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A look at MEC’s policy priorities for 2016

Michigan Capitol building

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.

In November the House Energy Policy Committee approved a plan that includes a goal of meeting 30 percent of Michigan’s energy demand through energy efficiency and renewable sources by 2025. While the compromise bill package was a step in the right direction—it scrapped an earlier provision that would have considered old tires a “renewable” fuel, for instance—its clean energy goals lack teeth, and fall short of the firm standards needed to continue the growth of Michigan’s clean energy economy.

Importantly, the House package also would restructure how utilities allocate the costs of producing electricity, in effect forcing residential ratepayers to subsidize industrial users. This change would immediately trigger a $150 million annual increase on electricity bills for Michigan families.

We expect the Senate Energy and Technology Committee to hold hearings on energy policy soon. And in the opening months of 2016, we hope to see the two chambers work together to approve a package that puts forth clear and firm standards for clean energy and structures electricity rates in a way that is fair to Michigan households. Working toward this goal will be a key focus of our efforts in the coming weeks.

A ban on aquaculture in the Great Lakes. State reports issued in October confirmed many of the concerns MEC and partners have expressed about recent proposals to allow commercial fish farming in the Great Lakes. The reports noted, for instance, that fish farms would dump untreated waste directly into the lakes, provide a breeding ground for disease and threaten the genetic traits and diversity of wild fish, since fish escaped from farms would likely breed with wild fish.

Great Lakes fish farming also would put more environmentally friendly aquaculture systems at a disadvantage, since these responsible, self-contained projects must capture and treat the waste they produce, rather than dumping it into a public water body for free.

No fish farms currently operate in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters. While there are some operations in Canadian Great Lakes waters, Ontario appears to be curtailing its involvement in the fish farming business, likely because regulators have recognized the serious environmental harm it does. At least one Ontario aquaculture operation was shut down for the huge volume of pollution it produced.

There are competing bills in the legislature that reflect two very different views of what the Great Lakes are worth to Michigan residents. As MEC’s Sean Hammond recently opined in the Grand Haven Tribune, “One proposal seeks to protect our greatest natural resource, while the other would open our inland seas to a huge new source of pollution and shut Michiganders out of important decisions about our shared freshwater treasure.”

State Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, has introduced bills (SB 681-683) that would roll out the red carpet to commercial fish farming. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House. Among other worrisome provisions, those bills would:

  • Allow non-native barramundi—voracious eaters also known as Asian sea bass—to be farmed in Michigan waters.
  • Establish an Office of Aquaculture Development and charge it with both regulating and promoting fish farming—a clear conflict of interest.
  • Require the Department of Environmental Quality to lease Great Lakes bottomlands for commercial fish-farming operations, with no regard for the longstanding Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act, and with no opportunity for Michigan communities to have a say in whether those operations can set up shop—and dump tons of untreated fish feces—in the local waters where residents fish, swim and paddle.

Fortunately, Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, has introduced a bill (SB 526) that would outlaw aquaculture in the Great Lakes and their connecting waters. We support this ban, and securing its passage is a major priority for 2016.

A statewide law for septic tanks. Michigan’s way of life is rooted in our wealth of fresh water, yet we are the only state without a uniform sanitary code regulating septic systems. That’s a real problem: by a conservative estimate, 130,000 of our state’s 1.3 million septic tanks are in poor repair and discharge 31 million gallons of sewage a day, according to the state’s 30-year water strategy. Michigan State University researchers recently found contamination traceable to septics in all of the 64 Michigan rivers they sampled.

As Michigan works to combat toxic algae outbreaks and other problems associated with nutrient pollution, ratcheting down contamination from septics must be part of the strategy—along with reductions in nutrient loading from agriculture and from municipal wastewater systems. The state water strategy calls on the Legislature to establish inspection requirements for septics and to develop and implement a statewide sanitary code by 2020. That’s the right idea, but the wrong timeframe. We think lawmakers can and should tackle this issue in 2016.

Funding for improved transit in Metro Detroit. Southeast Michigan was long the nation’s largest urban area without coordinated regional transit. In 2012—after 23 failed attempts spanning four decades—persistent work by MEC and allies paid off when lawmakers voted to approve the creation of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Southeast Michigan. The RTA is making important strides in building an integrated, modern transportation network. Now it needs stable funding to fulfill the promise of 21st century transportation in Metro Detroit.

MEC is on the steering committee for Momentum, the growing coalition working to support improved regional transit in Southeast Michigan. In November, voters in Southeast Michigan will have an opportunity to approve the necessary funding. Educating voters and doing all we can to support the RTA ballot measure’s approval will be a top priority in the months ahead.

(Another 2016 transportation focus worth mentioning: Continued work toward our vision of reconnecting Michigan’s coasts with passenger rail service between Detroit and Holland. In the next few weeks we’ll release the ridership and cost estimate study for the Coast-to-Coast passenger rail project—an important step toward making our vision a reality.)

Continued progress toward getting Line 5 out of the Great Lakes. Enbridge’s 62-year old pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac generated a lot of headlines in 2015. The Detroit Free Press, for instance, reported recently that waves of three feet or higher—not at all uncommon in the straits—would prevent the Coast Guard and cleanup crews from responding to an oil spill. Michigan Radio kept pressure on Enbridge to make information about the pipeline’s condition available to the public. And news outlets across the state picked up a report from our friends at FLOW showing that decommissioning Line 5 would not disrupt energy needs in the Midwest.

The Pipeline Safety Advisory Board appointed by Gov. Snyder is in the process of calling for proposals from consultants to perform an analysis of alternatives to the existing pipeline. This process may last well into 2017, but we expect to see a credible firm hired soon to run the alternatives analysis—one that must consider all alternatives, including decommissioning Line 5 in the straits. We expect that analysis to demonstrate the viability of alternatives to the status quo, and will urge the state to put forth a transparent plan for how it will gather public input on the alternatives analysis, how it will determine which alternative to pursue, and how to implement it.

Every day Line 5 transports oil through the Great Lakes, it presents an unacceptable threat to our natural resources, economy and quality of life. We will continue to devote significant time and energy in 2016 to put protections in place as soon as possible.


Photo courtesy David Marvin via Flickr.

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