-known environmental cases. In the 1970s, environmental groups sued under MEPA to block oil and gas drilling in the Pigeon River Country State Forest – part of a long, complicated court battle that eventually led to an agreement that restricted oil and gas development in the forest and served as a model for resource management.

Sax’s influence also is present in a current case in which Encana Oil and Gas USA and Chesapeake Energy Corporation are charged with colluding to hold down bid prices in a 2010 auction of oil and gas leases. The public trust doctrine is at issue in the case because the companies are alleged to have shortchanged Michigan’s citizens, who the state’s constitution says must benefit—via the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund—when private companies profit from a public resource.

“It would be impossible,” a former student of Sax’s wrote, “to overstate Joe’s influence on environmental and natural resources law over the last half century. In the 1960s, he and a handful of others literally invented the field.”

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Photo: Joseph Sax in 1967. Courtesy University of Michigan Law School.

Keystone pipeline decision muddied by glaring lack of federal energy roadmap

The Kalamazoo River is still fouled four years after the Enbridge tar sands spill.

The public comment period on the Keystone XL pipeline closes tomorrow, Friday March 7. Secretary of State John Kerry will then make his recommendation to President Obama, who will reject or approve the permit to build the northern leg of this pipeline. If built, it would transport 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil every day from Alberta, Canada to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico.

The decision is about more than just one pipeline. It is about the ecological destruction that will result from expanded development of Alberta tar sands, more risk and intensive use of pipelines that crisscross Michigan, and a perpetuation of American dependence on finite and increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

This issue also highlights our great nation’s utter lack of a comprehensive, or even coherent, energy strategy – the kind of roadmap that would help us decide which direction to turn at this critical juncture. Read more

Michigan’s Sleeping Bear, ‘America’s Most Beautiful Place,’ set to earn Congress’ first wilderness designation in years

(Second update: President Obama signed the bill March 13, designating roughly half of the Sleeping Bear Dunes as a federal wilderness area!)

(Wednesday morning update! The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill on a voice vote late Tuesday, and it is on its way to President Obama’s desk. Said U.S. Senator Carl Levin: “This is good news for all of us who cherish the matchless beauty and the ecological importance of Sleeping Bear Dunes.”)

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Michigan’s iconic and globally rare freshwater dune system is on the verge of getting Congress’ first wilderness designation since 2009, capping more than a decade of discussion about how best to protect one of the region’s signature natural areas while keeping it open to hunters, anglers, beach lovers and others.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act would designate as wilderness 32,500 acres of the park that gained national attention in 2011 when Good Morning America viewers voted it the nation’s most beautiful place. The bill is set for a House vote this evening and is expected to land on President Obama’s desk for his signature.

The bill is a rarity for the polarized 113th Congress, which hasn’t designated a single acre for protection under the Wilderness Act. (Neither did the 112th – the first Congress not to add wilderness since 1966.)  It enjoys bipartisan support among Michigan’s congressional delegation—Democrats Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow co-sponsored the Senate version, which passed in June, while Republican Dan Benishek introduced the House bill—and has the backing of local residents and the National Park Service. Read more

New Public Service Commission analysis: Renewable electricity 26% cheaper than coal

Wind turbine near Pigeon, MI

Electricity from renewable clean energy sources in Michigan is at least 26 percent less expensive than comparable coal-fired electricity according to an annual analysis by the Michigan Public Service Commission released this week.

The report also says that state utilities are going to meet the 10 percent renewable electricity goal by the target date of 2015. The highlights are documented in the MPSC’s press release.

The most recent clean energy contracts – primarily wind-powered electricity – are half as expensive as just five years ago, the report concludes. The report uses “levelized cost,” which accounts for initial capital, discount rate, as well as the costs of continuous operation, fuel, and maintenance. Renewable electricity costs are just under $79 per kilowatt hour. Coal costs are $133 according to the MPSC’s estimate, or $107 using Consumers Energy’s figures.

The figures do not take into account “externalized costs” that aren’t reflected in rates – for example, the health care expenses due to coal-burning pollutants are not factored into the figures.

The costs for clean electricity are so low that Consumers Energy is seeking to eliminate its renewable energy surcharge, and Detroit Edison has lowered theirs from $3/mo to 43 cents.

Will hard data dissuade defenders of the status quo from continuing to claim that renewable energy is too expensive? Of course not. Will it be a critical factor in Gov. Rick Snyder’s eventual proposal – expected late this year or early next – on where to go next with renewable energy development? We suspect so.

You can let the governor know you want more of the cheapest and cleanest energy sources by contacting him here.  And you can tell your state rep and senator the same thing here and here.

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Speak up for Michigan’s public lands!

Please show your support for public lands by attending a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) on Monday, February 17, 2014 at 7:00 p.m. at the Acme Township Hall.

Doors open at 6:30, we suggest arriving early. The Acme Township Hall is located at 6042 Acme Rd, Williamsburg, MI 49690.

Rep. Schmidt and other public lands advocates will be speaking in support of his House Bill 5210, which would approve the new Department of Natural Resources (DNR) strategic land plan and lift the so-called “land cap.” Rep. Schmidt should be applauded and supported for his efforts to right a wrong that was committed when the land cap bill was passed in 2012.

Please show up and speak out if you:

  • Believe public lands managed by the DNR – OUR forests, rivers, dunes and parks – provide great benefit to Michigan’s natural resources, people, economy and local communities.
  • Think Michigan’s residents want MORE protected landscapes, natural communities and outdoor recreation opportunities, not fewer.
  • Want to remove the arbitrary acreage cap on state-owned public land that was put in place in 2012 (through the so-called “land cap” law).
  • Agree with MEC’s Board of Directors in their endorsement of the new DNR-Managed Public Land Strategy of 2013 ”as a critical step to removing the state’s current public land cap.”

