As the 1970s began, Michigan’s environment was scarred by decades of pollution and natural resource exploitation. But public opinion here, as across the nation, was crystallizing around dramatic changes in law and policy, making 1970 a milestone in United States environmental history.
Sensing the mood, Michigan Governor William Milliken outlined a sweeping attack on environmental degradation in both his annual State of the State address on January 15, 1970, and a special message to the Legislature solely on environmental issues, on January 22, 1970. “Milliken Urges War on Pollution,” read a Detroit Free Press headline.
“We can’t have prosperity at the expense of posterity,” Milliken told the Legislature in January 1970. “And that is what we are doing—threatening posterity—when we make sewers of our rivers, cesspools of our lakes, and litter of our landscapes.”
Milliken’s proposals included several that became law later in 1970, and some that are still just proposals. The Legislature would approve Milliken’s proposals for a Great Lakes Shorelands act, tougher regulation of solid waste disposal, and more protective air and water pollution standards. Milliken’s call for tougher environmental enforcement instead of reliance on voluntary compliance by polluters was a change in state policy.
But the governor’s proposal to regulate what he called the “blight” of billboard pollution failed to get legislative approval.
Still. it was an auspicious beginning to a year of environmental change. And before it was over, the Legislature would send to Milliken a few historic ideas of its own.
Follow our year-long timeline in 2020 of the 50-year anniversary of the 1970 “Year of the Environment”.
A memorial service for Governor Milliken—who passed away on October 18, 2019—will be held in May 2020. The Milliken family has asked that donations in his memory and in support of his environmental legacy be made to FLOW and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.
Revisiting the Foxconn Great Lakes Water Diversion in Wisconsin
By Jim Olson
Last summer I wrote about a Wisconsin administrative judge’s ruling that the diversion of 7 million gallons a minute — or 2 billion gallons of Great Lakes water per year — to the private corporation Foxconn to build a 22 million square-foot plant for 13,000 jobs should not qualify as a “public water supply”.
FLOW filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing in support of Wisconsin citizens and organizations that the Foxconn diversion was not exempt from the Great Lakes Compact, because it did not constitute a public water supply. Under the Compact and Wisconsin law, public water supply means “primarily residential” customers. To ensure a public service and purpose, the law and anti-diversion Compact are quite clear: If it’s not for many people who live in a straddling community but outside the basin, the water of the Great Lakes cannot be diverted. The law is also clear that it cannot be diverted for private purposes.
What happened in the Foxconn case was politics, plain and simple. Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker teamed up with the Taiwanese multinational electronics manufacturing company to commit $3 billion and 2 billion gallons of Great Lakes water for Foxconn’s promise of a 22 million square-foot facility and 13,000 jobs. Every business has to plan and decide for itself whether to build, finance, and operate an expansion. But 2018 was an election year, and Walker dangled everything he could to stir excitement for Wisconsin’s citizens. He rode the promises of Foxconn for tax base and jobs. Walker, a Republican, lost to now Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat. Foxconn didn’t uphold its part of the bargain with Walker. The company has downsized its facility to 1 million square feet, will offer a small fraction of the jobs, and will need much less water.
But no one has asked the real question: What do taxes, jobs, and transferring billions of gallons of Great Lakes water outside the Basin have to do with public water supply? What does this have to do with public services or public purpose? The answer is nothing.
The question now is: What is Governor Evers and Wisconsin citizens, and those of us in the Great Lakes Basin going to do about it? Under Scott Walker, Wisconsin bent the law and the Compact, but the new administration hasn’t done anything to remedy that. It’s time to take off the rose-colored glasses and protect the waters of the Great Lakes from becoming a subsidy and reservoir for private corporations outside the Basin.
FLOW founder and president Jim Olson delivered the following remarks — inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech — on January 12 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse.
By Jim Olson
I had a dream in 2009 and 2010. I had a dream to bring the public trust doctrine into the debate over the battle for control of our world’s water commons and what to do about the challenge to halt its destruction and control by private corporations in an increasingly intense world water crisis.
