Tag: Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy

Giving Thanks for the Cleanup Folks

Photo: Kim Ethridge at the former Oil Site petroleum storage and distributor in Royal Oak removing contamination in soil and groundwater, November 19, 2020. Photo courtesy of EGLE

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor


By Dave Dempsey

A private company that tidies up after domestic disasters (home fires, floods and more) has been all over television recently with ads that boast their work is so good that when they’re done, the property will look “like it never even happened.”

In Michigan’s state government there are talented professionals who would like to be able to say the same about the messes they try to clean upthe estimated 24,000 known contamination sites that degrade the state’s groundwater, soils, rivers, and lakes and even threaten people in their own homes. Working in what’s called the “Remediation and Redevelopment Division” of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), they work to pinpoint contamination sources, calculate health and environmental risks, work with (or in conflict with) polluters to resolve issues, and oversee the difficult work of removing toxins from the environment.

But unlike the company buying all those TV ads, the Remediation and Redevelopment Division (RRD) folks often must rely on taxpayer dollars to get the job done. There are many more contaminated sites than there is public funding to clean them up. And there are state laws and rules that sometimes require the cleanup folks to leave the contamination where it is, and simply prevent people from coming in contact with it through drinking water or other physical exposure.

This is undoubtedly frustrating for many of them, yet they persist, doing sometimes thankless work that still results in a tangibly cleaner environment.

RRD’s vision statement is the result of 26-year-old state policies that abandon the goal of full cleanup in favor of the notion that toxins can remain in place as long as people do not come in contact with them.

I had the opportunity to speak to many of those employees via a virtual in-service training on August 16. While I gave them some of the history that led to the need for their program, I also learned a few things about the challenges they face.

RRD’s vision statement is: “Create a future where Michigan’s contaminated properties are reliably managed, revitalized, and the environment is protected.” While laudable, it also illuminates one of the program’s constraints: instead of envisioning that contaminated properties are cleaned up, it talks of making sure they are “reliably managed.” In part, that is a reflection of limited public dollars to deal with the overwhelming number of sites. But it is also the result of 26-year-old state policies that abandon the goal of full cleanup in favor of the notion that toxins can remain in place as long as people do not come in contact with them.

In spite of that policy, RRD employees make critical contributions to Michigan’s economy as well as public health. They oversee the removal or control of contaminants on sites that can sometimes be returned to vibrant use, such as waterfronts in Detroit and Traverse City. And in thousands of places, they have kept people from drinking or otherwise physically contacting hazardous chemicals.

We’ve come a long way as a state since the earliest contamination occurred at the close of the 19th century—a way that is both good and bad. Industrial carelessness with chemicals like TCE, DDT, PCBs, and many more has lessened, due to both better stewardship and strict laws. And the state cleanup program that began more than 40 years ago and is now headed by RRD has addressed thousands of sites.

“Our mission has an importance that rises above the usual frantic business of society. It has an almost spiritual nature to it. Who else will respond to the trauma inflicted upon earth and its inhabitants?”

But there are still open sores on the land, and beneath it. When groundwater is tainted, it often puts those who rely on it at risk, and 45% of Michigan’s population gets its drinking water from private or public wells. When pollutants beneath residential or commercial structures vaporize, they can pose acute health risks to those who live or work there. Protecting Michigan’s people and environment from these threats is a vital public service.

To prepare for my presentation, I asked Andy Hogarth, the retired head of RRD, to articulate his version of the program’s purpose. He offered powerful words: “Our mission has an importance that rises above the usual frantic business of society. It has an almost spiritual nature to it. Who else will respond to the trauma inflicted upon earth and its inhabitants?”

Andy’s words should remind us that the cleanup folks in RRD, and indeed most of the staff of EGLE, are not stereotypical bureaucrats. They care about remedying the mistakes of the past, and leaving us all with a better future. They do so under enormous constraints of political pressure, restrictive state law and policy, limited funding, and ever-evolving science. All the people of Michigan owe them thanks.

