Roughly 500 million straws are used and disposed of in the United States every day. Even though you might want to think that the majority of those straws end up in recycling facilities, the reality is that they do not. These tiny unnecessary tubes end up in landfills, city streets, beaches, oceans, and even the Great Lakes. Plastic straws contribute to 22 million pounds of plastic discarded into the water of the Great Lakes each year, which continually degrades the ecosystem health and environmental quality of the Great Lakes and its shoreline.
Recently, there has been a strong push to ban plastic straws and utensils across the globe. In fact, on July 1st, Seattle will become the first major U.S. city to ban food service businesses from using plastic food items such as to-go containers, cups, straws, and utensils.Smaller cities such as Malibu, CA and Miami Beach, FL have also introduced similar bans on plastic straws; while the state of California and other major cities like Portland, OR and New York City are also working towards passing single use plastic bans. 
Not only are cities and citizen groups demanding alternatives to plastics, but the food industry is also beginning to facilitate this must needed change. Fast food giant, McDonald’s, is already testing plastic straw alternatives across the U.S. and has set a plan to phase out all plastic straws in the U.K. and Ireland. Additionally, Chicago’s largest restaurant group has also recently stopped using plastic straws in over 100 restaurants.  These incremental changes will hopefully inspire more of the food industry to shift away from single use plastics and lower the industry wide impact to the environment.
This continued progress of banning single use plastics must be commended. However, these are just the beginning steps of a long journey ahead. We must continue to push for alternatives to single use plastics and pressure our own communities to follow Seattle’s bold commitment to the environment. In addition, we all must make the personal commitment to stop using single-use plastics. We must say that “this is the last straw,” and do our part in stopping the flow of plastic pollutants into our environment.
It’s not often that more than 200 people collaborate to create a work of art – but the experience of Northport suggests that more communities should try.
Last September, the Village of Northport dedicated a 32” high, 109’ long Marina Mural, Bay Presents (as in “gifts”), which is quickly becoming a local icon. Michigan officials are recognizing it as a Michigan Shoreline Public Art Model.
The Village of Northport commissioned Kat Dakota, an artist and designer from Suttons Bay, to create the mural. Her proposal quickly won support from the Northport Village Council, Northport Marina Committee, the Northport Arts Association, community residents and business leaders. Kat’s ribbons of color depicting water scenes provided the perfect fit. It also demonstrated how artists play critical roles in community design and problem solving.
The “blank wall” the mural occupies resulted from new marina construction. Some saw it as a problem. The community’s Public Art Committee saw it as an opportunity, and Kat saw it as an inviting challenge.
Kat’s question: how do you create high quality public art that creates community ownership, is economically feasible, sustainable and executable within a short period of time with unpredictable Michigan weather? Her answer – mill the outline of her artwork into removable panels that people paint indoors. The grooves served as perfect guides, maintaining the design’s professional presentation.
Following the dedication, people took selfies in front of areas they painted. Many described the experience as a privilege and one they will never forget. Kat’s leadership and contagious enthusiasm energized participant confidence and comradery. The event attracted residents and tourists of all ages and abilities. Children, teens, adults and those into their 80s worked side-by-side, sharing techniques and making new friends.
The mural is bold, colorful and refreshing. It expresses familiarity and comfort – yet is new.
Artist and Designer Kat Dakota by the Northport Mural Plaque
Kat’s artwork resides at the Sleeping Bear Gallery in Empire and Shoreline Arts Gallery in Suttons Bay. Her dream – take her marketing ideas and creative designs to more communities where officials, business owners, residents and artists join forces in creating visual art that promotes and proves the power of cross-generational collaboration, enhances surroundings and quality of life.
The Northport Village Council enthusiastically approved the mural. Grants from the Leelanau Township Community Foundation and The Village of Northport’s Marina Fund funded the mural. Northport residents and the Northport Arts Association provided support. Kat Dakota presented the ingenious approach and created the design. The Northport residents and visitors painted the mural. Result? The “Bay Presents” mural enhanced village identity building economic value and community pride. Good job, Northport.
Michigan officials have been busy this spring — busy handing out permits to take or destroy Michigan’s water and natural resources in violation of clear constitutional and legal mandates: A mandatory duty to protect the public’s paramount interest in our air, water, and natural resources; a duty to prevent impairment of our water, wetlands, natural resources; a public trust duty to protect our water from loss, diminishment or harm; and a duty to protect the paramount concern for public health.
