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...

Lake Huron Dreaming

In this, the third winter where I’ve spent considerable time on the shore of Lake Huron, I’ve started to see the problem with our relationship to the Great Lakes is that they are too often an abstraction. It’s not that the people who live in this part of the world lack affection or even love for the Great Lakes.  We care.  But unless you live near them and see them most days, they are an idea, a memory, or a hope. Several people have planted this thought in my mind as I interviewed them for a new book.  They want a healthy planet and they work for it in their inland communities, but they observe that they don’t think often about the Great Lakes.  They think about the river that snakes through their city or the inland lake on which their cottages are planted. When the Lakes themselves are part of your daily life, you not only think about them constantly, you are tied to them emotionally.  You’re vulnerable to them and you recognize how vulnerable they are. This doesn’t mean you do anything more than someone in Mt. Pleasant or Marshall does for them.  There is the potential, though, that you’ll feel more urgency to protect them.  If we had a handful of members of Congress and Great Lakes governors who spent much of their lives on the Great Lakes, we might see better government policies affecting these waters. In the meantime, those of us who enjoy the privilege of at least occasionally waking up within earshot and sight of them have the responsibility to convey this vulnerability...

The Gift

In a season of gift-giving, it’s timely to remember that the people of the Great Lakes Basin inherited the greatest freshwater gift in the world. We are slightly more than half a percent of the population of the world, but live among 20% of the surface freshwater of the world. That’s a great asset – and an outsize responsibility. There is nothing like them, as authors and poets attest: In The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, author Jerry Dennis wrote, “To appreciate the magnitude of the Great Lakes you must get close to them. Launch a boat on their waters or hike their beaches or climb the dunes, bluffs, and rocky promontories that surround them and you will see, as people have seen since the age of glaciers, that these lakes are pretty damned big. It’s no wonder they’re sometimes upgraded to ‘Inland Seas’ and ‘Sweetwater Seas.’ Calling them lakes is like calling the Rockies hills.” In Moby Dick, author Herman Melville wrote, “For in their interflowing aggregate, those grand freshwater seas of ours–Erie, and Ontario, and Huron, and Superior, and Michigan–possess an ocean- like expansiveness, with many of the ocean’s noblest traits.” Poet Alison Swan said, “To know Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, one must visit them in all kinds of weather, at all times of year, and at all times of day, and even then they turn up surprises.” Writing about what it means to be a Middle Westerner, author Kurt Vonnegut observed, “But the more I pondered the people of Chicago, the more aware I became of an enormous...