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MEC and Tip of the Mitt highlight policy options worth pursuing in new UM fracking report

The University of Michigan last week released a report three years in the making that offers a comprehensive review of Michigan’s policy options regarding fracking for natural gas and oil.

While fracking has been used for decades in Michigan, new techniques use far greater quantities of water and chemicals and pose greater risks to the environment and human health. Some recent fracking operations in Michigan have used as much as 21 million gallons of fresh water and more than 100,000 gallons of chemicals.

Many of the drilling sites are in pristine parts of Michigan known for their natural beauty, and it’s crucial to put the right policies on the books to protect these fragile areas that are the backbone of our tourism economy.

The Department of Environmental Quality updated its fracking regulations in March. The new rules are far from perfect, but they include some important provisions that reflect input from MEC and our allies during a public comment period on the draft rules. For instance, drilling companies now have to disclose what chemicals they’ll use before they inject them into the ground—not 60 days later, as previous rules allowed. The companies also are required to test water quality before drilling so they can be held accountable if contamination occurs.Fracking graphic

The impressive research project by UM’s Graham Sustainability Institute enlisted experts, decision makers and key stakeholders to outline policy options. It does not recommend any specific course of action, but by presenting a menu of options, including the pros and cons of those options, it offers valuable input that can help Michigan regulators improve the state’s oversight of fracking. Importantly, it also notes that not enough study has been done to quantify the risks of high-volume hydraulic fracking on human health and the environment.

You can read the full report here. It’s a big document with a lot to chew on. Fortunately, MEC Policy Director James Clift and Grenetta Thomassey—a member of MEC’s board and program director for MEC member Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council—served on the advisory board for the study and are well-acquainted with the report and the issues involved.

Using that inside knowledge, James and Grenetta pulled out of the 174-page report some key areas that deserve special consideration by Michigan lawmakers and the Snyder administration. MEC supports each of the following policy options, which we’ve categorized by topic and identified by the number assigned to them in the report and the page on which they appear.

Public notice and involvement—Increase public notice. (Page 42.) Pursuing this policy option would expand public notification when the state proposes to lease oil and gas drilling rights on public land. The state now issues public notice in newspapers, sends announcements to local governments and posts information on the Department of Natural Resources website, among other measures. This policy option calls for notifying all adjacent landowners and posting announcements at the parcel itself, if the land is used for recreation. As the report notes, “Expanding public notice offers a relatively inexpensive way to increase transparency about potential state mineral rights leasing and ensure that affected parties have an opportunity to comment.”—Require DNR to prepare a responsiveness summary. (Page 42.) Current rules do not require the DNR to respond to public comments on state mineral leases. The basic idea here is to require the department to compile a summary of public comments received, how the department responded to public input and how that input influenced DNR’s decision about whether and how to lease the rights on that parcel. As the report notes, such a requirement would strengthen the state’s accountability to the public. Read more

It’s getting hard to keep up with solar’s growth

News of the solar power industry’s growth has been so fast and furious lately that it’s hard to stay on top of it all.

President Obama on Wednesday announced $120 million in new federal investments in solar. “The initiatives focus on the Department of Energy, where the bulk of the funding will go to programs to develop solar power technology and get it into homes, businesses and other facilities,” The Hill reported.

The announcement follows a report earlier this month showing that U.S. solar passed the 20-gigawatt mark in the second quarter of 2015. (One gigawatt is enough to power about 164,000 homes.) The report predicts 7.7 gigawatts of solar will go online nationally this year alone.  In the first half of the year, 40 percent of all electric generation brought online nationwide came from solar.

Solar growth graph

Source: GTM Research / SEIA U.S. Solar Market Insight

Here in Michigan, you can get a feel for solar’s momentum just by scanning the headlines. Frankly, there have been too many announcements lately to keep track of, but here are some highlights:

  • Trustees at Michigan State University last week approved what—at this point, anyway—would be the state’s largest solar array. The 10-megawatt project calls for outfitting five campus parking lots with solar panel parking bays. The sun, you may have noticed, shines for free, so the university will lock in a fixed power price for the next 25 years—a move that could save the school $10 million on its power bills.
  • Also in Spartan country, Mayor Nathan Triplett said last week that East Lansing and the Lansing Board of Water and Light are closing in on an agreement for a community solar project. In community solar, residents subscribe to a portion of a solar array and receive a share of the returns based on their investment. It allows more residents to invest in local clean energy, even if they don’t have room on their property or in their budget for their own solar installation. “It’s no longer a question of if, but when community solar is coming to East Lansing,” Triplett said.
  • On Tuesday, officials from DTE Energy, Domino’s Farms and Ann Arbor Township dedicated what is now the state’s largest solar array. The 1.1-megawatt array of more than 4,000 panels is located at Domino’s Farms, just off M-14 near the interchange with U.S. 23. DTE also is building a 750-kilowatt project in Romulus and is planning an 800-kilowatt array in Ypsilanti. And the company has requested proposals for a project that will generate up to a whopping 50 megawatts and could be online by the end of 2016, the Detroit Free Press reports. Just to drive that point home: In about a year, what today is Michigan’s largest solar array could be dwarfed by an installation 50 times larger. Read more

At pivotal moment for climate, two Michigan marches seek action, justice

Two landmark marches for climate justice are coming up in Michigan.

