Programs and Polls

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder celebrated Earth Day more than two months early with a cluster of three credible environmental program proposals last month and this month.  It remains to be seen how a very conservative legislature will treat them, but at least he’s trying. Less clear is his use of polling to support his preference for small-bore, so-called “pay-as-you-go” financing. First, the proposals: $79 million per year largely for environmental cleanup and solid waste management and recycling, funded by a more than 10-fold increase in Michigan’s landfill fee. $110 million per year for water infrastructure, funded by what would ultimately be a $5 per year assessment for customers of large water systems. A plan to boost Michigan’s recycling rate. The good news is that these proposals are a long overdue recognition by someone — anyone — in state government of critical environmental needs. They are thoughtful attempts to deal with serious issues. The bad news is that they come in the final year of a term-limited administration and will swim upstream in a legislature hostile to the words “fee” and “tax.”  And the $110 million infrastructure proposal is dwarfed by a need the Governor acknowledges is closer to $800 million annually. Still…any piece of this would be a step forward. The poll, released February 16, purports to show public support for the goal of a cleaner environment, but opposition to a bond issue.  Let’s see how the questions were phrased.  If you tell people that a bond will cost a lot in interest, they will oppose it;  if you tell them it will insure a long-term commitment to vital...

Back to Michigan

Since returning to Michigan a couple of years ago, I’ve been dogged by the lyrics of a Pretenders song each time a piece of Michigan’s environmental policy fabric unravels. The song is My City Was Gone.  The key lyric: I went back to Ohio But my pretty countryside Had been paved down the middle By a government that had no pride Michigan’s ruling governmental regime has no shame.  The latest evidence is a pair of bills that have passed the State Senate and are now before the House of Representatives. The legislation in question creates two committees that skew the process of protecting Michigan’s environment.  One establishes a committee dominated by industry with veto power over new environmental standards.  Another creates a panel giving industries seeking to weaken proposed environmental permits another bite of the apple. The proposed legislation is an attempt by special interests to choke off needed environmental standards on the grounds they are bad for business.  In fact, well-crafted environmental standards are good for the economy, reducing health and cleanup costs and keeping polluters from gaining an unfair advantage over businesses that are good environmental stewards. These are bills that would have been dismissed as too extreme to be seriously considered just a few years ago.  Now they are halfway through the legislative process. Michigan isn’t what it used to be.  The only saving grace is the number of citizens and environmental organizations marshaling all the strength they have to oppose this attack on the fundamental process of protecting our air, water, land — everything that distinguishes Michigan’s...

Return to Sender

Governor Snyder has sent a letter to the Pipeline Safety Advisory Board he created telling them he is ignoring the advice it gave him last month.  They should send it back. In the letter, the Governor tells the board the resolutions containing the advice didn’t really pass.  The chair made a mistake.  He then goes on to say that even if the resolutions had passed according to the rules he set, he would reject it. A detailed analysis of the letter won’t happen here.  But one statement in the letter is particularly striking.  In spurning the Board resolution calling for tougher standards for a shutdown due to weather conditions, the Governor cites “the amount of negotiating time and effort” that went into the provision the Governor announced with Enbridge on November 27.  He says a request to re-open that provision would be unlikely to result in a more protective standard.  Two things: How much “time and effort” went into that provision?  There is no way for us to know.  The agreement was negotiated in secret.  For all the public knows, Enbridge may have offered the clause for public relations reasons. The timidity of the Governor’s language is of concern.  He speaks as though Enbridge has a right to operate in the Straits and the state must beg its permission for actions that protect the public health, safety and welfare.  No.  The people of the State of Michigan own the lakebed that the pipeline spans, and Enbridge is there only by virtue of the people’s authorization via an easement.  The Governor is the trustee of that lakebed and the waters...

Time for an Environmental Change

Are we supposed to be excited that the US EPA is now admitting that Western Lake Erie may be impaired? The fact that this is good news demonstrates a fundamental failing in our environmental protection system. The EPA’s action won’t clean up Lake Erie.   It will not remove a molecule of the phosphorus that is fueling repugnant algae blooms.  Instead, it tells Ohio’s EPA to reconsider its finding that the western lake is not impaired.  If Ohio EPA looks out its window, spots the algae that everyone else sees in the summer, and decides that’s an impairment, that will set in motion a process that could take several years just to figure out where all the phosphorus is coming from and who should reduce by how much. It will be years after that before the reductions begin to happen. At this point, however, it’s better than nothing. And nothing is pretty much what’s been delivered by other legal and voluntary processes since the Lake Erie crisis began in 2011. What does that say about the state of our environmental protection laws and policies? The current federal administration’s attacks on basic clean air and water laws and rules are causing many casualties. One is that it prevents us from thinking about reforms that could deliver faster, better environmental protection. Right now, we’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got. What we’ve got, however, is not adequate to the challenges of the 21st-century. A better system would not result in delays of years to a decade in dealing with what is essentially an environmental catastrophe. When a large area...

Great Lakes Surprises

A Great Lakes prophecy from a 14-year old book was way off. My book. Climate change is many things, but most of all it is surprise. So are the Great Lakes. Combine their complexity and you are likely to make fools out of anyone who makes flat predictions about how they will interact. My book On the Brink, published in 2004, foresaw a future in which Great Lakes “water levels plummeted below the historic range beginning in 2016, responding to both climate change and growing water uses.” Having lived on the shore of a Great Lake from 2015 to 2017, I can accurately report that water levels are not below the historic range. In fact, on Lakes Michigan and Huron they are near the upper end of that range and could go higher. Week after week I observed waves gnawing at beaches and increasing storm damage. That, however, does not mean climate change is not happening. It just means our ability to decode its future impacts is still developing – and perhaps is still in its infancy. No one predicted the rise of toxic algae in western Lake Erie. Governments declared victory and pulled out the troops in the 1990s as algae blooms fell to tolerable levels after the disgraceful condition of the 1960s. By the early 2000s, the intolerable blooms were back and worsening. Warming waters are believed to be a contributing factor. Great Lakes surprises reach way back before the days when climate change was a common term. Prior generations thought the lakes were vast enough to assimilate wastes. No one worried much about the sea lamprey...

Grading Great Lakes Governments

International Joint Commission U.S. Section Chair Lana Pollack: “Most people do not think a great deal about the connection between public policy and the health of the lakes. They don’t recognize that without strong standards that include protections from pollution and laws that hold corporations and people legally accountable as well as financially responsible, it’s inevitable that the lakes will be polluted.” A cross-post from the FLOW...