This dream grew out of the legal battle here in Michigan over the privatization of water and damage to our headwater creeks, lakes, and wetlands by Nestlé. For the first time, corporations like Nestlé sought to convert what all understood as a right to reasonably use water, to the sale of water. This was, in effect, an unprecedented massive scale of the privatization of the commons in water for exorbitant profits without paying anything. Nestlé and other corporations around the world (check out the World Water Forum) wanted to take over the public’s sovereign water—which, if it succeeded, would make every person and living being on the planet its slave.
I had a dream that our water commons would be protected by the framework and principles of the public trust doctrine—an ancient doctrine dating from days of Justinian in Rome, 1,500 year ago. The public trust doctrine puts our commons and the fundamental relationship of water to life paramount to all else, meaning it must be protected from one generation to the next. The public trust doctrine would transform us to protect the gift of water first, which in turn would sustain and foster and assure access to clean, safe water for all humanity, all living beings on this planet. Thus was born FLOW (For Love of Water).
Today, that dream is a reality because of the dedication, help, and support of many people who understand that at this time in history we cannot afford to view the natural world, especially our common water, as apart from us. It is a common gift from the creation. It preceded the human mind. The human mind is a tool, not an end in itself. If we honor this dream of the public trust in the water commons as part of our own beings, paramount to all life, we will then defeat our human desire to control, at short gain, and convert everything it can to profit, at tremendous cost to all life, the natural world, the hydrosphere itself.
I have a dream that this commons will be protected by this public trust doctrine, which many of you who have followed FLOW have heard us speak about and apply to the challenges we face here in the Great Lakes. This dream started centuries ago.
I have a dream that this commons and public trust, buried like an underground stream beneath the industrialization and capitalization of the planet in the past 200 years, will resurface and become central to our understanding and protection of the integrity of water as paramount, intrinsic in its own beingness. It will become part of our everyday life. We will then understand that if we do not protect water and all life as a commons under public trust principles, that private property and the accumulation of massive capital and wealth really has no value of all.
I have a dream that we understand that the hydrosphere itself is a being in a sense, a living water cycle in which we live will be seen as a commons.
I have a dream that this commons in the hydrosphere and the beings and life it supports are protected by the public trust doctrine, that government and personal decisions will put the commons and life first, as a primary public purpose, and that government and personal decisions must assure the protection of water from impairment from one generation to the next.
I have a dream that this will lead to dignity and respect for others and water. By following this paramount public trust framework, we and government will make very good decisions about water, health, land use, food, energy, environment, and economy.
I have a dream that if this public trust framework is not followed, that people will remove those in power by their voice, their hearts, their votes, or protest. If necessary, they will file lawsuits to stop the tyranny of private corporate control of our water commons, our health, drinking water, sustenance for life, that this will halt the tyranny of climate change, the tyranny of fires and death in Australia, California, around the world, the tyranny of massive storms, flooding, landslides.
I have a dream that this commons and public trust will stop the tyranny of the shutoff of water for more than 100,000 people in Detroit and across this world. I have a dream that there will be no water shutoffs for any person, child, or grandparent on this earth, because they don’t have the ability to pay for water.
I have a dream that this public trust and protection of the water commons will stop the destruction of lives like the exposure to lead of children and citizens of Flint or other cities and towns.
I have a dream that this public trust doctrine will assure that water is always public, that we will preserve water and treat it with dignity for all.
I have a dream that this public trust will assure that this water is a generational commons and public trust, serving all on earth for generations to come.
I have a dream that it will apply to and honor all people.
I have a dream that people will understand that we are a relationship to water, that the public trust doctrine does not just protect the water, it protects all life; that it protects the relationship between people and life.
I have a dream that if we understand this relationship between beings and life, we can protect our Great Lakes like Lake Erie, one-third of which is a green toxic soup, and our groundwater from toxins that should never be tolerated in the water we drink or use for food and bathing.
I have a dream that we understood that this water commons is us, and that in the future because of this, we will come to a peace on this earth—a peace that was created and continues in the relationship between the commons and us when the earth was formed, when we entered this earth, however that happened.
