Ten years to save the planet from climate change. PFAS, microplastics, and invasive species. Wetland destruction and failing, polluting septic systems. Sometimes it seems as though the only environmental news is bad news.
Here’s an antidote, borne in a glass half-full.
Great Lakes Piping Plover
An endearing, small shorebird that nests on Great Lakes beaches, the piping plover is on the federal endangered species list. Its preferred habitat is also a lure to people and their dogs. But thanks to intensive recovery efforts by federal and state government officials and citizen volunteers, the population of Great Lakes piping plovers has rebounded from 13 nesting pairs in 1990 to approximately 65-70 nesting pairs today, and the outlook is favorable.
Wetlands are important because they filter water pollutants, store floodwaters, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife. Yet they were regarded as wastelands from the time Europeans arrived to the 20th Century. Draining and filling cost Michigan 4.2 million acres of its original endowment of 10.7 million acres of wetlands. But the passage in 1979 of Michigan’s wetland protection law has made a dramatic difference. It has sl
For years, Michigan’s recycling rate was the lowest in the Great Lakes region. But things are changing. Michigan has significantly improved its recycling rate from 14.25% prior to 2019 to 19.3%, based on an analysis released by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) earlier this year. An EGLE survey found that Michiganders’ understanding of recycling best habits has increased in every corner of the state. The recycling rate translates to 110 pounds per capita each year.
Public Drinking Water
The twin lead-in-drinking water disasters in Flint and Benton Harbor have raised public doubts about the safety of community drinking water systems. The good news is that community systems in Michigan and the Great Lakes region generally maintain a high degree of compliance with federal health-based drinking water standards. Of the 19.5 million U.S. residents served by public water supplies that rely on the Great Lakes as their source water, 99.1% had drinking water that met all applicable health-based standards in 2020. In the Province of Ontario, approximately 60% of the population is supplied with treated drinking water from the Great Lakes. In 2020, 99.8% of municipal residential treated drinking water quality tests met Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standards.
Defending the Monarch Butterfly
The exquisite monarch butterfly is in trouble, but the Village of Elk Rapids has stepped up to do something about it, recently becoming the second Monarch City USA in Michigan. The designation commits the Village to several actions, including:
Converting abandoned lands to monarch habitat
Integrating monarch conservation into the Village’s future land use conservation
Working with garden clubs and citizens in planting milkweed and nectar gardens
Building sanctuary sites, installing signage and hosting an annual Monarch Butterfly Festival
The population of migratory Eastern monarchs (those east of the Rocky Mountains) declined 90 percent during the last 20 years. If more communities follow the lead of Elk Rapids, the monarch butterfly has a chance.
Traverse City, Mich.— The following is a press statement from Jim Olson, Senior Legal Advisor at FLOW (For Love of Water), the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City, in response to the United States Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision today in West Virginia v. EPA, which cripples the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to limit greenhouse gas emissions under the federal Clean Air Act from existing coal plants to combat climate change.
“It appears the Supreme Court has chosen a political agenda over the law and legal precedent established since the 1970 passage of the Clean Air Act, which authorizes the EPA to set standards on emissions from air pollutants. The Supreme Court previously ruled that the EPA has authority to set standards on emissions because greenhouse gasses are pollutants. Today, the Supreme Court departs from this precedent by weakening EPA’s authority to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants.
“The effect of the Supreme Court’s decision cannot be overstated: At a time when coal plants are being shut down as states, the nation, and world shift to renewable, clean energy, the Court has sponsored the continued burning of coal that will accelerate the climate crisis.
“It is now even more important that states like Michigan step up to defend and strengthen their environmental safeguards. Fortunately, under the Clean Air Act, states can continue to limit and force the shutdown of existing coal plants under state laws and regulations. Just last week the Michigan Public Service Commission, after nearly a decade of contested energy and legal issues, approved a settlement and order that will require Consumers Energy to shut down its remaining coal-fired power plants within 3 years.”
The northern part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore along the shores of Good Harbor Bay is one of Mulherin’s favorite places.
Author Tim Mulherin
By Tim Mulherin
For the past two months I’ve been interviewing a host of people in northwest lower Michigan for a book concerning the impact of the pandemic and climate change on the region, as well as the increasing pressure from tourism, and how economic and population growth can be optimally balanced with environmental conservation. I’ve spoken with a wide range of professionals including realtors, developers, politicians, public safety experts (e.g., representatives of the United States Coast Guard and Leelanau County Sheriff’s Office), retailers, members of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and leaders of local environmental organizations such as the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, Saving Birds Thru Habitat, the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, and FLOW.
