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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

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

2.3.3.2—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.”

2.3.3.3—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.

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Photo courtesy Delta Whiskey via Flickr.