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Another way to help Flint

We’ve been getting calls in our office lately from people concerned about the Flint water crisis—folks from as far away as West Virginia and New Mexico—who want to know what they can do to help.

One easy answer: Head over to helpforflint.com, where you can easily donate to community organizations working to help Flint residents, or sign up for a volunteer shift. Please consider volunteering, and ask for help from your family, friends, coworkers or members of any groups you belong to. (MEC staff members had a wonderful experience volunteering with the Red Cross this past weekend. We had great leadership from a pair of seasoned disasater-response veterans, got some exercise and delivered four truckloads of water and filters to Flint residents. It was definitely a day well spent.)

Donating money and volunteering your time are good, helpful steps, and we encourage everyone to chip in however they can.

In addition, we’d like to propose another way to help: Visit Flint.

A Flint crowd enjoys live music

The serious health impacts and human suffering caused by the disaster are outrageous, and we need to do everything we can to help the people of Flint. We also should do what we can to support the city. Flint has faced serious challenges for years, and the water crisis certainly hasn’t helped its reputation.

But anyone who has spent time there knows Flint has a lot to offer. (And it’s worth noting that, while the Flint River’s reputation has taken a beating during the drinking water crisis, it’s an outstanding recreational asset for the region, and its water quality is improving. The problem was improper treatment of the water, not the river itself.)

So, we encourage you to spend a day exploring Flint, support some local businesses and tell your friends about the good stuff you find. Here are just a few options.

Shop and dine at one of the country’s great farmers markets.

Did you know Flint has a world-class farmers market? In 2009 it was named the “Most Loved Market in America” in an online contest, smoking the closest competition by more than 1,000 votes. Established in 1905, the market moved to a new location downtown in 2014. The American Farmland Trust ranked the Flint market number three in the nation last year, and the American Planning Association listed it among just six designated Great Public Spaces.

There’s a wide range of foods available at the market, from local produce to gourmet popcorn, cheeses, chocolates, Middle Eastern cuisine and barbecue. Classes and workshops also are available. It’s open year-round, but only on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9-5, and Saturdays from 8-5, so plan accordingly. Read more

Report finds rapid growth in Michigan solar jobs

Michigan’s solar industry employed 2,779 people in 2015, a 32 percent increase from 2014, according to industry data released Wednesday.

The ranks of solar employees in Michigan are expected to swell by more than 14 percent in 2016, compared to the state’s overall anticipated job growth of .4 percent, according to the Solar Foundation’s State Solar Jobs Census.

And, the report notes, job growth could be significantly greater in the year ahead, because the hiring estimates were based on employer surveys conducted before Congress extended the federal investment tax credit for solar in December.

Michigan ranked 18th among states for the number of solar workers, up from 20th place in 2014. California took first place with a stunning 75,598 jobs and added more than 20,000 solar jobs in 2015. Massachusetts, Nevada, New York and New Jersey rounded out the top five.

Michigan came out ahead of nearby states like Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, but was topped by Midwestern neighbors Ohio with 4,811 solar jobs and Illinois with 3,483.

Nationally, the solar industry employs 208,859 workers, which is more than the total number of jobs in oil and gas extraction. The industry saw a more than 20 percent increase in nationwide jobs over the prior year—the third consecutive year of a better than 20 percent growth rate. Solar installation jobs pay well above the hourly wage for the overall U.S. work force, the report says. Read more

Momentum growing in push to keep factory fish farms out of the Great Lakes

Today was a big day in the ongoing effort to protect our fisheries and fresh water by keeping factory fish farming out of the Great Lakes.

Sean Hammond, MEC deputy policy director, testified this morning at a standing-room-only meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee in support of House Bill 5255. Sponsored by Rep. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, the bill would ban net-pen aquaculture in Michigan’s Great Lakes and connecting waters. Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, has introduced companion legislation, Senate Bill 526.

MEC was among numerous environmental, conservation and angling groups and concerned citizens at the hearing to speak out in favor of banning commercial aquaculture in the Great Lakes. Only one person—who happens to have a financial stake in a proposed fish farm—testified against the ban.

And at a noon press conference, Sean joined Rep. Bumstead, Sen. Jones and Dan Eichinger, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, in releasing the results of an EPIC-MRA poll showing that nearly 7 in 10 Michiganders oppose allowing fish farms in our Great Lakes. The opposition cut across geographic, political and geographic lines and—here’s the kicker—grew stronger when survey participants heard arguments from both sides of the issue.

Sean testifies

Sean testifies before the House Natural Resources Committee.

You can read more about the poll in our press release.

As we’ve written here before, proposals to open the Great Lakes to net-pen aquaculture—which involves cramming thousands of fish into floating cages and fattening them on food pellets—pose a serious risk to fish populations, water quality and the recreational value of our greatest natural resource. Among other concerns, fish farms would introduce the threat of disease transmission from farmed fish to wild populations and concentrate huge amounts of fish waste in bays and harbors, potentially triggering toxic algae outbreaks.

