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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

True leaders needed to make new Michigan Dream a reality

John Austin and the Michigan Economic Center at Prima Civitas (a new and exciting player in Lansing policy discussions that we jokingly refer to around here as the “other MEC”) recently launched the new “Michigan Dream At Risk” project that’s worth a look. In short, it showcases in images, words and numbers the uncomfortable but unsurprising reality of Michigan’s perpetually beleaguered economy.

Using Michigan’s historic and current state and local budget allocations as proxies for priorities, the Michigan Dream at Risk project’s narrative and four-minute video intro highlight our shared shame—potholed roads and shuttered storefronts, struggling families and failing schools—and prescribe a healthy dose of investment in a few critical areas: education, infrastructure and community services, a clean environment, etc.

Coupled with the new “State Policies Matter” report and accompanying “Tale of Two States” blog series from the team at Michigan Future, Inc., a clear case is made for increasing investment in public goods, rather than cutting our way to prosperity.

The problem is that Michigan voters rarely face that kind of clear-cut choice, and our elected leaders seem unwilling to raise revenue themselves. Instead, we get convoluted ballot initiatives like Proposal 1, in which funding is provided for our communities but only if businesses get (more) tax breaks and the actual revenue burden gets shifted (again) into an unknown future. Or for an even more frustrating example, look at the failure of transportation funding initiatives; despite polling with broad support, the issue of raising the basic revenues needed to fix our existing roads gets tied up in knots in the Legislature and goes nowhere – not even to the ballot. The roads stay the same: bad.

Anyone who watches the news—here or anywhere in the country—knows some version of Michigan’s economic and social struggles. Our decades-long fall from grace is a narrative with easy and all-too memorable icons: Big 3 bailouts, bankrupt Detroit, etc., etc.

But Michigan residents are ready to move out of the past. And we need to put some new icons on the map to do it. Read more

Detroit students pave the way to city’s rebirth

Springtime in a high school student’s senior year is full of exciting rituals: the last day of school, the graduation ceremony, the open house.

Students at Denby High School on Detroit’s northeast side started a new tradition this year: the Pathway to Transformation.

On a late May day under clear blue skies, each senior laid a brick they’d decorated, forming a short walkway on the school lawn. When they were finished, a representative of the junior class added a brick marked “2015.” The path will grow with each graduating class.

The pathway symbolizes changes happening in the neighborhood, in Detroit and in the students themselves, who faced a challenging path of their own to get to the brick-laying ceremony.

“Future classes will be laying bricks until this community has the quality of life you’ve deserved all along,” Denby Principal Tracie McKissic told the seniors. “We are never going to forget you.”

Their work began with a partnership between the school and the team charged with implementing the Detroit Future City (DFC) strategic plan, which aims to stabilize neighborhoods, repurpose vacant land and put more Detroiters to work, among other goals. Read more

Report: Overused pesticides injure Michigan workers and homeowners

A golf course employee spilled insecticide on his wet shoes. He awoke in the middle of the night, vomiting with a headache and a numb right foot.

A worker with holes in his gloves sprayed an herbicide at a blueberry farm. He didn’t wash his hands before eating lunch, and developed a sore throat, stomach pain and vomiting.

A homeowner mixed pool chemicals incorrectly and they exploded in his face. The accident left him with first- and second-degree burns, a collapsed lung and other serious injuries. He spent 31 days in the hospital.

These are just a few of the cases outlined in a new Michigan Department of Community Health report on accidents involving pesticides. With spring cleaning season underway, the report is a timely reminder that the household disinfectants, swimming pool chemicals and other pesticides many people purchase this time of year can cause serious injury and even death.

Most of those accidents can be avoided by taking basic precautions. And in many cases, there is no need to use toxic chemicals in the first place. 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

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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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

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