This is nothing new from our federal government these days, with President Trump and EPA head Scott Pruitt not only gifting permits, but outright attacking Clean Air Act rules that protect our health and seek to control greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, and repealing well-designed rules that protect the waters of the United States from pollution and loss. But are Michigan’s officials–its governor, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, its attorney general—doing something similar?
Our officials in Michigan may not be as brash and openly hostile towards health, water, air, and the environment as our federal officials, but their record of indifference is just as bad if not worse, and the recent permit to Nestlé to divert 400 gallons a minute or 576,000 gallons a day from the headwaters of two pristine creeks is “People’s Exhibit One.” This is why it was imperative that Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians filed contested-case petitions against the DEQ’s approval of the most recent Nestlé permit. Their petitions are spot on. Our leaders have gone from indifference to deliberate damage. Unlike federal leaders, Michigan officials don’t come right out and admit they’re anti-water or environment. They do their damage by bending and twisting the law to justify a permit, and telling the public through well-crafted media releases that they have studied the matter more extensively than ever and followed the rule of law. If citizens and organizations like MCWC and the Grand Traverse Band (or Save Mackinac Alliance, who recently filed a petition against more band-aid supports of a failed Line 5 design in the Straits) didn’t take on our officials, we’d never know what really happened, and everyone would blithely slide into summer as if everything was pure as ever. Well, it’s not.
In the last few months, Michigan officials have managed to do all of the following:
Issue a permit to Nestlé to divert 400 gallons a minute from the headwaters of Twin and Chippewa Creeks by interpreting or relaxing the law to help Nestlé get the permit;
Issue another permit to Enbridge for 22 more anchors to support a failing pipeline design in the Straits of Mackinac, now totaling 150 anchors and suspending a pipeline built to lay in the lakebed 2 to 4 feet in the water column, so the line is more vulnerable to powerful currents and ship anchors than ever;
Approve a permit to convert a small state fish hatchery into a large commercial fish farm that diverts and discharges untreated water from the fabled AuSable River;
Issue a permit for 11 groundwater wells to remove 1,350 gallons a minute or about 2 million gallons of water a day, and inject it more than a mile down in the earth to mine potash, and leave it there;
Issue a permit for a 700-foot deep, 83-acre open pit gold mine in wetlands along the Menominee River near Iron Mountain;
Sign or support an agreement with Enbridge to build a new heavy tar sands tunnel 5 years from now to replace Line 5 while ignoring the legal limitation that the Great Lakes are off limits for crude oil pipelines under the lakebed just like oil and gas development, and ignoring the fact that there are obvious alternatives like adjusting in a relatively short term the capacity in the overall crude oil system that runs into Michigan, Canada, and elsewhere.
Does the DEQ or State ever deny a permit anymore? Do they ever take legal action to protect rather than defend these permits? Almost never. It’s always up to citizens and organizations like MCWC, the tribes, and citizens. It shouldn’t be this way, but with the deliberate anti-water, environment and health track record of the State, it’s reality. MCWC’s case to contest the Nestlé 400 gallons per minute (“gpm”) permit is a good example.
Last week, Governor Snyder tried to brush off a television reporter’s question about the Nestlé permit, offhandedly saying he thought the state “followed the law,” and that any “other objections like hundreds of millions of dollars to Nestle without paying a dime for the water were policy matters.” When the DEQ issued the permit, Director Heidi Grether also stated that the DEQ “followed the law,” and that the department’s review was the “most extensive in history.” That’s how it works these days, permits are issued, our state leaders hide behind a façade called the “rule of law,” “comprehensive review,” or “the most extensive review in history.” Ironically, citizens and organizations have placed the law before the Governor, Attorney General Schuette, and Director Grether on Line 5 and Nestle so these permit applications were under the “rule of law,” and these officials have done everything they can do to obstruct the rule of law. Governor Snyder skirted the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and other laws with his private deal with Enbridge to rebuild Line 5. Director Grether refused clear legal standards in approving the Nestle permit. And Attorney General Schuette’s office has been behind these maneuvers at every turn.
So, is this true, or are our leaders beguiling us into thinking they’re doing their job? MCWC’s petition for contested case appears to answer the question. Here’s what MCWC’s petition shows:
The DEQ’s permit on its face postponed the very factual determination required by the Safe Drinking Act and the Water Withdrawal Act before a permit can be approved: Does the existing hydrological data, including actual calculated effects on flows and levels before and after pumping required before a permit can be issued, show adverse impacts or impairment to public or private common law principles? The DEQ issued the permit without the existing data and conditions, relying on Nestle’s self-serving computer model, and postponed the required evaluation and finding to an after-the fact- determination.