To get up to speed on our concerns about Great Lakes fish farming, read more here, here, here and here.

It’s important to note that MEC and our partners support aquaculture done the right way, and hope to see that industry thrive in Michigan. Contained, land-based systems that properly manage fish waste are a welcome and sustainable source of good, local food. But Michigan residents shouldn’t be forced to subsidize the abuse of our Great Lakes by letting companies use our shared water as a sewer. Especially not when the proposed fish farms would create—at best—just 44 jobs.

We appreciate the leadership shown by Sen. Jones and Rep. Bumstead, and we’re confident we will achieve the right outcome for the Great Lakes.

But this is far from a slam dunk. On Wednesday, in fact, Sean will testify once again—this time in front of the House Agriculture Committee—to oppose a set of bills that would lay out the welcome mat for high-risk Great Lakes aquaculture. And we’ll be there when the natural resources committee continues taking testimony next week on the proposed ban.

Now would be a great time to pick up the phone and let your state legislators know where you stand. You can find your representative here and your senator here.

Since there are multiple bills on both sides of the issue, let’s keep the message simple: Net-pen fish farms are all risk and no reward for Michigan, and the Legislature should act now to keep them out of the Great Lakes.

Thank you for helping urge state leaders to live up to their role as stewards of the greatest freshwater resource on Earth. Together, we’ll chalk up a crucial win for the Great Lakes.

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Net-pen fish farm photo courtesy Sam Beebe via Flickr.

A look at MEC’s policy priorities for 2016

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. Read more

Q&A: Michigan Ice Fest evolves from ‘a handful of climbers meeting in a bar’ to a world-class celebration

After a hesitant beginning, it seems winter is here in earnest. Colder weather might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s great news for the organizers of Michigan Ice Fest.

From its humble roots—a few friends discussing a shared hobby over pitchers of beer—Ice Fest has grown into one of the biggest ice-climbing events in the country. Each winter, some of the world’s best climbers make the trek to Munising, on the shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula. Those in the know describe the area as ice-climbing paradise.

With a few weeks to go before this year’s Ice Fest (Feb. 10-14), we checked in with Matt Abbotts of Down Wind Sports in Marquette, who’s helping organize the event. Abbotts urges anyone interested in the sport to join in the festivities and give ice climbing a tryor just kick back and watch the pros.

MEC: Let’s start with the basics: How long has Michigan Ice Fest been going on? And can you tell us a little about how the festival got started?

Matt Abbotts: Ice Fest is put on by an organization called Michigan Ice, which is headed up by Bill Thompson of Down Wind Sports in Marquette.  He’s been to every Ice Fest since the beginning. Ice Fest has been going on since the early ’90s but no one is really sure what year it started. It’s one of the oldest ice climbing events in the country. It started as just a handful of climbers meeting in a bar and giving slideshows on the wall.  This year we’re expecting around 700 participants and have some of the best climbers in the world joining us.

MEC: Have people been ice climbing in the U.P. for a long time, or is this a fairly new scene? And how big a scene is it?

MA: People have climbing ice in Munising for a long time but it’s really taken off in the last 10 years. Outside of being really beautiful, Pictured Rocks has one of the highest concentrations of climbable ice in North America, so it’s a magnet to those who climb ice. The area sees hundreds, if not thousands, of climbers throughout the winter, so it’s a much larger scene than people expect.

MEC: Michigan Ice Fest has become a draw for climbers from all over the country. What’s behind that success? 

MA: The event has been so successful for a lot of reasons.  The climbing is world-class, so that definitely draws in climbers, but it’s also really accessible. Anyone can come to Ice Fest and have fun ice climbing. The socials are really great too. You might find yourself sitting around talking with professional climbers.  It’s got a real family vibe. Read more

California’s gas catastrophe raises questions about Michigan’s vast storage fields

Editor’s note: News of the massive natural gas leak from an underground storage reservoir near Los Angeles made us curious about the implications for Michigan. We knew there were similar storage facilities here, but we’ve learned that Michigan has more of them than any other state. While state officials say those facilities are held to strict construction and maintenance standards, the California leak raises questions about Michigan’s ability to prevent a similar incident here. As we see it, the public safety and climate risks of underground natural gas storage are further cause for Michigan’s political leaders to make a strong commitment to clean and increasingly affordable renewable energy sources.

Update: At 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 8 we added new information about the inspection of storage wells. The update clarifies that the DEQ periodically inspects storage wells.

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As Southern California grapples with a massive natural gas leak some are comparing to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one expert says a similar disaster could happen in Michigan.

“The natural gas storage wells in Michigan are the same type as the one that is leaking in California, so yes, it could happen in your state too,” said Amy Townsend-Small, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati who studies methane emissions from the gas industry.