I have a dream that we can move forward together to accomplish the protection of water as commons and public trust because we come to understand that is what’s in our hearts.
Watch the full video below (Jim Olson begins speaking at 40:12).
Former FLOW board chair Skip Pruss delivered the following remarks — inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech — on January 12 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse.
By Skip Pruss
I have a dream where the urgency of the climate crisis becomes a unifying force, enabling all to recognize our mutual interests and independencies, and awakening the best within us to common purpose.
I have a dream that we realize that we cannot burn our way to a better world; that we, forthwith, enable a historic transformation to carbon free energy sources where energy producing technologies like wind and solar work with nature and not against it; and where infinite nature-based resources displace oil, gas and coal — which are finite and ecologically and climatically toxic.
I have a dream that government will someday soon be wise enough to account fully for the economic and ecological costs of activities that affect the planet when formulating and implementing public policy. And that government will recognize the value of maintaining the functionality, vitality, and resilience of natural systems.
I have a dream that we recognize the fragility and complexity of the biosphere and that we finally have the political will and wisdom to embrace the “precautionary principle” and enact laws informed by science, and policy informed by deeper knowledge and circumspection.
I have a dream that decisions will be made based upon how they will affect our children and future generations and that we recognize the importance of intergenerational equity and fully embrace the adage, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”
Lastly, I have a dream where we all embrace an ethic of respect for all living things and a conscious appreciation of the gifts that nature provides; that the earth’s biodiversity and abundant resources are appreciated for the multiple benefits and ecological services they provide; and that we will garner the wisdom and the will to cherish the natural world, repair what we have broken, and begin to restore what we have lost.
Watch the full video below (Skip Pruss begins speaking at 27:30):
Michigan residents have an opportunity until Friday, January 31, to speak up and defend our families and public drinking water from a group of chemicals known collectively as PFAS — also called “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment and are known to be in the water supply of at least 1.9 million Michiganders.
(To comment, email EGLE-PFAS-RuleMaking@Michigan.gov or mail your comment to: Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division / Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy / Attention: Suzann Ruch / PO Box 30817 / Lansing, Michigan 48909-8311)
What are the “Forever Chemicals”?
By Dave Long, Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC
PFOA and PFOS have been in the news lately, but what are they? PFOA and PFOS are fluorinated organic chemicals that are part of a larger group of chemicals referred to as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. They have been used in the manufacturing of carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food and for non-stick surfaces for cookware. These chemicals provide water repellency and resistance to grease and stains to fabric. Consumers often know them as Scotchgard® and Teflon®. They are also used for firefighting at airports, chemical plants and for industrial fires.
These groups of man-made chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been around since the 1940s, making our lives easier through non-stick surfaces, stain-resistant and water repellent products. Between 2000 and 2002, PFOS was voluntarily phased out of production in the U.S. by its primary manufacturers, 3M and DuPont. In 2006, eight major companies voluntarily agreed to phase out their global production of PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals, although there are a limited number of current uses.
All that convenience comes at a price because PFOA does not break down and can accumulate over time in the environment and in your body. Recently PFOA and PFOS have been called the “Forever Chemicals.” Researchers have compelling evidence that exposure to some PFAS can cause adverse health effects.
In Michigan, PFAS chemicals have been found in many water supplies around Fort Grayling, in the city of Ann Arbor, and around several industrial sites. Currently the State of Michigan is working on setting a standard for drinking water to protect residents of the state. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued health advisory levels of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for two of these chemicals, PFOS and PFOA (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid, respectively).
Studies show evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to PFAS chemicals. PFAS chemicals persist in the body for a long time and can accumulate. In laboratory animals, researchers found that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological effects.
Consistently elevated cholesterol levels have been found in people with detectable levels of PFOA or PFOS. Lower infant birth weights, immune system effects, cancer (PFOA), and thyroid disruption (PFOS) have also been associated, albeit less frequently, with PFOA or PFOS.
The good news is there are filters designed to remove PFAS chemicals from water, either tap water or from municipal water supplies. Specific ion exchange resins have been developed and tested. Highly selective ion exchange resins for PFAS chemicals remove PFOS or PFOA below the EPA Health Advisory (HA) levels of 70 parts per trillion (ppt).