Both the Safe Drinking Water Act and Water Withdrawal Act have special sections for bottled water withdrawals that require the applicant to submit and the DEQ to evaluate the existing hydrologic, hydrogeological (soils and water), and environmental conditions. Unfortunately, all Nestlé submitted was a computer model that calibrated its own parameters to reach the conclusion that the pumping would cause no adverse impacts, and several years of intermittent measurements of flows and levels without reference to actual drops in flows or levels of the creeks and wetlands before and during pumping. The required measurements and data required to evaluate existing conditions were established by penetrating and extensive analysis of flows and levels and the effects during pumping on creeks, wetlands, and nearby lakes in the MCWC v Nestlé case in Mecosta County over a DEQ permit to pump 400 gpm. The appellate courts found unreasonable harm when the actual existing data was used to calculate the effects and adverse impacts from pumping. When it did so, the courts determined that 400 gpm from headwaters of the creek and two lakes was unlawful, that it would cause substantial harm. Nestlé and DEQ know this, yet the agency issued the permit in this case without requiring the information on existing conditions required by the law.
The DEQ compounded the error by limiting its after-the fact evaluation to the additional 150 gallons per minute, not the whole 400 gpm. In effect, the DEQ implicitly authorized the first 250 gpm, rubber-stamping Nestle’s 2009 Safe Drinking Water approval for the first 150 gpm, and Nestle’s 2015 registration and Safe Drinking Water approval for an additional 100 gpm. Section 17 of the Safe Drinking Water Act requires a specific permit and determinations for any withdrawal for bottled water that exceeds 200,000 gallons per day. While Nestlé had received a well permit to pump 150 gpm or 216,000 gallons a day in 2001, our officials turned their back on Section 17 of the Safe Drinking Water Act when Nestlé asked for final approval in 2009. When the additional 100 gpm was registered in 2015, bringing the total 250 gpm or 276,000 gallons a day, our officials turned their back again. The DEQ’s recent 2018 permit for 400 gallons a minute allowed Nestlé to avoid obtaining the permits for the 2009 and 2015 expansions required by Section 17 of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
So there you have it: strike three, you’re out. Our state officials didn’t follow the law, and they didn’t study the legally required existing data and information– extensively studying the wrong data is meaningless. So, the answer is, our officials beguile their constituents and citizens into thinking they are “following the law” and “extensively evaluating” the information to fulfill their duty to protect the water, natural resources, public trust and health, when in fact they deliberately shaved and relaxed the legal standards in favor of Nestlé so the officials could approve the permit they were going to issue in the first place.
The die is cast. The permit is reviewed, the permit is issued, the news release sugar coats it, and the water, environment, and people’s quality of life or health are damaged or put at serious risk. In a way, this seems worse than the federal government’s blatant attack on water, environment, climate, or health. Why? Because it’s done behind closed doors with calculated manipulation of the law to achieve a deliberate result: Issue the permit even if it is likely to cause harm. At least President Trump and EPA head Pruitt acknowledge what our leaders are too afraid to admit: “We are anti-environment, anti-water, anti-health, and pro-corporation and exploitation no matter what the cost, and we intend to bend, dismantle, and repeal these laws if necessary to get our way.” Oh, really, that’s not happening here in Michigan, is it? Our leaders deliberately follow their own law, then issue the permit.
Jim Olson, President and Founder
Thank you MCWC, Grand Traverse Band, and all of those people and organizations in Michigan who take our leaders to task for violating their constitutional and public trust duties to protect the air, water, quality of life for all of us. They deserve our whole-hearted support. This is real citizenship and democracy in action. This is why contested cases and lawsuits are necessary and good for Michigan.
These legal duties on our leaders are mandated in the order stated: Michigan Constitution, Art. 4, Sec. 52; Michigan Environmental Protection Act and Supreme Court decisions, notably Ray v Mason Co Drain Comm’r, 393 Mich 294; 224 NW2d 883 (1975) and State Hwy Comm’n v Vanderkloot, 392 Mich 159; 220 NW2d 416 (1974); the common law public trust doctrine; and Michigan Constitution, Art. 4, Sec. 51.