Thousands of residents have been evacuated from the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles after a leak was detected at an underground gas storage facility in October. Residents have complained of headaches, nausea and other health problems associated with an odorant added to the methane to make leaks more detectable. An attorney for residents says benzene and hydrogen sulfide also have been detected in air near the leak.

The leak also has become California’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. About 80,000 metric tons of methane—a far more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide—has escaped into the atmosphere, according to a real-time counter from the Environmental Defense Fund.

Michigan has more underground natural gas storage capacity than any other state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Like the leaking Aliso

Storage field map

MPSC map of Michigan gas storage fields.

Canyon site, the storage facilities use depleted oil and gas fields to hold natural gas reserves.

The state’s top oil and gas official says Michigan has safeguards in place to prevent a similar disaster here.

“We’ve got some very strict, comprehensive safety standards for well construction and monitoring for gas storage in Michigan,” said Harold Fitch, chief of the Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals. Read more

Help us tell the DEQ: Michigan families aren’t guinea pigs

For more than a year MEC has been sounding the alarm about the state’s plan to deregulate emissions of some 500 toxic chemicals into Michigan’s air.

With just over a week left in the public comment period on this dangerous proposal, we are urging Michigan residents to speak up with a clear message to the Department of Environmental Quality: We are not guinea pigs.

Below we explain the state’s proposal and share some of our chief objections to it. Please take a moment to go on the public record with your opposition to rolling back these important protections for the health of Michigan residents. Feel free to use the language we’ve provided below. You have until Dec. 18 to email those comments to debrulerc@michigan.gov.

What the rule change would do

The draft policy would deregulate about 250 chemicals that have not been tested for their health impacts. Michigan’s current regulations protect public health by assuming any chemical whose effects are unknown is very toxic, and only allows them to be emitted in relatively small amounts. Without testing, state regulators can’t say with any certainty that these chemicals don’t cause cancer. In effect, the rule change would let polluters treat Michigan residents like guinea pigs.

Also concerning is the proposed deregulation of roughly 250 chemicals that are known to be toxic, despite not being linked to cancer. A chemical’s human health impact is a function of both its toxicity and the quantity emitted. The proposal eliminates quantity from that equation. It arbitrarily draws a line allowing unregulated emission of what are currently considered the least toxic 25 percent of chemicals that have been studied.

You can read more about the rule change in the Detroit News opinion piece MEC President Chris Kolb recently authored with Guy Williams of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. (If you want to really dive deeply into the subject, here’s a background report we prepared last Asthma mapyear.)

As we noted in the News,

The state’s proposed deregulation of some 500 chemicals would pack a potent punch in Detroit, where many people live in the shadow of heavy industry, and where asthma puts residents in the hospital three to six times as often as in the rest of Michigan.

Yet, the department’s plan for gathering input on the proposed deregulation does not include any public meetings in Southeast Michigan — the state’s most populous region, and one with serious air quality concerns. We find that outrageous.

How you can help

Below are a few of the key points MEC Policy Director James Clift made when he testified earlier this week at a public meeting on the proposed rule change. MEC and several of our member groups will also submit these and other concerns in our public comments.

We encourage you to include all or some of these comments—along with any other concerns you have— in an email to the DEQ. Again, that email address is debrulerc@michigan.gov. Read more

Celebrate America Recycles Day by giving the gift of a curbside cart!

Nov. 15 is the 18th annual America Recycles Day, billed by the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful as “the only nationally recognized day dedicated to promoting and celebrating recycling in the United States.”

We welcome any effort to boost recycling in Michigan, where our dismal residential recycling rate lags behind every other Great Lakes state and is near the bottom of the list nationwide.

Gov. Rick Snyder announced a plan last year to double the residential rate from 15 percent to 30 percent within two years. A lot of untapped potential for reaching the governor’s goal lies in Detroit, which last year ended its longtime distinction as the largest American city without curbside recycling. All single-family homes in the city now are eligible to participate in the curbside program, but the $25 fee for a recycling cart prevents many households from taking part.

That’s why MEC and our Zero Waste Detroit partners set up a system earlier this year that lets you donate $25 or more to help Detroit families recycle. MEC and ZWD work with the city and its waste-hauling contractors to purchase and distribute the carts to households that have indicated a desire to recycle and a need for assistance to pay the fee. Every penny you give goes directly toward the purchase of a recycling cart.

It’s quick and easy to make a secure online donation. You can do so by clicking here.

Community recycling meeting in Detroit

A packed community meeting on Detroit recycling

Since we launched the program in April, our generous supporters have put curbside recycling within reach for nearly 80 Detroit households. That’s wonderful progress, but we’ve only scratched the surface of the pent-up demand among city residents.

