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Proposed school closings could include Denby High, a community hub and catalyst for transformation in Detroit

As I entered the school last week I noticed a quiet I had never associated with this building. The usually boisterous students moved almost silently from one class to another. I missed the normal yelling and jostling of my young people at Denby High School. A student in the hallway asked me, “Ms. Sandra, do you know they are going to close our school?”

Sadly, I do. While the graduation rate at Denby has been steadily rising, test scores remain low. As a result, the state School Reform Office listed Denby among 38 schools that could be shuttered. Standing in the hallway, I realized that this silence might become the new normal.

Closing Denby would mean the end of what has become a hub for a Detroit community—one where students and residents have worked together to move beyond vacant land and buildings, overgrown foliage, flooding, crime and a lack of amenities, and have begun the transformation to a clean, safe and healthy community.

More than just an innovative approach to education, the model we pioneered at Denby is a way to build more vibrant, walkable neighborhoods with improved access to fresh food, more opportunities for healthy outdoor recreation and residents who are more empowered to advocate for the health of their neighborhood and their families. It’s about creating healthier, more sustainable communities—that’s why the Michigan Environmental Council has been a strong supporter.

I had hoped to expand our work at Denby to other schools and neighborhoods in Detroit, but now that looks doubtful.

Where education meets engagement

Over the past three years, I have been honored to help lead a project at Denby that connected students to their neighborhood and the future of their city, merging academic learning with community activism. Through this project, Denby students learned about Detroit’s history, its current challenges and the impact of the built environment on education and economic opportunity. Read more

Making connections and moving forward at MEC’s legislative breakfast

Good food, good conversation and a good turnout—despite an overnight snowstorm—made the Michigan Environmental Council’s legislative breakfast on Tuesday perhaps our best yet.

We host this gathering at the House Office Building in Lansing at the beginning of each legislative session to welcome new and returning lawmakers and their staff, and provide an opportunity for them and other state officials to meet with staff from MEC and our member groups across the state.

The legislative breakfast also gives MEC an opportunity to introduce our updated policy agenda. Our latest policy priorities include testing all children for lead exposure, passing a statewide code for septic systems and becoming the first state east of the Mississippi River to open an Office of Outdoor Recreation. You can learn more about our policy agenda in our press release, or dive right into our priorities here.

Based on remarks from four speakers at the breakfast, we can look forward to continuing our solid working relationships with legislative leaders and administration officials who share many of our priorities. Read more

Guest post: Make your holiday celebration more sustainable!

Editor’s note: This post is by Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, an MEC member group.

The festivity of the holiday season is upon us. No doubt you’ve already begun to stock up on goodies for the various gatherings and the more subdued and cozy time you’ll have at home. It’s likely you’re still shopping.

You probably have a sense of it already, but did you know that in general we throw away 25 percent more trash during the holidays? It’s really not that surprising when you consider the entertaining, gift giving and travel.

It’s not my intention to make you feel guilty about any of it. The holidays are an important reminder of our humanity and connection to others. I do think, however, that it’s important to think about the waste that will come from all this. Many of us aren’t in that habit, and much of that waste is likely to be with us for a long time.

You can help change that. Consider being the person at your holiday gathering who organizes the piles for recycling, suggests a new gift-giving strategy now that the kids have grown up, or organizes a joint donation to a worthy charity. There are truly a variety of ways to reduce your environmental impact without lessening the fun!

Here are some holiday waste reduction reminders:

  • Practice sustainable habits when serving your holiday feast. Buy only what you need, buy food with minimal packaging, compost any food scraps, and serve food on reusable dishes.
  • Buy local. Consider the environmental impact of shipping goods.
  • Give a consumable gift and support local artisans. Local cheese, spirits and other goodies can be shared too.
  • Give an experience. Instead of giving a material gift, give an experience such as concert tickets, cooking classes, fitness classes, sports events, or a museum membership.
  • Re-gift or host a white elephant gift exchange. There’s no shame in putting something to good use.
  • Don’t forget to bring reusable bags on holiday shopping excursions, and when wrapping gifts use newspaper, old maps or reusable textiles.
  • When purchasing gifts, give some thought to what will happen to that item when it is used up. Can it be recycled? Can it be reused?
  • Want a unique gift idea? Give a gift that will be around for years. Give the gift of a tree. By planting a tree for your neighbor, friend or relative, you will be showing how much you care for them and for our environment.
  • Celebrating Christmas? Don’t forget to recycle your tree! Many cities offer curbside Christmas tree recycling. Check with your city or town’s sanitation department to see if this is available to you.
  • Make a resolution to recycle and compost more. Start building your recycling pile with used newspapers, magazines and junk mail, and make an effort to recycle harder-to-recycle items such as batteries and old electronics.

