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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

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!


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 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.


Photo courtesy Delta Whiskey via Flickr.

Curbside collaboration: Help us put recycling within reach for Detroit families

For years, Detroit was the largest city in the country without a curbside recycling program. That dubious distinction ended last year when a curbside pilot program for single-family homes expanded citywide.

Still, the city’s recycling potential remains largely untapped. That’s in part a problem of awareness—the program is fairly new and not everyone knows it’s available—but it’s also a problem of access. Households that want to participate in curbside recycling must first pay $25 for a 64-gallon cart—a significant barrier for many Detroit residents.

And that’s where you come in.

MEC and our partners with the Zero Waste Detroit coalition (ZWD) today launched a project that lets individuals, businesses and other organizations donate $25 or more to help city residents take part in the curbside program.

Please take a moment today to support this effort. It’s simple: Visit the donation website, select an amount and make your contribution by credit card or via PayPal.* MEC and ZWD will 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 will go directly toward the purchase of a recycling cart.

Sandra Turner-Handy recycles.

MEC's Sandra Turner-Handy is among the only residents in her neighborhood participating in Detroit's curbside recycling program.

“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,” said Sandra Turner-Handy, MEC community engagement director and a lifelong Detroiter in a press release we issued today. “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.” Read more

MEC supports bill for local control of oil and gas

Imagine a football field. Now imagine that your house is in one end zone, and just past the other end zone is a fence. Behind this fence is a drilling rig operated by a company trying to find oil and gas. At this distance, the rig is allowed to operate at 70 decibels, even overnight, which is the equivalent noise level of a vacuum cleaner. Unless you are in Oakland, Macomb, or Wayne County, lights from the drilling rig can shine through your windows all night, every night.

This was the new reality citizens of Shelby Township woke up to recently when drilling rigs came to town. This mainly suburban, residential community of more than 73,000 people is one of the newest targets for oil and gas exploration in Michigan. Smaller but similarly situated Scio Township, near Ann Arbor, was also a target for exploration.

Legislative efforts last term to address concerns about residential drilling failed in the rush of the lame duck session, but the issue has resurfaced in the House. The Michigan Environmental Council is in support of new legislation introduced last week by Rep. Peter Lucido, a Shelby Township Republican, that would allow for greater local control over oil and gas activity. Read more

MEC boosts capacity at Capitol

MEC is proud to announce that we’ve hired Sean Hammond to strengthen our team of policy experts at the state Capitol.

Sean Hammond (center) introduced at MEC's Legislative Breakfast

As Deputy Policy Director, Hammond will help MEC build and maintain relationships with lawmakers, stay abreast of new bills and legislative committee activities, and keep our member groups informed about developments at the Capitol. Since joining our staff in January, he has met with dozens of state lawmakers to introduce himself and update them on MEC’s policy priorities. He’s also built new tools that will help our staff members work together to respond quickly and effectively to environmental legislation.

A native of Potterville, Mich., Hammond comes to MEC with experience working in the Legislature and state agencies. Most recently, he held a legal externship with Michigan’s Senate Majority Policy Office, where he provided Republican lawmakers with policy analysis and legal memos on proposed legislation.

Hammond also has interned with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the office of Attorney General Bill Schuette and with state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), who was then serving in the House.

“Sean adds an important voice and viewpoint to the MEC team,” said Chris Kolb, MEC president. “Having him on board puts us in a great position to chalk up some important wins on key environmental issues affecting Michigan. His skills and experience will be particularly helpful in this new legislative term, when water protection, clean energy and public land management will be front-and-center topics at the Capitol.”

Hammond is a 2014 graduate of the Michigan State University College of Law. He graduated with honors from Saginaw Valley State University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and minors in political science and chemistry.

“I really admire MEC’s solutions-oriented approach to public policy and the group’s vision for the kind of state Michigan can be,” Hammond said. “It’s exciting to be part of such a well-respected team, and I look forward to finding common ground with policymakers to protect public health and preserve the natural resources that make our state so special.”

Hammond lives in East Lansing and spends his off-work hours preparing for two important events: He’s studying for the state bar exam, and is planning an October wedding to fiancée Jess Averill, who is legislative director for Sen. Jones.

Welcome aboard, Sean!

MEC turns focus forward with new policy agenda


With an intense lame-duck session in the rearview, MEC’s focus has turned toward a new legislative cycle and the policies we’ll pursue for a stronger economy, cleaner environment and higher quality of life in Michigan.

Today we released a proactive policy agenda for the next couple of years—one that reflects input we gathered from MEC member groups over the past several months. It includes our targeted outcomes across a broad range of issue areas, from protecting our water resources and iconic wild places to accelerating our state’s transition to a clean-energy economy, building a modern transportation system and ending lead poisoning in Michigan.

“This is about realizing our state’s promise as a great place to live,” said MEC President Chris Kolb in our press release announcing the agenda. “We’re at the center of the world’s greatest freshwater resource, we have unmatched manufacturing know-how and we offer outdoor experiences you can’t find anywhere else. These policies will leverage Michigan’s unique assets to create new opportunities and a higher quality of life for Michiganders. They’ll also help keep more of our college graduates here and signal to educated workers elsewhere that Michigan values healthy, thriving communities and a clean environment.”

You can read the press release here, or click here to view the full list of policy priorities.


Photo courtesy Brian via Flickr.

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