One question I ask of every interviewee is, what do you love most about living and working in the region? Although there are unique variations in the responses, there is always one predictable central word: water.
The inland sea, Lake Michigan, has a profound effect on everyone who encounters it for the first time.
I first laid eyes on Grand Traverse Bay in 1986. I was living in Indianapolis, and a friend who encouraged me to enroll in college at the “advanced” age of 26 invited me to come Up North for the first time upon my graduation four years later. I’ll never forget my initial exposure to the bay. I was driving west on M-72 from Kalkaska. As I crested a hill while nearing Acme, the expanse of the bay suddenly appeared. I pulled my car over, got out, and took in its stunning beauty. As a flatlander living in central Indiana where the glaciers had worn the terrain nearly bowling alley-smooth, I was totally enchanted by Grand Traverse Bay and its surrounding hillsides. The inland sea, Lake Michigan, has a profound effect on everyone who encounters it for the first time. Soon after, many start thinking about how to relocate to the area, whether ASAP or eventually as part of the “Silver Tsunami.” It’s completely understandable—for better and for worse.
Last week, I interviewed several experts from FLOW, including senior policy advisor Dave Dempsey and FLOW’s founder and senior legal advisor Jim Olson. Both enlightened me about the many threats to the Great Lakes while commenting on the specter of climate change. My conversation with Jim was, frankly, sobering. He characterized climate change as “the predominant force on the planet right now in terms of human impact.” Jim went on to say, “We’re existentially facing the end of the planet and severe suffering by our children and grandchildren.”
One question I ask of every interviewee is, what do you love most about living and working in the region? Although there are unique variations in the responses, there is always one predictable central word: water.
Now, thanks to what I’m learning from these environmental champions, I’m finally paying full attention to climate change—which is undoubtedly the highest stakes issue of our time. Simultaneously, my appreciation for the Great Lakes and what they mean to all living things that rely upon them is rising exponentially. I may be 66 years old, but it’s never too late to have one’s consciousness raised and to become extremely protective of this freshwater treasure—something we play in and on, drink from, and largely take for granted—and to recruit more “water warriors” to the cause.
If you ever have any questions about how vital and fragile the Great Lakes are and how climate change is impacting the region, our friends at FLOW will give you a straight answer, one that’s as hard to hear as it is hopeful and inspiring.
I may be 66 years old, but it’s never too late to have one’s consciousness raised and to become extremely protective of this freshwater treasure—something we play in and on, drink from, and largely take for granted—and to recruit more “water warriors” to the cause.
Editor’s Note: The following isa media release issued by FLOW on November 30, 2021; please contact Executive Director Liz Kirkwood at (570) 872-4956 orLiz@FLOWforWater.orgor Legal Director Zach Welcker at (231) 620-7911 or Zach@FLOWforWater.org.
“The State of Michigan took a strategic step today in the race to prevent a catastrophic Line 5 oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac by concentrating its legal efforts in state, not federal, court,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. “The state’s legal fight and the citizen-led movement to protect the Great Lakes, jobs, and a way of life continue full speed ahead.”
In response to Judge Neff’s November 16, 2021 decision to assume federal jurisdiction over the state’s 2020 case to shut down Line 5, the state has chosen to voluntarily dismiss that case and rely instead on Attorney General Dana Nessel’s 2019 lawsuit against Line 5-owner Enbridge in state circuit court in Ingham County.
This procedural maneuver will shift consideration of the State of Michigan’s legal efforts to shut down Line 5 back to a state-court forum where the matter belongs. The State of Michigan has paramount sovereignty over the Great Lakes that cannot be severed.
While the timing of a decision on the merits is still uncertain, dropping the 2020 case will almost certainly expedite resolution of the State Michigan’s claims because it avoids protracted litigation in federal court, which would be necessary to guarantee the State’s right to appeal Judge Neff’s legally deficient remand decision in the 2020 case.
“It’s vitally important to recognize that the action by Governor Whitmer and Department of Natural Resources Director Daniel Eichinger in November 2020 to revoke and terminate Line 5’s 1953 easement remains valid,” said FLOW Legal Director Zach Welcker. “While Enbridge continues to trespass in state waters and on state bottomlands, the State of Michigan can now move forward on Attorney General Nessel’s case filed on behalf of the citizens of Michigan in 2019 to shutdown the dual pipelines in the Straits.”