Thanks for making your celebration more sustainable. Happy Holidays to you and yours!

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Photo courtesy ohsohappytogether via Flickr.

 

DEQ delays final mine decision, sets stage for a nasty holiday gift

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality last week delayed its expected decision on a permit for the Back Forty Project, an open-pit gold, zinc and copper mine proposed for the western Upper Peninsula. Back in September, the agency indicated in a preliminary decision its intent to approve the request from Aquila Resources, opening a final window for the public to weigh in before the final decision set for Dec. 1. The deadline for that final decision has now been pushed back to Dec. 29.

Ho, ho, ugh. If approved, this permit would be a terrible Christmas gift to the people of Michigan, far worse than a lump of coal.

Our review reveals that Aquila’s permit application is deeply flawed, endangers nearby waters held sacred by local Native Americans, fails to meet requirements in state law and therefore should be rejected.

And while the extended decision deadline does not necessarily mean the agency is open to hearing more comments—officially, public comment on the proposed decision ended Nov. 3—we hope you’ll let your elected leaders and the DEQ hear about it anyway. A state review this half-hearted should land the agency’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals squarely on your naughty list.

Below are just few of the problems we found in our review. Our full comments can be found online here.

Alternatives not explored

For starters, Aquila is required by law to describe “feasible and prudent” alternatives that were considered as part of its Environmental Impact Analysis. Aquila provides no such analysis regarding their choice to create—and later backfill with reactive materials—a large, open mine pit on the banks of the Menominee River.  They offer just a 107-word justification with no description or analysis of any alternative approaches.

Menominee gathering

Members of Wisconsin's Menominee Tribe oppose the mine.

Worse, the rationale that is provided for dismissing alternatives is based solely on the applicant’s own economic considerations, not the long-term risks and tradeoffs related to environmental or natural resource concerns.

Similarly, Aquila proposed to process the ore onsite, including using cyanide treatment and flotation techniques to separate the valuable materials from the “waste” material. So why did Aquila not analyze an alternative mining approach in which the ore is removed immediately and processed at an offsite location away from the banks of the Menominee River? Apparently, that approach offers less profit. Or, in Aquila’s own words, “the cost for ore shipment to off-site facilities is not sustainable for the project value.”

Last time we checked, economic considerations alone—i.e., the applicant’s profit motives—are not sufficient to dismiss potential alternatives in an Environmental Impact Assessment. And yet, that approach is apparently good enough for the Michigan DEQ.

Analyzing alternatives—whether it’s the decision to use an open pit approach instead of an underground tunnel, or to process onsite instead of taking reactive materials offsite to be processed—is among the most basic requirements of state mining law in terms of “minimizing actual or potential adverse impacts.” Aquila’s lack of consideration of alternatives alone should justify a denial of the permit as proposed.

Scant details

Beyond failing to explore alternatives, Aquila’s application and the DEQ’s proposed permit also just leave too much of the actual mine plan up in the air. And—here’s the real cause for concern—the DEQ seems to be OK with that.

This permitting process is the department’s opportunity to judge, on behalf of Michigan residents, the rigor and seriousness of the company’s plans to minimize the environmental impacts of its proposed mine. Yet, the DEQ’s proposed permit allows Aquila to sail through the process, even without basic plans and documents that the company has had more than a decade to prepare. The state seems willing to grant the permit first, and then ask the company for fundamental information about how they plan to operate the mine safely.

Here are a few examples:

  • The proposed permit says the mining company “shall submit a plan…to monitor surface water and aquatic biota” and receive written approval of the plan from the DEQ before beginning mine operations. We can’t help but wonder why Aquila does not already have in place a plan for such a basic environmental safeguard. There needs to be a robust plan in place not only before the mining starts, but before any permit is granted.
  • Lake sturgeon

    The Menominee River provides vital spawning habitat for lake sturgeon.

    The permit requires Aquila to perform tests before building a “cut-off wall” to demonstrate that it is capable of keeping contaminated water out of the Menominee River, which is just 150 feet away. But it then lays out steps the company must take, “If the results of monitoring…indicate that the cut-off wall is ineffective for its intended purpose.” Preventing harm to the Menominee River—spawning ground for half of Lake Michigan’s lake sturgeon—should be a fundamental component of any permit for this mine. It’s no place for improvisation.