For almost eight years, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality has sided with resource exploitation over resource protection. MDEQ’s recent decisions to grant Nestle a 60% increase in the volume of water it can extract from springs near Evart for bottling and sale, and to authorize Enbridge Energy to bypass full environmental alternatives review and install more support anchors on its dangerous Line 5 pipelines are just the latest examples.
It wasn’t always so — and we can do better again.
Michigan’s conservation and environmental protection agencies have been recognized as national leaders in two eras. From 1921 to 1970, the Department of Conservation oversaw the reforestation and acquisition of 9 million acres of forestland, built a robust park system, and vaulted recreational fishing and hunting to national prominence, particularly in deer and salmon management.
From the late 1960s to the 1980s, the Department of Natural Resources attracted national praise for a number of bold actions. DNR was a major force in making Michigan the first state to cancel most uses of DDT, three years before the federal government. DNR championed reduction of phosphorus, which led to the recovery of Lake Erie. The state adopted tough limits for sulfur content in coal burned by power plants in Michigan, attacking acid rain and smog before nearby states. With DNR support, the Legislature and governor enacted laws to control soil erosion, protect inland lakes and streams, protect sand dunes, protect wetlands, protect Great Lakes shorelands and bottomlands, improve management of solid and hazardous waste, clean up toxic waste sites and ban oil drilling in the Great Lakes.
In both eras, a key feature was the separation of the Department of Conservation/Natural Resources from raw partisan politics. As was true in many Midwestern states, lawmakers in the 1920s created a citizen commission, the 7-member Conservation Commission, appointed by the governor, to oversee the agency. The Commission chose its own chairperson and was generally free to put in place policies that would pay off in a generation without suffering direct political backlash.
The Commission system was born in part out of a memory of how politicians of the mid- to-late 1800s catered to the lumber barons, market (not sport) hunters and other commercial interests who laid waste to natural resources and abandoned the state, leaving behind ruin for the people of Michigan to clean up. A Commission insulated from the pressures of politics and lobbyists, it was felt, would be able to put in place policies with long-term public benefits rather than immediate rewards to politicians. This enabled foresters to take a long view of 40 to 50 years for replanting the north country.
The tradition continued in the 1960s and 1970s, when what was now the Natural Resources Commission generally provided support for staff to do what it considered best. The DNR also contained air and water commissions that met in public, voted on rules and permits, and heard out the concerns of citizens. The DNR Director from 1975 to 1983, Howard Tanner, encouraged staff to “err on the side of the resource” when in doubt.
Michigan has not been regarded as a leader on the environment since Governor John Engler in 1995 split the DNR in two, abolished most citizen commissions and gave the new DEQ a “hands-off” mandate. The DEQ has never had a commission and the DNR’s Natural Resources Commission performs mostly ministerial functions, rarely delving into major policy issues, instead setting fish and game rules and seasons. Leaders of both agencies are appointed not because of excellence in environmental and natural resource fields, but because of fealty to the governor.
How might things be different if a DEQ Director sensitive to public concerns had acted swiftly when advised about alarming news in Flint – or if citizens from Flint had been able to speak in public before a citizen commission demanding that the state investigate?
The current DEQ mission statement does not use the word “protect”:
“The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality promotes wise management of Michigan’s air, land, and water resources to support a sustainable environment, healthy communities, and vibrant economy.”
The name of the agency also lacks the word “protect.” Perhaps it needs a new name — the Michigan Department of Environmental Protection — and a mission to “protect the air, water, land and other natural resources of the state, and the public trust therein, from pollution, impairment and destruction. Through a high level of professionalism, respect for public views, strong science, law enforcement, and policy that considers both current and future generations, the Department assures a healthy people and environment.”
A big lake requires a big book. Lake Superior, the largest lake by surface area in the world, now has one. Nancy Langston’s Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World offers a sweeping panorama of the lake’s environmental history, its present challenges and a glimpse of the future. A professor at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Langston is a highly regarded environmental historian and analyst who moved to her current post in part to be closer to the big lake.
We asked Nancy to talk about her book, which is available for purchase via http://www.sustaininglakesuperior.com/. Nancy is donating all proceeds she receives from book sales (after costs) to local nonprofits working to protect and restore Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes. So far, she has donated proceeds to the Keweenaw Climate Community, Friends of the Lands of the Keweenaw, and the Great Lakes Research Center Student Fund. She’s happy to do book talks and signing for Great Lakes groups and donate the profits from book sales to the local group. Email her to arrange this: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you could boil your book’s message down to a paragraph, what would it be?