Jim Olson, environmental attorney and senior legal advisor to FLOW (For Love of Water), the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City, reacts to a narrow ruling released today by an administrative law judge on Enbridge’s oil tunnel proposed for the Straits of Mackinac:
“Today’s ruling by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Dennis W. Mack ignores the declining public need for oil as the U.S. and world finally reckon with the climate emergency, and it is blind to the fact that Gov. Whitmer has ordered the permanent shutdown of the Line 5 pipeline that the tunnel would contain this May.
“The State of Michigan will never reach a just and lawful decision on the proposed oil tunnel by agreeing with Enbridge to ignore critical evidence and treat a proposed oil tunnel meant to last 99 years as simply a maintenance-and-replacement project. The tunnel is a Trojan Horse designed to push billions of gallons of oil through the world’s largest system of freshwater lakes in an era of water crises hastened by climate change.
“The Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) enacted in 1970 was created to compel agencies like the MPSC to evaluate the cumulative environmental impacts and to examine alternatives to proposed projects. In the case at hand, MEPA requires the MPSC to examine the environmental, health, and climatic risks of the proposed tunnel and Line 5 pipeline. The greenhouse gas emissions from Line 5’s oil and natural gas liquids, at more than 57 million metric tons a year, is greater than the annual yield from the combined operation on the nation’s three largest coal plants.
“The law does not keep the MPSC frozen in time such that they can ignore these paramount issues.
“The State of Michigan has a perpetual duty as trustees under the Public Trust Doctrine to prevent unacceptable harm to the Great Lakes and the public’s right to use them, which led to the Governor’s and DNR’s November 13 order and lawsuit to revoke and terminate the easement allowing Line 5 to occupy the Straits of Mackinac. The ALJ rejected the argument that the Governor’s notice and revocation of the 1953 easement is a basis to evaluate the environmental effects of Line 5 or the consumption of the oil transported on the system under MEPA.”
Background: See FLOW’s ongoing coverage of the Michigan Public Service Commission review of the Enbridge oil pipeline tunnel proposed for the Straits of Mackinac here:
History will mark 2021 as the year the United States finally got serious about combating climate change and protecting water security.
The Biden administration appears to fully comprehend the depth and gravity of current climate trends and is prepared to take action commensurate with the challenges we face. The Biden transition team has already developed detailed plans integrating consideration of climate impacts into the federal government’s core mission, programs, and policies.
The Biden Plan for A Clean Energy Revolution And Environmental Justice is a call to immediate action, using existing federal agency resources and tools to jumpstart efforts to accelerate deployment of clean energy technologies, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at their sources, and adopt agricultural and public land management practices that sequester carbon.
“Every dollar spent toward rebuilding our roads, bridges, buildings, the electric grid, and our water infrastructure will be used to prevent, reduce, and withstand a changing climate.
– Biden Climate Plan
The climate crisis is time critical.
As the global economy continues to pump billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the window of opportunity to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change is rapidly closing. Climate science tells us that the warming effects of GHGs persist in the atmosphere, and the cumulative loading of these pollutants will soon increase global temperatures more than 1.5 degrees Celsius — unless we take immediate action.
The last four years brought federal policies aimed at increasing the development and use of fossil fuels, exacerbating the crisis and squandering precious time. Decarbonizing the global economy is now an existential imperative.
“Precisely because we’ve waited so long to take any significant action, physics now demands we move much faster than we want to.”
– Bill McKibben, founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org
That is why the incoming Biden Administration’s climate plan is so important.
The Biden plan represents a radical departure from status quo policies that created the climate crisis. Key directives include:
Achieving a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050 with an enforceable 2025 interim goal.
Committing that every federal infrastructure investment should reduce climate pollution and requiring any federal permitting decision to consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
Banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters, demanding a worldwide ban on fossil fuel subsidies, eliminating international financing of dirty energy, and “naming and shaming global climate outlaws.”
Requiring public companies to disclose climate risks and the greenhouse gas emissions in their operations and supply chains.
Developing rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100% of new sales for light- and medium-duty vehicles will be electrified.
Designing a framework to limit greenhouse gas emissions related to land use, forests, and agriculture and promulgating new standards for the greening of manufacturing, mining, and tourism.