Michigan Moves to Acknowledge and Address Environmental Injustice

By Dave Dempsey    

Michigan, the state that became notorious for one of the worst episodes of environmental injustice in American history, this week staked a claim to being a leader in ensuring environmental justice.

The lead poisoning of thousands of children—and the lead exposure of 99,000 residents of Flint from tainted drinking water in 2014 and 2015—put Michigan on the map in an unwanted way. Preventing another such disaster and promoting equal treatment of all citizens was the goal of a state-sponsored environmental justice conference Tuesday through today. The conference’s theme is “Rebuilding Trust, Reimagining Justice, and Removing Barriers.”

The conference comes at a time when the Biden Administration, under EPA Administrator Michael Regan, is making environmental justice a priority. I feel like environmental justice is having a moment,” said Regina Strong, appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer as the first state environmental justice advocate. Administrator Regan also was one of the speakers at the virtual conference, along with Gov. Whitmer.

“At EPA, it’s our obligation to empower the people who have been left out of the conversation for far too long,” Regan told the conference. “Our legacy will be based on compassion, understanding, and most importantly action, and our legacy will be sealed by partnerships with states like Michigan.”

The conference featured presentations and panels on environmental justice screening and mapping, meaningful engagement in the air pollution permit process, water and public health equity, and tribal perspectives.

In Flint, lead was released into the city drinking water supply when the source was switched from the southeast Michigan Great Lakes Water Authority system to the more corrosive Flint River in order to save money. This, in turn, corroded lead from the pipes, exposing city residents and resulting in elevated blood levels in hundreds of children. State officials at first denied the problem and waited more than a year to restore the city’s drinking water source to the Authority. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission said the failure of government to protect the city’s residents was an example of systemic racism.

One of Pres. Biden’s proposed infrastructure initiatives is a direct response to the Flint disaster—$45 billion to replace lead service lines that carry drinking water to residences nationwide. This would affect an estimated 6 to 10 million homes, and 400,000 schools and child care facilities.

Multiple environmental justice issues affect Michiganders. Typically, neighborhoods with a high percentage of minority and/or low-income residents are disproportionately exposed to an array of environmental pollutants. Michigan is no exception. Dealing with these issues requires empowering people, said Sylvia Orduño, a member of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice.  “How do you get accountability? … We need to make sure impacted residents are getting the information they need to acquire the resources to make those changes,” Orduño said.

The conference also addressed tribal perspectives on required consultation between federal and state governments and tribes. Bryan Newland, former tribal President of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan and now Principal Assistant Deputy Secretary for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of Interior said, “One of the things that we do at the [Department of Interior] in the federal government in tribal consultation is that our policies require that it be meaningful engagement … That can be replicated with stakeholders and affected communities on any issue.” 

Whitmer told the conference, “It’s important that Michiganders have partners in state government fighting for their health. We know that we have to invest in communities and marginalized populations who have been burdened by [environmental injustice].”

In creating the Office of Environmental Justice Advocate and an interagency response team, Gov. Whitmer said her goal was to make certain that “all Michigan residents benefit from the same protections from environmental hazards,” and that the state should become a national leader in achieving environmental justice.

The Office of Environmental Justice Advocate in the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) receives and investigates complaints and concerns related to environmental justice. The office establishes and implements processes and reporting of environmental justice complaints and assists with resolution of complaints.  The office is also responsible for preparing regular reports on the complaints received, resolution, and recommendations. The office partners with EGLE divisions to coordinate hearings and public meetings aimed to facilitate interactions with environmental justice communities.

State of Michigan Dodges Decision, Nestlé Dodges the Rule of Law

In a baffling decision announced November 20, the director of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) dismissed a contested case brought by citizens challenging the state permit issued to Nestlé Waters North America in 2018 for increased water withdrawals from springs north of Evart, in Osceola County’s Osceola Township.

The announcement also, in effect, dismissed the more than 80,000 comments EGLE received opposing the permit (only 75 comments were in favor), the testimony of hundreds of citizens opposing the permit at a public hearing in 2017, and the thousands of hours of effort put into the permit challenge by Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC), the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and their allies.