Here are two paragraphs: we are not remote; and we are not pristine—and we can learn from past recoveries.
Lake Superior may seem remote, but its waters are intimately connected to the rest of the world. Atmospheric currents bring chemicals from China, and pressures to mine iron ore in the basin are driven not by local or national markets, but by a boom in China’s steel industry. Yet, while the processes that shape contamination have global roots, the effects are local. Mountain-top removal mining for China’s iron ore demands would devastate local wetlands that have sustained the Anishinaabeg for many generations. The toxaphene from Chinese, Russian, and African fields accumulates in the fish that swim under my cliff and makes its way onto my plate. What is global—financial markets, building booms, industrial farming practices in places with few environmental regulations—becomes local in the most intimate ways, as it accumulates within our watersheds and within our bodies.
Everyone thinks Lake Superior is pristine, but it’s not. Lake Superior has witnessed significant recoveries in my generation, after near collapse during rapid 20th century industrialization of the Great Lakes. Forests and many of their inhabitants have returned after the devastation of the lumber era. The toxic waste sites left after the paper and mining booms have partially been cleaned up. Lake trout—once nearly extinct– spawn abundantly in the lake once more, one of conservation’s great success stories. None of these recoveries is complete, to be sure—but we can learn from the conservation recoveries of Lake Superior over the past century, as we face new challenges of persistent pollutants that are mobilizing with climate change. Communities around Lake Superior have long struggled to address pollution concerns, and local, regional, and international efforts met with significant successes in the late 20th century. Exploring the success—and failures–of pollution control in the past can help us devise resilient strategies for facing the challenges of pollution in a globalized, warming world.
How long has the book been in the making and what inspired you to write it? Is it true you moved to Michigan Tech because you want to be close to Lake Superior?
I fell in love with Lake Superior in 2003, when I bought a tiny cabin on the shore just outside the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. This was really just a shed without running water or heat or electricity, and there’s still no place on earth I’d rather be. I’ve spent at least four months in the cabin every year since. (Since then, I’ve put in electricity, but we still haul water from the village artesian well and harvest rainwater from the roof for showers). At the time, I was a faculty member at UW-Madison, living on my husband’s small farm south of the city and commuting to Lake Superior every chance I got.
The summer of 2010, I started research on an environmental history of boreal forests, with one case study focused on Lake Superior’s forests. I spent a month that summer in different small communities around the Canadian shore of Lake Superior, researching the history of the paper industry and kayaking when I wasn’t in the archives. That fall, I joined the Lake Superior Binational Forum, a public stakeholder group tasked with implementing the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement’s core idea that citizen oversight could protect the lake and foster sustainable development. A Binational Forum visit to the Pic River First Nation reserve near Marathon Ontario in November introduced me to the concerns that Anishinaabeg communities had about new mining projects.
In early 2011, soon after Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker began his deconstruction of the environmental protections that had made Wisconsin famous, I joined a group of academics who visited the Mole Lake Sokaogon tribe in northern Wisconsin. In the 1990s, the tribe had defeated a mine project just upstream of the reservation. My colleagues and I were eager to learn how the tribe had translated their health concerns into political action. As the meeting began a dozen leaders from another tribe, the Bad River Band, filed into the crowded room. They had driven three hours to recruit allies in their fight against an enormous open pit mine proposed near their reservation. Much of the discussion at our meeting with the Mole Lake Sokaogon and Bad River band members revolved around technical details of sulfide oxidation, pyrite ore bodies, and water quality.
But then tribal members began to speak about why they were going to fight the mine. “When I was twenty years old, I was riding on the sloughs in a john boat,” tribal chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. said. “Riding on about four bags of rice, nice soft bags. I was dragging my hand in the Kakagon. There were all kinds of birds, and dark water in the slough. I’m dragging my hand in there, I’m looking at how it colors my hand. I was just so in love with that river. I set nets for walleye, harvested cranberries in the fall and wild rice. I was thinking, ‘I wonder if it will always be there, for my children?’ I was thinking, ‘If something ever came for this place, man, I’d fight for this place, I’d die for this place.’”
That was the moment that I realized I wanted to do what I could to help protect Lake Superior—and that meant living within the watershed full time. I decided to leave UW-Madison and I decided to focus the book on Lake Superior, particularly on contamination from mining and paper production. When Michigan Tech opened the Great Lakes Research Center and searched for several interdisciplinary water scholars, I was thrilled to have the chance to move north.