Protecting biodiversity, slowing extinction rates, and helping leverage natural climate solutions by conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030.
Implementing community-driven approaches to develop solutions for environmental injustices affecting communities of color, low-income, and indigenous communities.
Effectively attacking climate change entails eliminating the carbon contribution of the global energy system, reforming land and water management practices, and greatly enhancing the capacity of government to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It also requires putting science first and recognizing that the earth’s hydrosphere is one inextricably interconnected global system — a “commons” upon which we all depend that must be protected by the government as a public trust and managed using the best science available.
FLOW has long advocated broad application of the Public Trust Doctrine as a framework for recognizing that the atmosphere, land, and water is one dynamic, integrated natural system upon which the health and vitality of all life depends. FLOW’s efforts to shut down Line 5 are motivated not only by the need to protect the Great Lakes — the largest and most valuable freshwater system in the world — from a catastrophic pipeline failure, but also by the recognition that continued long-term investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is inconsistent with our responsibility to protect the planet.
FLOW’s approach to advancing policy to protect our Great Lakes has been ambitious and cutting-edge. We have advocated for broad application of the Public Trust Doctrine as a legally required fiduciary duty of government to protect the common interest in public trust resources for the benefit of all citizens.
FLOW has been steadfast in carrying out its mission, and today FLOW’s successes have measurably enhanced state, federal, and international governance to better protect the environment:
In response to FLOW’s advocacy, the International Joint Commission has embraced the Public Trust Doctrine as the management framework for protection of Great Lakes waters.
FLOW’s constant efforts to prevent commodification of water by private corporations have successfully pushed back on efforts to expand water extraction for private sale.
Most recently, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have moved to shut down Line 5, the 67-year-old oil pipeline that presents a clear and present danger to our environment and our regional economy. As advocated by FLOW, the Governor’s and Attorney General’s legal actions arebased upon the application of the Public Trust Doctrine.
FLOW commends the Biden Administration’s unprecedented efforts to address the climate crisis. We will continue to advocate for science-based, state-of-the-art policy, and we will continue to coordinate and collaborate with local, state, and federal agencies and commissions in implementing efficient, effective climate solutions.
FLOW on Nov. 6, 2020, filed an appeal with the Michigan Public Service Commission of the October 23 decision by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Dennis W. Mack granting in part Enbridge Energy Limited Partnership’s motion to exclude critical evidence from consideration by the MPSC in deciding whether to permit the siting of Enbridge’s proposed Line 5 oil pipeline tunnel through public trust bottomlands under the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.
FLOW’s appeal seeks to allow evidence that the proposed, roughly four mile-long oil pipeline tunnel under the Great Lakes would commit the citizens of Michigan for another 99 years to the unnecessary generation of more harmful greenhouse gases. According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, greenhouse gas emissions already have resulted in the impairment of Michigan’s public health and natural resources – effects that will get worse unless CO2 emissions are abated.
Nothing less than the authority of the MPSC to protect the people of Michigan, environment, climate, and public interest of the citizens of Michigan and the Great Lakes for years to come is at stake, according to arguments filed by FLOW and other intervenors and made orally at a September 30 hearing.
“Authorizing a billion-dollar fossil fuel infrastructure project is fundamentally at odds with what science tells us must be done to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW, a Great Lakes public trust law and policy center based in Traverse City. “Eliminating the determination of ‘public need’ when granting a Certificate of Necessity makes no sense.”
FLOW’s appeal also contests the ALJ ruling that the MPSC need not make a finding of “public need” to transport up to 8 billion gallons of oil a year for nearly a century in an era of falling demand for crude oil and an economy rapidly shifting to renewable energy. The pipeline tunnel proposed by Enbridge is inseparable from the business of transporting oil through existing Line 5, the Candian company’s 67-year old pipeline that runs from Superior, Wisconsin, through Michigan and on to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario.
Several market indicators suggest that investment in new pipeline infrastructure is highly questionable in light of clear trends indicating a precipitous drop in oil consumption in future years. Analysis released on August 9 by BNP Paribas, the world’s 8th-largest bank, reports “that the economics of oil for gasoline and diesel vehicles versus wind-and solar-powered EVs [electric vehicles] are now in relentless and irreversible decline, with far-reaching implications for both policymakers and the oil majors.”