First up is the West Michigan People’s Climate March in Grand Rapids, organized by the West Michigan Environmental Action Council—an MEC member group—and many partners. It begins at 12:30 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Sixth Street Bridge Park. To learn more, register or make a donation, click here.

Then, on October 3, people from across the state will travel to the Detroit March for Justice. That two-mile march from Roosevelt Park to Hart Plaza will begin at noon and wrap up around 4 p.m. RSVP for the Detroit march and find out more here.

The Detroit march is being organized by the Sierra Club and dozens of partners, including MEC and many of our member groups. The new Michigan Climate Action Network is mobilizing people from around the state, including organizing a bus from Traverse City.

We will march for environmental justice because those least responsible for pollution often suffer the worst consequences, such as in southwest Detroit, home to Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code, where many residents suffer from asthma and cancer. Families often cannot afford to move to escape pollution from the Marathon oil refinery, toxic coal plants and other industrial facilities built near their homes.

We will march for climate justice because poverty makes it harder for people to adapt to heat waves and recover from extreme weather events. This is true in Detroit, where thousands are still recovering from last year’s floods, and around the world, where the poorest countries are suffering the worst impacts of a changing climate. Read more

Snyder takes important step on straits pipelines, but more work ahead

Gov. Rick Snyder today took an important step toward protecting Michigan’s communities and waterways from oil spills by issuing an executive order that creates a Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board.

The 15-member panel will “ensure safety, upkeep and transparency of issues related to the state’s network of pipelines. It will also be charged with advising state agencies on matters related to pipeline routing, construction, operation, and maintenance,” the governor’s office said in a news release.

While the group will look at pipelines across the state, a particular focus will be the Line 5 pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac. Owned by Enbridge and more than six decades old, the twin pipelines every day push 23 million gallons of oil through the heart of the Great Lakes.

The panel includes state officials, industry representatives, environmental advocates and others. MEC is pleased that the board includes Jennifer McKay from member group Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council; Mike Shriberg of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, a strong partner group; and Chris Shepler of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry, a local business owner who has been outspoken on the need to prevent an oil spill in the straits.

“This new advisory group will provide an important forum for state leaders, water-protection advocates and others to work directly with Enbridge toward a solution that keeps oil out of our Great Lakes and inland waters,” said Chris Kolb, MEC president. “I see an opportunity here for the conversation about Line 5 to become more open and transparent, and for Enbridge to provide clear information about the condition of its pipelines.

“This is a good first step, but there’s still a lot of work to do. I encourage the Snyder administration to take additional measures right away to protect our environment and local economies from the disastrous impacts of an oil spill, and to set aggressive timelines for meaningful action,” Kolb added. Read more

MEC submits comments on state’s 30-year water strategy

Late last week, MEC and several of our partners and members submitted formal comments on the draft document, “Sustaining Michigan’s Water Heritage: A Strategy for the Next Generation,” created by the Office of the Great Lakes (OGL) at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Overall, our comments were supportive and encouraging. Despite a few areas where we suggest speedier timelines or tighter language in a particular recommendation, we’re mostly just excited, and encouraged that the state has put forward such a comprehensive 30-year water strategy. You can read our full comments here.

As we stated in our comments:

In an era of unprecedented freshwater uncertainty (such as Western-state droughts and climate change), the development of a comprehensive and far-reaching strategy and vision articulating the value and role of Michigan’s precious water resources is a great thing. We applaud the Governor for asking for the strategy, and thank Jon Allan and the team at OGL for pulling it together…It offers a solid accounting of the many specific water-related challenges, opportunities and options facing the state today, and in decades ahead. From aquatic invasive species and harmful algae blooms to groundwater withdrawals and stormwater runoff, the document offers a sobering and insightful picture of the road ahead.

If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty of our comments, there’s plenty of material to dig into, including calls for stronger language opposing commercial fish farms in the Great Lakes, more details about water affordability, greater emphasis on watershed-level governance opportunities and more urgency around septic inspections, water withdrawals, and replacing soon-to-expire monitoring and clean-up programs.

But beyond the specific policy ideas lies a bigger challenge for OGL—and for all of us. That’s to make sure this plan doesn’t end up on a shelf or get tied up (and bogged down) by politics. It’s got the depth and credentials to become a useful action plan during the current administration and in future ones, but only if we’re ready to take some ownership.

The water strategy might not be perfect, but it’s a good tool and MEC is committed to helping ensure that implementation and follow-up are baked in from the start.


Photo courtesy Delta Whiskey via Flickr.

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