Thanks for taking action to support clean water in Michigan. Now take the next step. This kind of thing works best when thousands of comments are sent. Please share this action with your network using these links:
President Nixon signs NEPA into law on January 1, 1970. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One of the first new laws of the 1970s reflecting the public’s concern about cleaning up the environment was the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). On the first day of the new decade—January 1, 1970—President Richard Nixon signed the legislation into law. A milestone in the protection of America’s environment, NEPA has been nicknamed the “Magna Carta” of American environmental law. On its 50th anniversary, it’s important to remember why NEPA has been so important—especially now that the Trump Administration is proposing to weaken it via regulation.
First, what did NEPA do? Former U.S. EPA Deputy Administrator Alvin Alm called NEPA “short, simple, and comprehensive. It established a national policy to protect the environment, created a Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and required that environmental impact statements be prepared for major federal actions having a significant effect on the environment.”
That third requirement—the environmental impact statement, or EIS—was, indeed, short and simple, but it turned out to be revolutionary. For the first time, federal agencies had to “look before you leap.” They could not undertake or authorize projects having a significant effect on the environment without first considering alternatives having less impact.
This was a more profound change than it might seem. Using the law as leverage, third parties—often citizen associations and environmental groups—were able to go to court and force federal agencies to think twice about, or back down from, environmentally destructive actions that in prior years would have moved swiftly ahead. At the same time, many federal agencies began good-faith reforms to take environmental impacts into account.
Alm called NEPA’s early results “dramatic. The Atomic Energy Commission’s nuclear licensing process was stopped dead in its tracks for more than a year … Outer Continental Shelf oil drilling was held up until a proper environmental impact statement was prepared. Controversy over the Alaska Oil Pipeline was brought to a close only when Congress decreed the environmental impact statement process was completed.”
A measure of NEPA’s success, Alm added, was that by the late 1980s federal agencies routinely considered environmental impacts in their decision making, and often redesigned projects to avoid or minimize those impacts.
As the 50th anniversary of this internationally recognized law arrived, President Donald Trump and federal agencies proposed eviscerating NEPA. Under the guise of “modernizing” NEPA rules, the Trump changes would make it easier for major polluting infrastructure projects, like petroleum pipelines, to move quickly through the federal permit process.
Project proponents would not have to consider—or disclose—the implications for greenhouse gas emissions or other forms of pollution. The rule would allow infrastructure projects to be built without consideration of stronger storms, sea-level rise, and other impacts of climate change, worsening the vulnerability of communities across the country.
Mitch Jones, the climate and energy program director for Food & Water Watch’s policy program, said Trump’s “intention to remove climate considerations from all new infrastructure decisions is akin to lighting the fuse on a bomb and standing idly by as it burns down.”
How would this be done? Primarily by eliminating a requirement that federal agencies must consider climate change impacts of major federal actions. This makes absolutely no sense. As evidence of climate change mounts—from unprecedented major runaway brushfires to torrential, year-in-a-day downpours—the Trump changes would effectively bar the federal government from even looking at the issue. It’s climate denial and a reward for polluting industries in one rule change.
When it took effect, NEPA was a response to decades of environmental deterioration. The changes it inspired helped save taxpayers billions of dollars in avoided costs from environmental boondoggles. The Trump changes would take us back to the days before 1970 in addressing climate concerns.
Before the proposed Trump changes take effect, there will be a 60-day public comment period. Below is information on how you can speak out.
You may submit comments, identified by docket number CEQ– 2019–0003, by any of the following methods:
Mail: Council on Environmental Quality, 730 Jackson Place NW, Washington, DC 20503.
CEQ must receive comments by March 10, 2020.
Instructions: All submissions received must include the agency name and docket number for this rulemaking. All comments received will be posted without change to this website, including any personal information provided. Do not submit electronically any information you consider to be private, Confidential Business Information (CBI), or other information whose disclosure is restricted by statute.