  • The department says “the permittee shall conduct a water withdrawal evaluation” before construction, “If withdrawal of water from the pit and water supply wells will exceed a cumulative total of over 100,000 gallons of water per day when averaged over a consecutive 30-day period.” If Aquila plans to withdraw significant amounts of water for its mine, the DEQ should require the company to demonstrate it won’t harm local stream flows and ecology before granting a permit, not after.
  • Similarly, the department says that, if monitoring shows that water withdrawals for the mine might impact groundwater levels, Aquila “shall submit a plan to MDEQ to prevent that potential impact.” If groundwater impacts are sufficiently likely that the DEQ mentions it in the proposed permit, shouldn’t the company just go ahead and submit that plan before a permit is granted? We think so.

These are by no means isolated examples of the DEQ’s “wait and see” approach to the Back Forty. The department’s proposed permit contains the phrase “prior to construction” no fewer than six times in reference to designs, plans and techniques that are yet to be supplied. It includes the phrase “shall submit” in relation to non-existent plans or specific engineering designs at least five additional times.

Violation of statute

Early in May of this year, the DEQ sent a letter to Aquila with 196 questions or requests for additional information about a wide variety of data, plans and techniques. A month later, the company responded with a letter of its own, prepared by a consultant. Many of the answers—maybe most—were ambiguous at best. Yet, the DEQ seems satisfied with these halfhearted responses.

For example, the department requested—reasonably and clearly—that Aquila provide a cyanide management plan as part of its permit application. The company’s response? “A more detailed Cyanide Management Plan will be provided prior to construction.” Rather than demanding that plan be provided before approving the permit, the DEQ rolled over and said, basically: OK, just send it to us before you start mining. There are many other examples of this ridiculous, hands-off regulatory approach in the proposed permit.

Bottom line, our DEQ is proposing to grant the permit for a major open pit mine—one that would unearth and expose millions of tons of acid-generating material and place it in a giant open pit adjacent to a magnificent river—without requiring even basic, common-sense details about how, or if, the plans and techniques being proposed will work.

Rafting Menominee

The Menominee River is a popular rafting destination.

By our read, this is a clear violation of Michigan statute, which states that the mining, reclamation, and environmental protection plan for any proposed mining operation must include both “a description of materials, methods, and techniques that will be utilized,” and (with our emphasis added) “information that demonstrates that all methods, materials, and techniques proposed to be utilized are capable of accomplishing their stated objectives in protecting the environment and public health.”

This DEQ mining permit is one of several approvals Aquila will need before moving forward. The project also requires a state air permit, a wetland permit and a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. But the mining permit is the heart and soul of the project—the only reason the company would need to seek the other approvals.

This is a major project with huge implications, not just for Michigan and our immediate neighbors in Wisconsin, but for the Great Lakes region overall. There are very few sulfide-based mines permitted in the region, so each new one that gets reviewed essentially sets a new precedent, a new standard. The least the DEQ can do is hold every project to the highest standards required in law, and to demand information adequate to really judge the project’s impacts on Michigan’s land, water, people and communities.

We hope the DEQ carefully reviews all the comments and decides to deny the permit. That would be a real Christmas gift to the people and amazing natural resources of our state. But given their track record with sulfide mining, we’re not optimistic.

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Top photo: Deb Nystrom via Flickr.
Menominee Tribe photo: Environmental Health News.
Juvenile sturgeon photo: USFWS via Flickr.
Rafting photo: Deb Nystrom via Flickr.

GM, Schupan partner to turn Flint water bottles into coats, car parts and more

Environmentalists have never liked plastic water bottles much, but they became indispensable for Flint families during the city’s water crisis.

Although the federal government declared in June that filtered Flint tap water was safe for children, pregnant women and nursing mothers to drink, the Detroit Free Press reported in July that, “More than two years after issues first surfaced with Flint’s drinking water, many residents have no plans to switch from the bottled water upon which they’ve come to depend for their daily needs and say they don’t trust filters.” At the height of the water crisis, a CNN reporter found that one Flint family of three used 151 bottles of water per day.

Now General Motors, Schupan Recycling and other partners are stepping in to make the best of a bad situation. GM announced in August it has collected more than 2 million water bottles from Flint and is feeding them into its Do Your Part program that turns empty plastic containers from five of the company’s Michigan facilities into useful products.

“Even though there’s a very, very challenging situation in Flint, there’s also an opportunity to make things better, put a smile on people’s faces and develop collaborative efforts in the community,” says John Bradburn, GM global manager of waste reduction and a Flint native.

