Pennsylvania and the Public Trust

A Pennsylvania State Supreme Court decision affirming public trust principles shows the way for the State of Michigan – if it chooses to follow. By a 4-2 vote, the Court in June held that the State of Pennsylvania has a fiduciary responsibility to act as trustee of publicly-owned natural resources. The ruling came in a case brought by environmental groups challenging the state’s diversion of some proceeds from oil and gas revenues on state land away from environmental programs. The decision is relevant to debates over the continued operation of the 64-year-old Enbridge Line 5 pipelines crossing the lakebed of Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac.  The state granted Enbridge an easement to use the publicly-owned lakebed, but given the company’s clearly documented track record of failing to act prudently to prevent a catastrophic oil spill through lack of preventive maintenance on the pipeline, the state has a trustee’s obligation to terminate the easement and halt the flow of oil. The Pennsylvania case revolves around Article 1, Section 27 of that state’s constitution, also referred to as the Environmental Rights Amendment, which voters approved in 1971: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.” An analogous provision is found in Article 4, Section 52 of the Michigan Constitution approved by voters in 1963 “The conservation and development of...

Lake Erie: What’s It Going to Take?

A little more than three years after the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland caught fire in 1969, Congress approved the Clean Water Act.  It’s coming up on three years since a harmful algal bloom shut down the Toledo drinking water supply, and where are we?  We’re hearing predictions of a bigger than average algae bloom in western Lake Erie. It is too simple to say that in 1969 the culprit was smokestack/pollution pipe industry and in 2017, it’s agriculture.  Agriculture’s special place in the policy process — often untouchable when it comes to regulation — is part but not all of the story.  Scientific uncertainties are also part.  The biggest part is a breakdown in the relationship between the people and their government. Fed a diet of often insincere gobbledygook, offered symbols instead of substance, frustrated by gridlock, citizens have given up for the most part on expecting (or perhaps even believing in) transformative environmental change like the kind ushered in by the 1972 Clean Water Act. And government is happy to live down to their expectations. Without a strong and persistent clamoring from the public for a clean Lake Erie, it’s not going to happen. Many committed farmers, environmental advocates, research scientists and public officials will keep doing their good work in the Erie basin, but at this point it’s hard to see how anywhere close to the desired 40% reduction in phosphorus loadings to the western basin can happen in 8...

The Forgotten Great Lake

It’s Huron, and I have lived next to it for two years.  I rarely thought about it until 2015.  Now I think of it every day. The charms of Lake Huron quickly began to seduce me.  The beat, for one thing.  It was an unusual year in that even in mid-summer the northeast wind frequently rose and drove the lake into the beach tirelessly.  At times the pounding went on for several days and nights.  The repetition was a comfort, the way a rocking cradle is to a baby.   Once in a while I wished for it to cease, but more frequently I was glad about the reminder of the lake – of the fact that I didn’t live in the mundane nearly lake-free country around Lansing, where I had lived for many years.  This was special country. The scenic vista had a special impact.  At mid-afternoon of many summer days, the water was a wholesome deep blue while cumulus clouds ascended into the paler blue above, reminding me of the idealized drawings in the books I had read as a child.  In the presence of this scene my early youth became vividly real to me, recalling a time when the future bore a seemingly inexhaustible supply of benign summer days. The freighters became familiar.  A few of them passed through often enough that their names were recognizable – the John B. Aird a prime example. Christened in 1983 in honor of the lieutenant (pronounced left-tenant by the Canadians) governor of Ontario, the 730-footer often carried coal, iron ore or taconite pellets – or so said boatnerd.com. Sometimes the passage...