Docket: For access to the docket to read background documents or comments received, visit this site. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Edward A. Boling, Associate Director for the National Environmental Policy Act, or Viktoria Z. Seale, Chief of Staff and General Counsel, 202–395–5750, NEPA- Update@ceq.eop.gov.
Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor
Maude Barlow’s latest, “Whose Water Is It Anyway” is hot off the press
Photo courtesy Council of Canadians
By Jim Olson
It took me just a few hours to finish reading Maude Barlow’s incisive, inspiring new book, Whose Water Is It Anyway?: Taking Water Protection into Public Hands (ECW Press, 2019). This is not new territory for Maude.She’s a world water policy guru and activist for the protection of the human right to water, the war against the schemes by the corporate elite to privatize and control water, and the fight to sustain water’s integrity in the watersheds where it flows. In 2002, she published Blue Gold with Tony Clark to go after global corporate thefts of water by taking over public water supplies or selling off public water in bottles. In 2007, she released Blue Covenant, enshrining the inherent obligation to assure the human right to water for people’s access to affordable safe water for all; and in 2015, she wrote Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever, in which she not only championed the human right to water, but called on governments and people to recognize the duty to care for the water on which the right to water and all life depends.
Her new book, Whose Water Is It Anyway, a convenient pocket-sized paperback, tells the story behind her life’s work. It was ignited when in the 1980s she glimpsed the under-the table hand of a widespread corporate scheme to parade as champions of the free market that would provide water to meet the needs of people everywhere. The scheme was actually to control the world’s sources and delivery systems of water. Her new book combines her story and the stories of many others facing blows from the corporate world order that cut off drinking water, metered the wells of peasants, or robbed residents and watersheds of the flow of freshwater to convert water into bottles at publicly subsidized massive private gain.
She hits the highs and lows—the death of a young man in Bolivia over a corporate takeover of the water of the peasants of Cochabamba, the conversion by Nestlé and other bottled water companies of the right to use water into the right to sell water on the private market at exorbitant profits. Then she traces the global awareness and growing movement that in the past 30 years has spread throughout the world, and raised a shield against the private ownership and ironfisted clench on the world’s water taps. Her story could have ended in 2010, when her life’s work, and the work of water warriors around the world—including the Blue Planet Project, Council of Canadians, Food and Water Watch, and Uruguay’s National Commission for the Defense of Water—culminated a decade of dedicated work to finally see the United Nations enact resolutions in 2010 declaring the Human Right to Water and Sanitation.
It would have been enough for Maude to tell this story, in a digestible, accessible paperback, but that wasn’t enough. Everything she writes is about her life, the conflicts over water, and the many unsung heroes on the front lines, which highlight the water crisis we face through privatization and waste of our most precious commons. The work is not done, the awareness and movement should be as much a part of quality of life, health, and dignity, and life itself. No, it wasn’t enough to stop with the success, but to chart the next steps she sees as essential, ones that are already taking root across the world—Blue Communities.
The Blue Communities movement is a citizen, grassroots, local movement that shifts the understanding of the sustainability of a community, its quality of life and economy on three basic principles: 1. Water is a commons in which everyone has a human right for drinking, health, and safety; 2. Water, including local public water infrastructure, is public, and must forever remain a commons, preserved for present and generations to come—a commons held in public trust, as FLOW has envisioned and worked for over the past 10 years; and 3. that natural water sources—our streams and lakes and groundwater—shall not be privatized by ownership or control, and public water should not be taken for free as bottled water, or the private takeover and control of access to public water supplies and infrastructure. Each local city or local rural government in the Blue Communities program adopts a resolution centering itself and its future on sustaining water for life, water that is public, a commons, safe, and accessible, common and secure for all. Already, cities in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Great Britain, and the United States have turned to resolutions and specific actions to commit to the Blue Community principles. The World Council of Churches, representing 590 million Christians, has declared itself a Blue Community.