Schupan Recycling has trailers for collecting empty bottles at the State of Michigan’s central water distribution facility in Flint. The company sorts and bales the material at its Wixom facility. Clean Tech, in Dundee, washes the plastic and processes it into flakes.

Additional links in the supply chain convert those flakes into fleece, which is then used to make noise-reducing fabric insulation that covers the Chevrolet Equinox engine, components for air filtration systems at GM body and painting plants, and insulation in specially designed coats for homeless people.

The water-resistant coats convert to a sleeping bag and can be worn as an over-the-shoulder bag when not in use. Each coat’s insulation—cut to size by the Detroit-based workwear company Carhartt—contains plastic from 31 water bottles.

They’re a product of The Empowerment Plan, a Detroit-based nonprofit that not only provides warmth in winter for people without a roof over their head, but also trains homeless single parents to manufacture the coats, providing families with a stable income that helps them get back on their feet. Read more

MEC’s back-to-session list for lawmakers

The Legislature returned to Lansing last week after a summer recess. While there are just 18 House and 20 Senate session days remaining in 2016, our lawmakers have many opportunities this fall to make Michigan a cleaner, safer and more sustainable state.

Here are five of the top issues MEC’s staff will be focused on and key outcomes we’d like to see from the Capitol in the next few months.

1. Flint follow-up.

Doing everything possible to help the people of Flint and taking action to prevent anything like the city’s water crisis from happening elsewhere in Michigan must be top priorities and guiding principles for Michigan policymakers.

Bills in both the House and Senate would require testing of lead levels in water at schools around the state. It’s just one of many policies that must be part of a robust state response to the Flint crisis—and only part of the comprehensive approach needed to address all the ways in which our children are exposed to toxic lead—but lawmakers should unite behind this common-sense measure to demonstrate they are committed to protecting Michigan kids.

Another priority is toughening Michigan’s implementation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule. The rule sets minimum regulations for keeping lead out of drinking water, but it allows states to set their own, stricter rules. In April, Gov. Snyder proposed reforms that would make Michigan’s implementation of the rule the most stringent in the country. Following the Flint crisis, Michigan must set the national standard for safe drinking water. Legislators should approve the governor’s plan and make these reforms law before the end of the year.

2. Clean energy reforms.

Lawmakers let the clock wind down on 2015 without updating the renewable energy and energy efficiency standards that reached a plateau at the end of the year. Those are the clean energy laws that have driven $2.9 billion in economic development since 2008 and saved Michiganders more than $4 for every dollar invested in energy efficiency. They’ve trimmed coal’s slice of our energy-production pie from two-thirds to less than half.

Despite the unequivocal economic success of Michigan’s renewable power and energy efficiency programs, some elected officials have not only been slow to embrace those programs, but are still trying to gut themRead more

MEC uses panel appointment to push for more recycling and composting, less landfilling

Michigan’s landfill-first approach to waste management is getting a much-needed overhaul, and MEC is helping to lead the charge.

For more than a year, Deputy Policy Director Sean Hammond has served on the state’s Solid Waste and Sustainability Advisory Panel, created by the Department of Environmental Quality to review part 115 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, which regulates solid waste management. The SWSAP also includes the MEC member group Michigan Recycling Coalition, along with local governments, waste industry representatives and others. It is distinct from the Governor’s Recycling Council created a year earlier specifically to increase residential recycling rates.

The 13-member panel recently put forward its draft recommendations for input from Michigan residents. The Department of Environmental Quality is accepting public comment on the proposal until Monday, August 1. (You can comment on the draft recommendations here.) After incorporating those comments, the SWSAP will present its formal recommendations to the DEQ director this fall, and the plan will eventually go before the Legislature for approval.

In our view, Michigan has been too reliant on landfills to manage our waste stream. That’s because the last time the state updated its solid waste policy, in the 1990s, there were concerns that we were running out of landfill capacity. As a result, Michigan built more landfills than we needed, which in turn created extraordinarily low costs for disposal. Today there are more than 45 landfills statewide.

As MLive reported recently,

In each landfill, there’s treasure getting buried. A new DEQ-funded university and business study found that Michigan garbage contains an estimated $368 million worth of recyclable material. The largest chunk, 13.6 percent, is food waste that could be converted to energy through composting or anaerobic digestion.

Michigan waste experts say as much as 40 percent of landfilled garbage is organic material that can’t necessarily be composted, but could be digested.

The study concluded 42 percent of thrown-away materials have market value, including all standard recyclable commodities except glass, plus textiles.