How has the sheer size of Lake Superior shaped the way in which both industry and government have addressed its use and management?
Lake Superior’s particular geographic context—it is huge, northern, extremely cold, and distant from industrial developments—means that it is still the least spoiled of all the Great Lakes. Yet the very characteristics that have made Lake Superior less contaminated from conventional pollutants such as sewage and industrial waste actually make it more vulnerable to the persistent toxic contaminants that have mobilized across the globe since World War Two.
Fewer local sources of contaminants no longer mean better water quality when pollutants are increasingly mobile. Because Lake Superior is so huge and has only one outlet, it has a retention time of nearly two centuries. This means that a drop of water, on average, stays in the lake for 191 years—and contaminants can as well. Lake Superior is extremely cold, with an average annual temperature of 39°F. The cold water and the abundant winter ice cover lead to relatively low evaporation. So when toxics carried by atmospheric currents from Africa, Asia, and the lower Great Lakes find their way into Lake Superior, they tend to stick around. Lake Superior, like other cold northern lakes, has become a sink for the world’s most distant and toxic contaminants. Toxics long banned in North American arrive windblown from distant places. Toxics from the past lie buried in sediments, stirred up into the water column by storms and bottom-feeding creatures. Pollutants in the lake blur the boundaries of space and time.
Early planners hoped that the sheer size of the lake would mean that pollution would be diluted to the point of safety. They essentially thought of Lake Superior as a big bathtub, not realizing that it’s a complicated set of interconnecting ecosystems, and pollution can be concentrated in near-shore habitats, where fish and people are easily contaminated.
The Lake Superior zero discharge demonstration program, which was intended to end the direct dumping of some priority toxic substances into the lake, was heralded as a model when it was launched in 1991. How would you characterize its success or failure?
Its successes were largely aspirational. We were going to show the world that the largest lake could be cleaned of legacy contaminants and protected from new sources of contamination. The IJC challenged the governments of the United States and Canada to “make the Lake Superior Basin a zero discharge demonstration zone for all point sources of persistent toxic substances.” The governments agreed, committing to achieve “zero discharge and zero emission” of all persistent toxics in the Lake Superior Basin and creating the Binational Program, administered by federal, provincial, state and tribal agencies. As part of that process, the Lake Superior Binational Forum was created, a volunteer stakeholder group comprised of members with diverse backgrounds that represent a wide range of perspectives such as local government, industry and business, labor, academic, faith communities, recreation, environmental, and indigenous communities. The Forum’s purpose was to ensure the success of the Zero Discharge Demonstration Zone by fostering increased participation, acting as a watchdog group, and screening proposed actions to make certain they were in accordance with the LaMP and Zero Discharge Demonstration Program principles. These were hopeful, heady days for environmentalists and Forum members (I served on the Binational Forum for 6 years, from 2010 to 2016, when the EPA eliminated our funding).
But the zero discharge program hasn’t worked. Every IJC Biennial Report released between 1993 and 2003, and every response by Parties, shows the same discouraging pattern. First, the IJC criticizes the Parties for failing to eliminate toxic discharges—or even set timetables for their elimination. Next, the Parties give excuses for failing to do so. For example, in 1994 the IJC pointed out that “the governments have not taken a single concrete action to implement their zero discharge promise.” When the 1994 IJC Report called on the United States to “establish a coordinated, planned phase-out of existing sources” of dioxin, the U.S. insisted that they would not require the paper and pulp industry to eliminate dioxin, or even install “the best technology in process and treatment.” Instead, the EPA would challenge industry to “voluntarily reduce generation of toxic substances.” The U.S. added that setting a specific date for toxic elimination “may, in fact, detract” from voluntary agreements by industry.” Canada refused as well to adopt a specific timetable, using the same logic as the United States: a timeline might interfere with “consensus amongst the stakeholders around the Lake Superior basin.”
In most IJC biennial reports on the progress of zero discharge and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the IJC urges both parties to prohibit new sources of bioaccumulative, persistent toxics—and each country has simply refused to do so. For example, after news of the Grassy Narrows tragedy with mercury poisoning of First Nations, the IJC urged an immediate stop to mercury discharges from chlor-alkali plants such as the ones at Grassy Narrows. Canada responded by stating that it would “discourage” mercury use through voluntary programs– but refused to eliminate the release of mercury into Lake Superior. Canada’s last chlor-alkali plant didn’t close until 2008, 15 years after this assurance that voluntary programs were leading to their closure.