FLOW is joined by several other intervening parties in the case in appealing to the three-member MPSC to overturn the ALJ ruling. Lawyers filed a joint appeal on behalf of the Michigan Environmental Council, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, and National Wildlife Federation, as well as a joint appeal on behalf of the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Michigan Climate Action Network. Bay Mills Indian Community also appealed. Attorney General Dana Nessel also sought to support and join in the appeals filed by the groups and tribes.
FLOW’s appeal requests that the MPSC:
Reverse the ALJ’s granting of Enbridge’s motion to exclude evidence of public need and likely environmental effects and alternatives related to the new tunnel and tunnel pipeline and the intended purpose of the tunnel project to engage in business and operations to transport crude oil as part of the tunnel project and the existing Line 5 in Michigan; and
Remand to the ALJ to take appropriate action to incorporate the excluded evidence into the discovery and evidentiary hearing that will be submitted as a full case to the MPSC for final decision and order.
“We’re talking about water, climate, and the plummeting demand for crude oil,” said Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and legal counsel. “The MPSC by law should fully consider and determine the effect on, and potential impairment to, the substantial risks, alternatives, costs, and damages, and the future of the State of Michigan under the public trust in the Great Lakes, environment, fishing, fishery habitat, and the communities, including tribal interests under long-standing treaties.”
“Enbridge’s attempted private takeover of the public’s bottomlands under the Straits of Mackinac for the tunnel project breaches the state’s duty to protect the public trust in the Great Lakes and is not good for the climate or Gov. Whitmer’s goals as the nation and world turn to clean energy for survival,” said Kirkwood.
Many groups, including FLOW and Oil & Water Don’t Mix, have articulated scientific and legal deep concerns about the Canadian pipeline company’s tunnel proposal and its lack of necessity, and risks to the Great Lakes, drinking water, the fishery in the Straits, Tribal rights, the Pure Michigan economy, the climate, and a way of life.
In more details, FLOW’s appeal asserts that:
The ALJ erroneously restricted the Broad Authority of the Commission under Act 16 by excluding review of the new or extended business and operations to transport crude oil through the new tunnel and pipeline.
The exclusion of evidence of “public need” under Act 16 is contrary to the law and deprives the parties the right to introduce evidence on questions of fact related to public need.
The State of Michigan has made new commitments to integrate climate change into government decision-making.
The duty to consider and/or determine the likely effects and alternatives under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) and its case law applies to the new tunnel and tunnel pipeline, and the intended purpose to extend the business and operations of Enbridge to the Straits and all of Line 5.
MEPA requires an evaluation of feasible and prudent alternatives, including a “no action” alternative.
Enbridge’s giant tunnel, at roughly 20-feet in diameter, would house a new Line 5 pipeline to continue for another 99 years carrying up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids a day through the public trust bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan connects to Lake Huron.
On Monday, October 19, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) will conclude its public comment period on pending state permits for the expected wetland and wastewater impacts, and alternatives to constructing and operating Enbridge’s proposed, roughly four mile-long oil tunnel under the Great Lakes. The proposed tunnel, at roughly 20-feet in diameter, would house a new Line 5 pipeline to continue for another 99 years carrying up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids a day through the public trust bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.
It’s important for the members of the public—including individuals, families, business owners, community leaders, and others—to submit comments. Many people and groups, including FLOW and Oil & Water Don’t Mix, already have expressed deep concerns about the Canadian pipeline company’s tunnel proposal and its lack of necessity, and risks to the Great Lakes, drinking water, the fishery in the Straits, Tribal rights, the Pure Michigan economy, the climate, and a way of life.
Below is guidance from FLOW on what to include in your written comments and how to submit them online by Monday’s deadline. EGLE expects to issue its final decision on the oil tunnel permits and for wastewater impacts in late November and impacts to wetlands and submerged lands in early December.
Points to Make in Public Comments by Oct. 19
FLOW is providing this content for you to draw from and supplement with your own information and perspective in your comment to EGLE on the proposed Line 5 tunnel permits:
Not authorized by the state — EGLE cannot properly proceed on administering the Enbridge permit applications unless and until the December 2018 Easement and tunnel lease have been authorized under sections 2 and 3 of the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and the Public Trust Doctrine.