Through the SWSAP, we are working to capture more of that value and conserve resources by encouraging recycling, composting and electricity generation (via anaerobic digestion) so discarded materials can be put to their best, highest use.

Here are some highlights from the SWSAP’s recommendations for Michigan’s solid waste policy:

Rename it. The panel’s first draft recommendation is a change of terminology. Read more

Experienced fundraiser Joe Bower joins MEC as Director of Development

We are happy to announce that MEC has hired Joe Bower to expand our fundraising efforts as our new Director of Development. Joe’s efforts will be focused on expanding MEC revenues by strengthening our relations with individual and corporate donors.

Joe joins longtime staffer Andy Draheim to bolster our outreach to MEC’s supporters.

Joe has 14 years of development experience, the last 10 of which were spent with the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, overseeing activities that included memberships, sponsorships, donor relations, grant-writing, annual appeals, and special events. During his time with the KIA, development revenues increased by nearly 80 percent.

Before moving into the development field, Joe worked as a reporter for two Michigan newspapers: The (Greenville) Daily News and The Herald-Palladium in St. Joseph. Later he was an editor and freelance writer for a number of regional and national magazines, authoring stories for Audubon, Sports Illustrated, and National Wildlife, among others.

“Joe is a great addition to our team and we’re excited to have someone with such impressive skills and experience focused on growing the community of generous financial supporters who make our work possible,” says Chris Kolb, MEC president. “He has a proven track record of raising funds to help nonprofits succeed, and I’m confident he will help MEC grow into an even stronger and more effective organization.”

Joe has a bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

“I’ve appreciated and followed MEC’s activities for years,” he says. “Joining such a fine staff is like the perfect job for me because it lets me combine personal interests with professional skills.”

A native of Southwest Michigan, Joe has a lifelong interest in environmental issues. He grew up on a 240-acre farm with beef cattle, horses, chickens and other livestock in Mattawan. As a boy he didn’t always relish the daily chores that came with farm life—bailing hay, cleaning barns, chopping wood—but that lifestyle made a big impact.

“I really appreciate hard work,” Joe says, noting that he still visits his parents there to help with chopping wood, making maple syrup and other projects. “At the time, I didn’t necessarily like that. But I enjoy it now.”

He lives in Kalamazoo with his wife, Maria, and their children, Sam and Matilda.

His rural upbringing notwithstanding, Joe—who spent six years in San Francisco before moving back to Michigan 20 years ago—says he appreciates that MEC’s vision for Michigan encompasses everything from pristine wild places to thriving, sustainable downtowns. When it’s family vacation time, good food and vibrant urban areas are usually on the menu.

“Our idea of fun,” he says, “is exploring new cities and searching out great restaurants.”

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Denby High project hits milestone as Skinner Park takes shape in Detroit

What began three years ago in the classrooms of Detroit’s Denby High School—and the imaginations of its students—took a major step toward becoming reality this week.

Students, community organizations and business leaders gathered Monday for the official kickoff of a $1.5 million transformation of the unused playfield next to the school into a green space and community gathering place to be called Skinner Park.

When complete, the park will offer something for everyone. Replete with basketball and volleyball courts, a performing arts pavilion, and a putting green, the plan also includes several features to make the neighborhood more resilient and sustainable, including community vegetable gardens, a fruit orchard and a rainwater catchment system.

Life Remodeled, a Detroit nonprofit that recruits a huge volunteer workforce to revitalize a troubled city neighborhood each year, has selected Skinner Park and the surrounding Denby community as its focus for this summer. Along with work in the park, thousands of volunteers will remove blight and beautify 300 city blocks, renovate 50 homes and chart safe pathways to school, among other activities planned for August 1-6.

(Please consider signing up to be part of the volunteer workforce in the Denby neighborhood! You can register here.)

The Skinner Park renovation marks a significant milestone in a long-term project that challenges students to confront the city’s challenges and collaborate with local residents to make transformative improvements to their neighborhood.

The project was hatched in the 2013-2014 school year, when Denby students proposed focusing a required senior capstone project on the Detroit Future City (DFC) framework, which aims to stabilize neighborhoods, repurpose vacant land and put more Detroiters to work, among other goals.

Sandra Turner-Handy, MEC’s community engagement director, a Denby neighborhood resident and a DFC leader, was called in to guide seniors in understanding and implementing the framework and has been deeply committed to the project ever since. She leads the Denby Neighborhood Alliance—an intergenerational, student-and-resident collaboration for planning and action—and is known affectionately by students as “Mama Sandra.” 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