The pattern continued with mercury from smelter emissions, such as the sintering plant at Wawa on the northern shore of Lake Superior, a plant that caused extensive forest dieback and mercury releases. In 1991, the IJC called for an immediate end to mercury releases from mining and smelting. Canada responded by stating that it would suggest to a committee that it might consider looking into recommendations for reduction of mercury emissions from smelters.
A few years later, the United States decided the best way to eliminate its problematic mercury releases into mercury in Lake Superior would be by re-defining dangerous levels of mercury—not by reducing mercury. The United States proposed to increase the “safe” daily intake level of mercury by a factor of five, allowing it to declare dramatic reductions in dangerous mercury levels. At the same time, however, the United Nations was consulting on research that led to a call for a four-fold decrease, not a five-fold increase, in the safe daily dose.
When the two Parties refused to implement immediate bans on toxic discharges, the IJC urged them to start by setting timetables for zero discharge. Environment Canada responded with a firm no: “The federal government does not support the recommendation ….Full account must also be taken of such factors as socio-economic impact.” Canada continued, insisting, “It is premature to set a date for zero discharge. It should be remembered that the Lake Superior initiative is a pilot program…It is a complex initiative requiring the continued commitment of many stakeholders. Achieving the program goal will not be a simple task.”[i] Stakeholders and ecosystem complexities, in other words, had become an excuse—not just to refuse upholding their commitments to zero discharge, but to refuse even the basic task of setting timetables for upholding their commitments.
The utter failures of Zero Discharge point out the fundamental flaw in voluntary reduction programs: they don’t work unless governments have a very big stick, not just a tasty carrot. Essentially, Zero Discharge has failed for the same reason the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements have failed: politicians don’t want to rock the industrial boat, and they won’t until grassroots activists and scientists force them to do so.
Please tell us how indigenous peoples figure in your narrative.
The Anishinaabeg are core to every aspect of Lake Superior’s past, present, and future. Talking with Anishinaabeg people from around the basin helped me understand that framing Lake Superior as “remote” is a Eurocentric perspective. Lake Superior may have been remote from urban centers, but it was—and remains—at the very center of the Anisnihaabeg’s home.
Transforming Canada’s boreal forests into pulp devastated Canadian First Nations. The 19th century mining booms around Lake Superior displaced and marginalized Indigenous peoples, and Indigenous peoples lead the 21st century fights against renewed mining.
Pollution impacts everyone, human and nonhuman—but it’s particularly an issue for Indigenous peoples around the basin, who cannot eat the fish that are central to their cultural, spiritual, and physical health.
Who are some of the heroes in the effort to sustain Lake Superior?
Mike Wiggins, Jr., Chairman of the Bad River Band, for his passionate devotion to Lake Superior and to tribal treaty rights.
When I explored the history of earlier battles over water contamination, I found a similar passion for the lake. I learned about fierce women such as Verna Mize and Arlene Lehto who channeled their love for Lake Superior into political action, creating grassroots movements in the 1960s and 1970s to stop the dumping of tailings contaminated with asbestiform fibers into the lake. Few observers initially thought Mize or Lehto had a chance, daring to take on one of the largest mining corporations in the world. But they eventually leveraged scientific information with political savvy, and their grassroots efforts persuaded the brand-new Environmental Protection Agency to sue Reserve Mining Company. Eventually, after years of legal battles, the company agreed to change its dumping practices, cleaning up lake contamination without destroying the region’s economy. Charles Stoddard was another hero in the battle, who put his own career with the Department of Interior on the line to speak truth to power. The aquatic biologist Louis Williams did the same, refusing to be silent about Reserve’s contamination of public waters. When the federal government refused to let him publish his scientific findings, he quit his job so he could publish. This took real courage, and all their efforts led to a much cleaner lake.
Are environmental groups addressing the right issues in the right way when it comes to assisting Lake Superior?
Environmental groups right now are so overwhelmed with the federal and state assaults on basic, commonsense environmental protections, that it’s hard just to keep from drowning. These are tough times for anyone who understands the slightest bit of science. These are tough times for anyone who has spent their lifetime in the pursuit of clean air, clean water, healthy forests, healthy communities.