Not good for the climate or Gov. Whitmer’s goals — EGLE must take into account the lifetime greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the proposed petroleum tunnel, particularly in light of Governor Whitmer’s Executive Directive 2020-10 setting a goal of economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050. Extending the life of Line 5 for the next 99 years with the tunnel project is fundamentally at odds with the reduction of greenhouse gases necessary to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
Not good for public health, safety, and welfare — EGLE is required to determine whether extending the life of an oil pipeline that will emit approximately tens of million tons of greenhouse gases annually for the next 99 years, under the state Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, “is consistent with the promotion of the public health, safety and welfare in light of the state’s paramount concern for the protection of its natural resources from pollution, impairment or destruction.”
Not a public need for the oil tunnel — EGLE must make a number of specific determinations, including whether the benefits of the project outweigh reasonably foreseeable detriments, the extent to which there is a public and private need for the project, and whether there are feasible and prudent alternatives to the tunnel project. Unless these determinations are clearly demonstrated by the applicant Enbridge, the permit is prohibited by the Michigan Environmental Protection Act and the Wetlands Protection Act.
How to Submit Your Comments to EGLE by Oct. 19
Be sure to submit your comments on Enbridge’s proposed Line 5 oil tunnel by the Monday, Oct. 19 deadline. The public can submit comments either by email to EGLE-Enbridge-Comments@Michigan.gov — referencing Application Number HNY-NHX4-FSR2Q — or via two EGLE web pages for commenting separately on each of the permits. Click on each link below and follow the instructions provided by the state:
EGLE public comment page for Part 303 wetland impacts and Part 325 Great Lakes submerged lands impacts.
EGLE public comment page for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) wastewater impacts.
How to Learn More about Line 5 and the Risky Oil Tunnel
To learn more about Enbridge Line 5 and the proposed oil tunnel, see these resources on FLOW’s website:
It Is a Time to Restore the Ethos of the Common Good of All
Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor
By Jim Olson
Like all of you, in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, the common ground we share—the ground we stand on—is shaking, sinking, shifting beneath our feet.
A Sorrow of Loss and Humanity
We experience or share others’ pain, suffering and loss; some close, others far, those thousands we don’t know—nurses, doctors, emergency medical technicians who have risked or even given their lives to help save another. Even with the open spaces of time mixed with work and things at home put off far too long, I can’t shake the sadness that has taken hold of me, a deep sorrow for our common humanity.
A Solace of Hope
Before firing up the laptop this morning, my wife Judy and I watched a great blue heron engulf the top of a tall spruce with its six-foot wingspan. Last evening, we picked a few twigs of pussy willow, tip-toed the riverbank to follow the spring steelhead run up the Platte River in northwest Michigan, and watched a brown trout torment the spawning pair for their eggs. The cycles of seasons, water, plants, animals stirring in the cedar swamp follow their preordained course to seek the common good. Maybe in this dark shadow of COVID-19 we, too, in our shared humanity will return to and follow the common ground that has been shaken.
But I’m also angry.
It took months—absolutely critical months—after the exponential explosion of the coronavirus for the CEO and his confidants on Pennsylvania Avenue to admit the seriousness of the coming crisis. Why are our federal and state governments, and why are we, ourselves so-ill prepared, without foresight and coordination for supplies that are needed to face the COVID-19 crisis? They’ve had fair warning from the SARS, MIRS, and Ebola emergencies. We witnessed the same lax approach when hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Maria hit us. This is not just in the United States. Last year, cyclones and heavy rains hit southeast Africa and Bangladesh when those in harm’s way could have been helped by a proactive priority to address climate change and their safety.
It took a year for Michigan and federal officials to respond when the residents of Flint were exposed to lead by a governor-appointed, politically directed emergency manager’s rush to shift the city’s water supply to the polluted Flint River.Since 2014, the City of Detroit has refused to stop water shutoffs of poor residents who have no ability to pay—the number approaching as many as 140,000 in 2020.The same is true in the City of Benton Harbor. There is no recognition of the rights of citizens to water and health.
It took a month for Detroit and Michigan to declare an emergency and halt water shutoffs and order the restoration of water service to the thousands of homes still shut off from water when they need it most—to wash hands and surfaces to avoid or mitigate exposure to the virus. And, it’s still not clear these residents can turn on their taps to wash their hands, drink water, and cook.
So, this has been endemic to government for years—free markets, deregulation, slashed taxes, downsized government, increased subsidies, strip-mined laws and lack of enforcement, and indifference to the rights and needs of citizens and the good of others:
The Trump administration has repealed Clean Air Act carbon limits to fuel coal power plants, waived environmental impact and alternative analysis in energy, pipeline, and infrastructure projects, and gutted the Clean Water Act by dropping the “waters of the U.S.” rule with the loss of small cold-water feeder streams and wetlands—regulations that are more necessary than ever because of flooding caused by climate change and unprecedented rainfall.