The EGLE decision, which outraged MCWC and the Grand Traverse Band, was perplexing because it came at the end of a permit process conducted by the agency and its predecessor, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). EGLE itself legitimized the two-year public hearing and comment and administrative decision process on the permit, only to say at the end of the process that it was inconsistent with, and not required by, the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Instead, said EGLE Director Liesl Clark, MCWC and the Grand Traverse Band should have gone directly to court and pursued legal action. 

FLOW supported the citizen parties in the administrative contested case proceeding on the permit, stressing that EGLE had erred in granting Nestlé the permit. The appeal hinged largely on EGLE’s overly expansive interpretation of the law that would lead to significant impacts to Michigan’s cold headwater creeks and wetlands. That statute says an applicant can receive a permit only if it provides real-world impacts analysis of effects, not just a model, for large-volume withdrawals from headwater creeks and wetlands for export as bottled water. Nestlé relied on a model, and EGLE acquiesced. FLOW also submitted formal comments to the State of Michigan finding deep and fundamental deficiencies in a state-approved groundwater monitoring plan fashioned by Nestlé.

Beginning the permit challenge in the courts, rather than through an administratively contested case, would turn the process into even more of a David vs. Goliath conflict. MCWC did just that in a 2003 court case at great cost and sacrifice and ultimately won, reducing Nestlé’s permitted pumping by more than half. Costs to a grassroots environment group for legal action, however, are prohibitive, a reality to which EGLE was unfortunately indifferent. Nonetheless, the opposition continues to discuss the way forward.

FLOW & Straits-Area Citizens Groups Call on State of Michigan to Deny Permits for ‘Line 5’ Oil Pipeline Tunnel in Straits of Mackinac

Citing inadequate legal authorization, an incomplete application, and lack of a comprehensive state review, FLOW and two Straits-area citizen groups called today in formal comments on the State of Michigan to deny pending permits sought by Enbridge to construct and operate a roughly four mile-long tunnel under the Great Lakes. 

The Canadian corporation’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.

The comments by FLOW, the Straits of Mackinac Alliance (SMA), and the Straits Area Concerned Citizens for Peace, Justice, and the Environment (SACCPJE) came at today’s deadline in legal and technical comments directed to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The groups’ comments identify critical deficiencies in the project’s construction permit application filed in April, its legal authorization, and the review by state environmental agencies of expected impacts to wetlands, bottomlands, and surface water, including from the daily discharge of millions of gallons of wastewater during construction.

“Enbridge’s attempted private takeover of the public’s bottomlands under the Straits of Mackinac for the tunnel project is not authorized by the state, not good for the climate or Gov. Whitmer’s goals, not good for public health, safety, and welfare, and not consistent with public need as the nation and world turn to clean energy for survival,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW, a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. 

“We share the public’s deep concerns about the Canadian pipeline company’s tunnel proposal and its lack of necessity, and risks it would pose to the Great Lakes, drinking water, the fishery in the Straits, Tribal rights, the Pure Michigan economy, the climate, and a way of life,” said Kirkwood. “The biggest consequence right now of this proposed project is that it distracts the government from its duty to shut down the current Line 5 oil pipelines that pose a clear-and-present danger to the Great Lakes.”

To date, more than 2,600 members of the public—including individuals, families, business owners, community leaders, organizational leaders, and others—have filed comments with EGLE urging the agency to reject Enbridge’s proposed tunnel permits. 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.

The comments Enbridge’s proposed oil pipeline tunnel submitted today by FLOW, SMA, and SACCPJE determined that EGLE:

  1. Cannot properly proceed on administering the Enbridge permit applications unless and until the December 2018 easement and tunnel lease have been authorized under the Public Trust Doctrine (PTD) and Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA);  
  2. Must undertake an analysis of the lifetime greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the proposed 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.
  3. Is required to measure the benefits of the proposed tunnel against its reasonably foreseeable detriments, under Part 303 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), which includes determining the:
    1. Public and private need for the project; and 
    2. Availability of feasible and prudent alternative locations and methods to accomplish the expected benefits from the activity; and
  4. Is required to comprehensively and independently consider and determine whether the tunnel project is consistent with protection of Michigan’s natural resources under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). The state must 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 NREPA, “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.”