Maude’s book is a combination of big picture world water crisis, personal story, water policy, conflicts, and solution. Here is a short readable book, a book you can slip into your purse, backpack, or even suit coat pocket, to take with you into the city hall, the boardroom, the classroom, or statehouse. It’s a story that should be read by everyone who cares about liberty, dignity, harmony, and the common good of people and planet. Here’s an author who walks the walk and helps show us the way forward. For further information on Blue Communities, water commons, privatization, and the public trust doctrine, visit The Council of Canadians or FLOW’s OUR20 Communities page.
Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director Daniel Eichinger today set a 30-day deadline for Enbridge to submit key information regarding its ongoing violations of the state-granted easement conditionally allowing the Canadian company’s 66-year-old Line 5 oil pipelines to occupy the Straits of Mackinac.
Eichinger’s letter to Enbridge, which includes 20 questions to be answered by Feb. 12, is an appropriate step to conclude the DNR’s review ordered by Governor Whitmer last June, according to FLOW, the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City.
“It’s a welcome sign that Director Eichinger and his staff appear to be wrapping up their Line 5 investigation by asking for all other information and documentation that Enbridge has in its possession or control,” said Kelly Thayer, Deputy Director of FLOW (For Love of Water). “At the conclusion of this process, these serious and continuing violations of the easement by Enbridge should trigger the state to shut down the dangerous dual Line 5 oil pipelines in the Great Lakes before it’s too late.”
FLOW commended the DNR for taking this step to restore the rule of law on Line 5, the oil pipelines running through the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac, which researchers have called the worst possible place for a Great Lakes oil spill due to the powerful underwater currents, strong waves, seasonal ice cover, and extreme difficulty in responding to an oil pipeline failure.
“It’s clear that Line 5’s original design in the Straits is failing, as the powerful currents scour the public bottomlands and undermine the pipelines placed there in 1953,” said Jim Olson, FLOW’s President and legal advisor. “Enbridge’s continuing addition of more than 200 pipeline supports constitutes a risky redesign that never has been evaluated or authorized under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and public trust law.”
The State of Michigan already has documented evidence on Line 5 of anchor strikes, exposed metal surfaces, and deep scouring of bottomlands that undermine the pipelines and even bend some of the newly installed supports. There also has been evidence of bending of Line 5 beyond curvature limits, Enbridge has failed to provide proof of liability insurance and other financial assurances, and missing protective pipeline coating and delamination.
FLOW filed formal comments in mid-November 2019 to assist the State of Michigan’s Line 5 review, citing new and ongoing legal violations by Enbridge and rising risk to the Great Lakes, jobs, and drinking water. In those Nov. 13 comments, FLOW called on the state to increase and strictly enforce the requirement for comprehensive oil spill insurance and terminate the 1953 easement that conditionally allows Line 5 to occupy the Straits of Mackinac, triggering the orderly shutdown of the dual oil pipelines as soon as practicable after securing alternative sources for residential propane in the Upper Peninsula (which a state task force is studying).
FLOW’s request followed recent revelations that Enbridge and its subsidiaries lack adequate liability insurance for a potentially catastrophic oil spill from the Canadian company’s decaying dual pipelines snaking across the public bottomlands, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. The new evidence further supports FLOW’s long-standing contention that Enbridge is operating Line 5 illegally while the risk rises to the Great Lakes, jobs, and the drinking water supply for half of Michiganders.
Until Enbridge has applied for and obtains authorization under the rule of law or Line 5 is shut down, FLOW urges the state to impose immediate emergency measures that reduce the flow of oil in Line 5 to its original limit of 300,000 barrels per day (1 barrel = 42 U.S. gallons of oil). Enbridge currently pumps 540,000 barrels a day through Line 5 in the Straits, which is 80% more than the original design approved by the State of Michigan.