The Trump administration has also directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop recognizing solid scientific research and ignore scientists who would undermine the agency’s dismantling of environmental health and pollution laws.
The EPA, Ohio, and even the State of Michigan refuse to lay down the law and force cleanup by agricultural and concentrated farm operations that are flushing wastes and nutrients into rivers and Lake Erie. These pollutants have converted one-third of the lake into a toxic green cesspool that has closed beaches, destroyed lakeshore tourism, killed fish, shut down fishing and Toledo’s public water supply for 400,000 people.
States like Michigan have suspended enforcement of environmental standards that exceed the protection of federal standards. These state standards are adopted to address pollution and destruction of our public waters and to protect paramount public rights in our public water for drinking, health, sanitation, sustenance, fishing, navigation, bathing, and swimming. Strangely, if the federal government weakens and suspends federal laws and standards, will our own ability to protect health, water, and people correspondingly be weakened?
Wait, I’m furious.
Last week, the Trump administration leveraged the COVID-19 crisis to suspend federal enforcement of violations of environmental laws under the guise that industry needed help to keep their employees working. The oil and gas industry would put people back to work if they can pollute without fear of enforcement? This is absurd.The administration claimed the suspension was temporary, but the time frame is indefinite. If industry employees can suddenly be put back to work because of COVID-19, why were they were working before COVID-19 to enforce federal health and environmental laws?
The devil’s in the details, the saying goes. In this case, the devil is the infuriating motivation behind the suspension: the EPA cited the release of the suspension of environmental laws was urgent and that the polluting industries couldn’t meet the deadlines for comments in time for the needed action; at the same time, the EPA refused to let public interest groups extend deadlines, saying comments could be timely met despite the coronavirus! Then a federal district court in Washington, D.C., ruled that the federal permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline (the “Standing Rock” case ) through South Dakota was invalid because the company and federal agencies violated the impact statement requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act—the agencies had ignored serious concerns related to risks and worst-case scenarios from a failure and oil spills. Now the pipeline and others can move forward without having to comply with federal laws and regulations—like those that require them to monitor, investigate, and prevent spills from oil and gas pipeline operations (Line 5, in Michigan, anyone?). So, now it’s up to the states and their water, environmental, and health laws. Oh, but what if those laws in Michigan can’t be more stringent than these weaker federal standards?
Hope for Subduing COVID-19 and Return to the Common Good
Let’s get angry and positive at the same time. It’s not enough to blame and become outraged, or furious. How do we turn this loss and mourning into the days of healing, and then bring about constructive change in the hope there is a light overcoming the darkness?
We’ve known for decades that greenhouse gases have warmed the atmosphere, perhaps better described as hydrosphere, and that this has warmed the earth, whipsawed weather and water, and destabilized our earth’s inextricably related support systems. In turn, this has heaped stress and increased the vulnerability of plants, animals, and the water cycle that supports them. COVID-19 is the next notch in a noose that has a stranglehold on our lives, communities, air, water, habitat, plants and animals—an awareness and hope that we might all put humanity and the common good of health, education, environment, and basic services such as drinking water, first, and collectively do something about it. We can no longer sit by and do nothing, while the global corporate dominance of economics, a culture of weak government, and the “great god” of free markets enslave us and our planet. My hope is that we don’t chalk up COVID-19 as an isolated tragedy waiting to happen.
But we can’t stop there and blame it all on climate change either. Before the recent devastation from droughts, fires, massive storms and precipitation, and flooding, we’ve had years of deregulation and increasing toxic pollution, plastic islands and invisible fibers in our oceans and water, loss of forests, erosion, sedimentation, and deaths caused by a society that has turned its back on the ethos and laws once passed for the common good. While the nation suffers through this time of COVID-19, we must not let leaders and their slash-and-burn politics gut the very laws that protect water, air, health, and environment and expose us to even greater risks of harm on top of what we are all facing.
The time has come to recognize we all live in an interdependent, interconnected world. We are on the same island coursing around the sun, we are a humanity that will survive only if we put the common good of all for generations to come, first, and utilitarian and material endeavors and wants, second.
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):