Environment Picture

Summer is the perfect time to speak up for Michigan's public health and natural resources

Summer is officially here, which means the legislature is off for its summer recess and many Michiganders are headed to their favorite vacation spots in the Great Lakes state. Summer sees us shifting gears here at MEC too. Instead of working the halls of the State Capitol, our staff is traveling the state, engaging the public on a multitude of issues. Since the legislators have left Lansing, we plan to take our concerns to their hometowns, and we’re inviting you to join us.

Here are some of the issues we’re working on to protect the quality of our air, land, water, and public health.

Flint

While progress is being made in Flint, residents are still dealing with the continuing water crisis. Signs of progress: lead levels in the drinking water continue to fall; testing shows the city continues to be below the Lead and Copper Rule’s Action Level for lead; and more lead and galvanized service lines are being removed. These are good things, but residents are still urged to filter their water or use bottled water to drink or cook with. They also continue to experience water quality issues, such as bad-smelling or milky-looking water; the potential for lead particulate matter to flake off when pipes are being removed in their neighborhoods; and for some, rashes on their bodies when exposed to the drinking water.

Too many residents are challenged in paying for drinking water that they are still cautioned to filter before drinking or cooking with it. So while the TV cameras are gone, and the front page stories are far fewer now, Flint residents continue to deal with this crisis on a daily basis. It’s not over for them, and MEC will continue to push for a full recovery of the Flint water system so in the end everyone will have access to safe, affordable water.

Oscoda

Flint is not the only community facing drinking water issues. In this edition of our newsletter, we focus on Oscoda (see page 1). Nearly 180 drinking water wells in the area surrounding the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda are contaminated with PFCs (Perflorinated Compounds), which are linked to increased cancer risk and other health impacts. Camp Grayling in Northern Michigan, the largest National Guard training facility in the country, is another area where groundwater wells are also contaminated with PFCs. There is a growing threat to drinking water wells from these contamination sites, impacting thousands of families around these two military facilities. PFCs have also been found in the source water and treated drinking water of both the City of Ann Arbor and Plainfield Township. The level of contamination is low for these two communities, but it is a growing issue of concern. PFCs are not currently regulated but growing links to health concerns have them on EPA’s list of Contaminants of Emerging Concern under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Flint, while it was utilizing the Flint River as its source water, found low levels of PFCs as well.

Drinking water toolkit

Drinking water issues arising out of Flint and around the state have spurred MEC to begin developing a drinking water toolkit for residents and community decision-makers. The toolkit will help community members learn more about our drinking water systems—from source waters such as lakes, streams, and groundwater, to treatment and distribution systems, and finally into our homes, including affordability and shutoff policies.

We are visiting communities around the state this summer, holding town halls and coffees to listen to residents and share our draft toolkit, with a launch planned for September. We hope the toolkit will provide easy access to information that will inform residents and decision-makers of the risks, opportunities and sustainable funding options for drinking water. Our goal is to ensure all Michigan residents have access to affordable, safe, clean drinking water, as well as the knowledge to engage their decision-makers and drinking water providers in a meaningful dialog to help make better decisions when it comes to drinking water issues.

Lake Erie

Summer brings increasing concerns about harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie. Some estimates predict that blooms will be big; not as big as the largest blooms in 2013 and 2015, but maybe as big as the bloom in 2014. That bloom caused the shutdown of the Toledo drinking water system because for the first time, toxic algae were detected at the systems intake in Lake Erie. That year, 400,000 residents woke up on August 4 to an urgent public health notice to not drink their water, cook with it, shower or bathe in it, or feed it to their pets. In short, do not use it at all!

In late spring, the State of Michigan released a draft Domestic Action Plan to reduce phosphorous loading into Lake Erie by 40% from the level in 2008. The plan shows good intentions but lacks teeth to make sure we will actually see any significant improvement in Lake Erie. It relies on the continued reduction of phosphorous from wastewater treatment plants, including Detroit, Monroe, Wyandotte and Ypsilanti. It calls for a statewide septic code, which we support; Michigan is the only state without a statewide septic code. However, it still recommends voluntary measures to reduce phosphorous runoff from agricultural lands. Researchers continually conclude agriculture is a primary contributor of pollution to Lake Erie. Voluntary measures for farms are not effective enough to curb pollution and will not get the job done. For more on this issue, see MEC Agriculture Policy Director Tom Zimnicki’s article, “Ignoring the problem will not fix Lake Erie,” which recently ran as an op-ed in The Detroit News.