EGLE expects to issue its final decision on the oil pipeline tunnel permits and for wastewater impacts in late November and impacts to wetlands and submerged lands in early December. While Enbridge takes an estimated 5-10 years to study, seek permits, and build an oil tunnel, the 67-year-old Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits would continue to decay and endanger the Great Lakes, jobs, and the drinking water supply for half of Michiganders. 

“The unique characteristics of the Straits of Mackinac make the area incredibly susceptible to disruption and destruction if EGLE approves the permits for Enbridge’s proposed tunnel,” said Patty Peek, Chair of the Straits of Mackinac Alliance. “The surrounding wetlands, shorebirds, waterfowl, and aquatic species will be in jeopardy from the millions of gallons of wastewater to be discharged daily into the surface waters of the Great Lakes. Local drinking water wells may be polluted and/or drilling operations may imperil the aquifer. Missing information and a lack of specificity on applications cannot be acceptable. The risk to our precious waters is too great to allow this tunnel project to move forward.”

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Gov. Whitmer’s Michigan Carbon-Neutral Plan a Step Forward, But Bigger Steps Needed Now

A new climate action plan released by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is attracting both praise and calls for faster action from environmental organizations.

Announced September 23, the Governor’s plan calls for a carbon-neutral Michigan economy by the year 2050. That makes Michigan the ninth state to commit to a carbon-neutral economy.

“The science on this issue is clear,” Whitmer said. “Climate change is already affecting our state. Extreme weather has led to some of the wettest years in our state’s history, rising lake levels that erode our shorelines, and immense damage to public, private, and agricultural infrastructure. Rising temperatures and air quality changes worsen health problems and heighten COVID-19 co-morbidities. We cannot afford to wait to take action.”

But the urgency expressed by Whitmer is not fully embraced by her plan, which aims for carbon neutrality three decades from today, advocates say.

Jamesa Johnson-Greer, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition’s climate justice director, called the timeline “conservative” and noted that Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, the state’s two largest utilities, have already committed to carbon neutrality by 2040 and 2050, respectively.

“We’re at a point in the crisis where we know we have the next 10 years to act to stave off the greatest impacts of the climate crisis … so we need to act now.”

According to her executive order, Whitmer’s plan also calls for:

  • An interim goal of a 28-percent reduction below 1990 levels in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
  • An Energy Transition Impact Project to assist communities in maintaining critical services and ensuring high quality employment for workers while moving toward a more sustainable future when faced with the closure of energy facilities.
  • A new Council on Climate Solutions to recommend opportunities for emissions-reduction strategies while focusing on targeted solutions for communities disproportionately being affected by the climate crisis. The Council and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) will work with EGLE’s Office of Environmental Justice Public Advocate to ensure fairness for and representation from underserved communities.

“We applaud Governor Whitmer’s commitment to a carbon-neutral economy by 2050,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. “By setting this urgently needed goal, Michiganders can tap into their innovative know-how to protect this peninsula we call home. The health of these waters hangs in the balance and depends on our affirmative commitment to addressing the climate crisis head-on.”

Despite limitations, the plan is a big step forward for a state government that failed to take significant action on the climate crisis under the previous governor, said Kate Madigan, director of the Michigan Climate Action Network.

“When we started the climate network five years ago,” Madigan said, “few leaders in our state were even talking about climate change and the rapid and equitable transition off fossil fuels needed to avoid worsening impacts. This silence and inaction were the results of the well-funded campaigns by the fossil fuel industry to create doubt and pressure elected officials to deny the climate crisis. Sadly, those campaigns delayed action for far too long. The action by Governor Whitmer shows that things have changed.”