The photo at right, for example, shows a crowd of more than 300 people who came out to learn more about curbside recycling at a recent community meeting at Detroit’s Don Bosco Community Resource Center. Across the city, residents are eager to recycle, but are held back by the cost to get started.

“Twenty-five dollars might not sound like much, but a lot of folks in the city are struggling to make ends meet, and anything non-essential just doesn’t make it into the monthly budget,” Sandra Turner-Handy, MEC community engagement director and a lifelong Detroiter, said in our press release announcing the donation program’s launch. “This program allows anyone to play a role in Detroit’s transformation and re-energize residents to take part in their hometown’s rebirth as a thriving, sustainable city.”

Here are a few reasons why your contribution will have a big impact:

  • Recycling diverts reusable materials away from trash incineration. The large incinerator in Detroit is a major source of air pollution and foul odors, and contributes to high asthma death rates.
  • Recycling makes good economic sense. A report from the Michigan Recycling Coalition notes that recycling creates four jobs for every waste disposal job that would be created if that material weren’t recycled.
  • Recycling conserves natural resources and energy. Recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy needed to make new ones.

Please help us make a difference this America Recycles Day by putting the many benefits of curbside recycling within reach for all Detroit residents.

Thank you!

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Less than stellar state transportation funding outcome has 3 bright spots

The transportation funding package Gov. Snyder signed into law on Tuesday brought a disappointing end to the years-long debate over how to raise much-needed funding for Michigan’s transportation system.

The approved package has many serious failures. For example:

  • It only guarantees $600 million in new, dedicated revenue for our transportation system—far from the $1.2 billion the package claims to generate. The other half of the funding increase depends on projected general fund growth and relies on future legislators to appropriate that money to our roads versus other priority state programs with growing fiscal needs. It’s far from certain that such revenue growth will occur, or that future lawmakers will come up with the remaining funds when faced with other important demands on the general fund.
  • Any money appropriated from the general fund will go to roads only, and will not add to the Comprehensive Transportation Fund (CTF), which supports local bus agencies and passenger rail.
  • Furthermore, funding increases will be slowly phased in over the next six years. The short of it: Don’t expect to see major improvements to our crumbling roads and bridges anytime soon.

Still, despite the well-deserved criticism of the outcome, there are a few bright spots worth highlighting:

1. New money for public transit. For the first time since 1987, the CTF will see a structural increase in funding. (By structural increase, we mean an increased slice of the transportation-funding pie. Transit may have seen overall increases in some years, but only because the pie itself grew, due to more fuel purchased or other factors.)

All new revenue from the 20 percent increase in vehicle registration fees and a 7.3-cent increase in the fuel tax (but not the general fund revenue) will pass through the full Act 51 formula, which means the CTF will get its fair share of the funding. In several previous iterations of this package, the CTF was completely cut out of any increase.

The CTF will see $35 million in new funding beginning in 2016. The new revenue will continue to grow through 2021, when the increase levels off at $54.6 million per year—a 22 percent increase over current funding levels. The DNR recreation fund, another pot of money within the Act 51 formula that supports trails and waterways, will grow by $6.5 million per year by 2021.

Read more

Flint water crisis: Policy changes needed to restore public trust

In what has become a national news story and a full-fledged public health emergency, state officials now acknowledge that unsafe drinking water has exposed children, pregnant women and other Flint residents to dangerous levels of lead.

If you haven’t been following the story, you can find useful information here, here and here.

Gov. Rick Snyder today put forth a plan to switch the city’s drinking water source from the Flint River back to Detroit. The switch is expected to take about two weeks. Coupled with measures announced last week—including funding for water filters and additional lead testing—today’s announcement is an important step forward.

Still, there is a lot more state leaders could do to resolve the Flint crisis and prevent similar scenarios in other Michigan communities. Below we identify some additional measures the state should take as soon as possible.

If you’ve been following this situation closely, feel free to skip ahead to our take on the situation. If you’re new to this issue, here’s some background information to bring you up to speed.

Why lead in drinking water is such a big deal

Lead exposure causes irreversible brain damage, which results in learning disabilities and violent behavior in children and adults. The effects are both heartbreaking and costly—childhood lead poisoning costs Michigan $330 million a year in decreased lifetime earnings and increased costs for health care, crime and special education.

The more we learn about lead, the more worrisome it becomes. For instance, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013 updated its risk threshold for lead poisoning and said there is no safe level of lead exposure. And new research from Wayne State University shows that a mother’s exposure to lead can damage not only her children’s fetal cells, but also her grandchildren’s.

As the Detroit Free Press noted in a recent editorial, Flint’s formula-fed infants are at extremely high risk because water makes up such a big portion of their diet. So are the unborn children of pregnant women who have been drinking water they were assured is safe. Switching back to a safer drinking water source will greatly reduce the risk, but as the Free Press editors wrote, “For children who have already been exposed, there are no remedies.” Read more