Line 5

We continue to fight to protect the Great Lakes by seeking the decommissioning of Line 5, the oil and liquid natural gas pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac. Two new reports were scheduled for release this spring: an alternatives study and a risk analysis of the worst case scenario of a pipeline break under the Straits.

However, the risk analysis was scuttled days before its release when state officials terminated a contract with the firm preparing the report due to a conflict of interest. In the interest of transparency, the state must disclose when and how they learned about this conflict of interest. We have also called on state leaders to make public any documents or drafts of the risk analysis. This will enable Michigan residents to trust that the contract was terminated only because of the conflict of interest, and not because of anything in the reports.

The alternatives study was released after the July 4th holiday with a 30-day public comment period. However, it fails to include major sections that were required by the State of Michigan, including considering the use of existing oil pipeline infrastructure as an alternative to Line 5 in the Straits. The state specifically required this alternative to be included in the report, and it was a recommendation by the task force.

It also fails to provide a worst-case scenario spill and cost analysis for each of the alternatives, which was another specific requirement for the report by the state and is critical to evaluate the alternatives.

Of course, we will submit public comments about this report, which we feel downplays the risks to the Straits. But as we’ve said before, the only way to prevent a catastrophic oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac is to shut down Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline as quickly as possible.

100% renewable

MEC is on the front lines of the work to get Michigan communities to commit to 100% renewable energy. We helped lead the effort to get Traverse City to set its 100% renewable energy goal in December, joining Grand Rapids and Northport as the first three communities in Michigan with commitments to power their governmental operations with 100% renewable energy sources. We are now working with elected officials, community leaders and partner organizations in several other Michigan communities to help them commit to 100% renewables. There are now 35 cities in the U.S. with community-wide 100% renewable goals, and some U.S. cities like Burlington, VT, have already achieved it and are seeing health and economic benefits as a result.

Budget cuts

In June, the Michigan Legislature passed the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. MEC and our partners at Michigan League of Conservation Voters commissioned Public Sector Consultants to produce a budget analysis of the combined impacts of proposed federal budget cuts outlined in President Trump’s budget and the state budget cuts being considered for environment protection programs and activities. We released our report during legislative budget negotiations, providing the first-ever analysis to review the impact of both state and federal budget decisions and how they will affect Michigan’s ability to protect our residents and environment. The combined impact of these cuts is enormous and, quite frankly, puts at risk our state’s ability to protect the Great Lakes, our water resources including drinking water, and the cleanup of contaminated sites across the state.

Trump’s budget proposal would cut the EPA’s budget by 31%, completely wipe out the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), and cut important programs that help our state protect the quality of our air, land, water and public health. The potential elimination of the GLRI funding would halt the cleanup at seven sites in Michigan which are on their way to being cleaned up and removed from the Great Lakes Areas of Concern list by 2019. Trump’s proposed 30% cut to the Superfund program will slow or even stop cleanup work at contaminated sites in Michigan, allowing hazardous chemicals to leach into our water, cover our land, and disperse into our air. The president is proposing a 24% cut to environmental enforcement activities, harming the EPA’s ability to protect our health, reduce pollution, and go after polluters, placing good companies at a disadvantage. If these weren’t enough, he has proposed a 48% cut to the EPA’s research and development program. This will stymie advances in scientific discovery and technology that help to solve environmental challenges affecting our health and economy.

In 2016, the Michigan DEQ received $139 million from the federal government, with the lion’s share going to grants to local communities. The rest is used to fund 200 DEQ employees who implement state programs to protect our air, land and water. Any federal cut to environmental protection programs will almost certainly impact these DEQ employees who we count on to protect our health and environment.

Additionally, the state budget has failed to find a replacement for the expiring Clean Michigan Initiative bond revenue used to remediate and redevelop contaminated sites around the state. By the end of September, the last of the dollars from this 1998 voter-approved bond will be completely gone. So far, no replacement funds have been identified or approved by the legislature. Without funding, cleanup efforts at contaminated sites across the state will stop. Contamination left in the ground will continue to threaten our communities and endanger our drinking water.

For more details, see “State of Michigan environmental programs at risk.”

You can also download a copy of the 2017 Environmental Programs Budget Analysis from our website at environmentalcouncil.org.

State and federal budget cuts to environmental programs put the health of our residents, the Great Lakes and our communities at risk. Now is not the time to cut Michigan’s efforts to clean up contaminated sites, protect the Great Lakes, and ensure safe drinking water, clean air and healthy neighborhoods in which to live.

We know that our budgets reflect our values. We need budgets that protect the health of our families and environment. This summer, I hope you will share what you value with us, and join us in speaking up for Michigan’s public health and natural resources!
-Chris Kolb
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