We need your voice to be heard at the meeting, because we fear the extreme private-property and small-government advocates that gave us the land cap law will again be out in force, speaking against Michigan’s great tradition of supporting public land conservation, resource stewardship and access to natural resources.

Background: Rep. Schmidt’s bill (HB 5210) is needed to officially have the legislature approve the DNR’s land strategy and to remove the acreage cap that currently limits the amount of public land the State of Michigan can own and manage.

The DNR land strategy was required by Sen. Tom Casperson’s PA 240 of 2012, which limited the total allowable acreage of land under state management to 4,626,000 acres (just above current totals) until May 1, 2015, and to 3,910,000 acres north of the Mason-Arenac line thereafter (also just above current totals).

PA 240 also required the DNR to create a strategic land plan that had to be approved by the Legislature in order for the land cap to be lifted. The DNR has completed that plan, available here, and MEC’s board has passed a resolution in support of the plan and of lifting the land cap through legislation (such as HB 5210).

You can read earlier Michigan Distilled posts about MEC’s position and our history of advocacy on the land cap issue here and here.

Thank you!

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Photo courtesy Robert Emperley via Flickr.

Speed limit forum: Smart engineering is best way to ensure safe roadways for all users

Panelists discussed the merits of proposed changes in Michigan’s speed limit laws at Wednesday’s forum hosted at the Michigan Municipal League and moderated by Tim Fischer of Transportation for Michigan and the Michigan Environmental Council. Concerns about restricting methods of setting speed limits to the 85th percentile rule were expressed by several panelists, while consensus emerged that engineering and planning fixes are the best way to ensure safe and efficient roadways for all users.

Potential legislation being discussed would mandate that the 85th percentile method of setting speed limits is used more uniformly across Michigan (currently, many municipalities are setting limits in response to other factors such as pedestrian volumes on a roadway). The 85th percentile method sets the speed limit at the point which is exceeded by 15% of drivers. If 15% of vehicles in a 25 MPH posted zone were traveling faster than 30 MPH, the method would set the speed limit at 30 MPH. Setting limits based on this method relies on research that shows that car accidents are reduced when the 85th percentile is the posted speed limit, and that drivers respond more to roadway factors such as visibility distance than they do to the posted speed limit.

Legislation is expected to be introduced in the next few weeks.

Tim Fischer moderated the panel

The majority of panelists saw fault with passing rules that would require setting speed limits based on just one of many tools available to planners. Carolyn Grawi, Director of Advocacy and Education at the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living said that while the 85th percentile tool makes sense for certain roadways, such as restricted-access highways, setting speed limits with the tool across the board ignores local contexts such as roads near school zones and neighborhoods. Grawi also opposed using the tool in residential areas based on the potential that actual speeds may “creep” up if posted speeds are raised. Even slight increases in vehicle speeds decrease survivorship from pedestrian and vehicle accidents and make it more difficult for individuals with disabilities, young children, and seniors to navigate roadways. Read more

WMEAC report sizes up climate resiliency in Grand Rapids

A photo from West Michigan went semi-viral last April because the scene it depicted was so novel: Why was a fish swimming past the window of a Grand Rapids office building?

The fish was exploring new territory opened up by a record-setting flood that battered the city. Days of heavy rain drove the Grand River so high that it nearly breached floodwalls and inundated the downtown area. The flood inflicted $10 million in damage throughout Kent County, drove some 1,700 people from their homes and led Grand Rapids to ask residents to help protect the city with sandbags.

More worrisome than the flood itself are projections that such volatile weather–heavy downpours, extreme heat, freeze-thaw cycles –will become more common in the Great Lakes region as climate change becomes more pronounced. Officials in many cities recognize that infrastructure upgrades and other initiatives will be essential for adapting to new weather patterns.

A report released in December by the West Michigan Environmental Action Council aims to get a conversation going in greater Grand Rapids about how to build a city that can withstand the slings and arrows of a changing climate.

The project arose when the U.S. Conference of Mayors recognized Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell for his leadership on climate change issues and granted the city $25,000 for new climate-related projects. Heartwell gave half the money to the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks for tree planting. The rest went to WMEAC–an MEC member group–to prepare a report on the city’s climate resiliency.

You can read the report online here.

We checked in with Nick Occhipinti, WMEAC’s director of policy and community activism, to learn more about the report’s findings and its recommendations for Grand Rapids.

MEC: What, to you, are the take-home points from the report? Read more

Tuesday linkaround: Solar soars while fossil fuels wither without water

Tuesday linkaround!

If it’s links–(not lynx)–you’re after, a good place to start is this piece from Grist, which will connect you to a host of stories about how the solar energy industry is making serious headway.

That’s good news because–as the deepening drought emergency in California attests–the continued availability of the massive amounts of water required for conventional electricity is no sure thing. The Golden State is far from alone in experiencing water scarcity, and a column in Forbes makes a strong case that the water intensity of fuels must be a consideration when planning our energy future:

Recent media coverage has been quick to pin the challenge of reliability as one that only applies to renewables. The logic goes something like this: if the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, we won’t have electricity, making these energy sources unreliable. But if we don’t have reliable access to abundant water resources to produce, move and manage energy that comes from water-intensive energy resources like fossil fuels, this argument against the intermittency of renewables becomes moot.

Of course, the cost of pollution also must be part of the conversation when making decisions about our energy system. Here in Michigan, where we don’t have any coal to mine, we tend to focus on the pollution that leaves power-plant smokestacks. But as a new Associated Press analysis makes clear, the coal industry has inflicted staggering damage to waterways in mining country: Read more