Pending such authorization or shutdown, state officials also should implement more stringent requirements for a mandatory emergency shutdown, including when there is a wave height of 3.3 feet or more in the Straits or winds in excess of 18 miles per hour, conditions that render oil spill response equipment ineffective. Based on the level of risk from Line 5 to public waters, the state also should require Enbridge and its subsidiaries to secure adequate insurance, bond, surety and/or secured assets in the total amount of at least $5 billion, based on a study commissioned by FLOW that found that a Line 5 oil spill could deliver a multibillion-dollar blow to natural resource and Michigan’s economy.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources historically has played an important role in protecting the environment, particularly during the environmental awakening of the 1970s, when Seth Phillips got his start in state government. In this photo from 2018, an angler speaks with a DNR creel clerk. Photo: Courtesy of the Michigan DNR
By Seth Phillips
My career in environmental protection really began as a youngster. My parents had built a cottage “Up North” in the early 1960s, and I was fortunate to spend my summers on the shores of Lake Michigan, climbing and playing on the Sleeping Bear Dunes before anyone knew it existed and hiking in the north woods. Notwithstanding the big alewife die off that made one summer stink, I fell in love with the northern Michigan outdoors that so many have come to love.
Growing up in southeast Michigan, I was also very familiar with the industrial, urban side of our state. As the years passed, I began to understand the troubled relationship between these two sides of the Great Lakes state. While in college, and struggling to chart my path forward between the urban professional life I knew and was expected to follow, and the natural world I wanted to know better, I discovered the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources, to which I eagerly transferred, and graduated in 1974. My life-long journey to work for our environment had begun.
Starting in 1977, I spent 30 years working for the Michigan Departments of Natural Resources (DNR), Environmental Quality (DEQ, now EGLE) and Transportation (DOT), managing a wide variety of environmental programs, including cross-program planning, hazardous waste management, toxic waste cleanup, emergency response, solid waste management, recycling, field compliance, storm water management, and environmental policy for transportation. I was able to spend a lot of time on policy, legislation, and litigation support—all of which were very interesting and knowledge-expanding work. The dedication to the environment that I shared with all my co-workers never faltered.
But the world in which we worked changed a lot.
I started working as a state regulator in the late 1970s, at a time when there was a strong growth in environmental consciousness in society, and of course, a serious commitment in government to environmental improvement. William Milliken was Michigan’s Governor when I started, and he and the legislature were national leaders in addressing the many challenges our environment faced.
In particular, 1970 was a seminal year for environmental protection in Michigan and nationwide. In January of that year—50 years ago this month— Gov. Milliken unveiled a broad agenda of proposed environmental reforms. In March 1970, students and faculty at the University of Michigan held an environmental teach-in. The first Earth Day was held on April 22.
To work in these programs was great fun back then. New programs were also being enacted at the federal level, which meant money and better program tools. So many programs were new, and we had the freedom and funding to design how they worked and to implement the core values the programs were enacted to foster.
Our direction was to implement the laws. There was little political interference, and there was broad support in the legislature as well as from the Governor. Michigan enacted new laws to manage hazardous waste, clean up toxic waste sites, end open dumping, build state-of-the-art landfills, and protect wetlands. I used to wake up early to get into work before others just so I could get started. Work was fun, my colleagues were great to work with, and many became life-long friends. Together we accomplished a lot. Michigan’s environment is much better today because of the work so many did back then.
But then the dark ages came. John Engler, a new governor not so friendly to our work, took office in 1991. He sought to gain control over us to stop us from allegedly harming his friends in the business world. But we weren’t anti-business. We were anti-polluter. Unfortunately, these categories were often one in the same.
Under Gov. Engler, the DNR was split into two departments with all the environmental programs moving to a new Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), whose director answered solely to the Governor. And all the fun went away. Upholding environmental standards became a discretionary function. Permit denials were simply outlawed. Inside the agency the morbid joke became, “Do you want fries with that permit?” Funding was cut, and staff was slashed and reorganized (in other words, moved from what they knew how to do to what they didn’t know how to do). Enforcement became almost non-existent. Similar changes happened at the federal level as well.
Michigan desperately needs a return to those heady days when protecting the environment meant more than just saying nice things about it. We keep finding new problems without the wherewithal to address them. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the current federal administration is doing enormous harm to our environmental future. Destruction can happen quickly. Restoration takes a very long time.And in the era of climate change, we don’t have a very long time left.
Seth Phillips retired from service for the state of Michigan in 2007 and is currently the Kalkaska County Drain Commissioner.