But we have to fight back in whatever ways we can manage. I have no idea if different environmental groups are addressing the right issues in the right way, since at this point we’re being attacked on all fronts. All we can do is keep fighting, in whatever ways we can manage, to stem the tide of destruction.
My goal in writing Sustaining Lake Superior was to write a hopeful book—a narrative of environmental recovery, not just collapse and despair. But holding onto hope can seem perverse when you read recent environmental news. Accelerating climate change has been met with withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Environmental and labor regulations that took forty years to craft are being eviscerated. A tenth of newborn children in the Lake Superior basin are born with toxic levels of mercury in their blood, but EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has suspended the mercury control regulations that would protect them. Even though The Lancet recently reported that 9 million people a year die prematurely from pollution, the EPA has removed scientists from the its Science Advisory Board and instead appointed a person who claims that “the air is currently too clean,” because “children’s lungs need to breathe irritants.”
Pruitt and President Trump share a key quality: not just an aversion to environmental protection, but a willingness to deny that the environment even needs protection. Trump declared to Chris Wallace of Fox News, “Environmental protection, what they do is a disgrace; every week they come out with new regulations.” When Wallace asked “Who’s going to protect the environment?,” Trump scoffed, “We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.”
So what we do we do? Hope is hard to find, but hope is critical if we are to keep up the resistance. Communities around the basin continue to advocate for a powerful vision of sustainability, one where health is not just about individuals, but about the interconnected relationships between watersheds and communities. If folks in the trenches refuse to give up hope, the least we can do is join them in their efforts.
Do you think we have learned the lessons of Lake Superior’s history or are we condemned to repeat them?
We are repeating all the earlier mistakes, this time without the excuse of ignorance. The federal government has set out to destroy all we hold sacred, and Michigan and Wisconsin seem determined to assist them at every step.
One lesson from history: industry has never protected the environment out of the goodness of its heart. Industry protects the environment when governments force them to do so, and governments act when citizens force them to act. So the best lesson we can learn, over and over again, from Lake Superior’s past, is to resist. As Margaret Atwood reminds us in The Handmaid’s Tale: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
[i]. “The Parties, in cooperation with Lake Superior states and provinces, establish a specific date at which no point source release of any persistent toxic substances will be permitted into Lake Superior or its tributaries.” International Joint Commission, Fifth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality (1991). Environment Canada, Canada’s Response to the Sixth Biennial Report 6, 8.
Attorney, Olson, Bzdok & Howard, P.C., Traverse City
When I look back over the past year, I can’t help but feel hope in the common goodness of people and communities.
I say this not without heart felt and serious concern about events in the world that point in the opposite direction – despair: increasing violence from guns, war, and sweeping droughts and floods, causing death and dislocation of millions of people and children, global warming and the push-back from unprecedented storms and extreme weather that compound drought, floods, landslides, which in turn destabilize countries like Syria fomenting conflict and conditions for ISIS. To paraphrase Circle of Blue senior journalist Keith Schneider, “The earth is angry and she’s fighting back.”
Closer to home, Detroit water shut-offs continue despite the devastating impact on the poor who can’t afford to pay a normal water bill, let alone the $100 a month or more claimed by the Detroit Water Board. State leaders finally stop denying the Flint water-crisis more than a year after residents demanded help, that its children and residents were exposed to high levels of lead from the city’s public water system. The problem is more endemic than Detroit or Flint, since both crises grew out of the unbridled power of Governor Snyder’s emergency manager law to usurp the power of city assets and revenues to pay debts regardless of the impacts to citizens. Flint’s emergency manager thought only of economic expediency in turning off water supplied from Detroit, and tapping into the filthy, polluted Flint River. Then there is the continual threat from the flow of oil in the aging, nearly 63-year old Line 5 pipeline under the Straits; the harm from a release or leak would be so catastrophic, the risk is unacceptable to everyone; yet the flow of oil continues without immediate temporary measures while state officials continue to study it as if it was an “issue,” and not the clear and imminent endangerment of the Great Lakes and the Straits of Mackinac – the fact is there is enough capacity within the pipeline system in the Great Lakes without Line 5 endangering the Straits.
So why the hope? Other events have happened this past year that point to a new way of understanding and, perhaps, solving many of the threats that we face in the world and our communities.
First, Pope Francis issued his encyclical on climate change and the environment, connecting the reality of our excessive consumptive materialism, global inequality, poverty, ecological and community devastation, and violence that follows. He carefully documented that our way of seeing and doing, our post-modern god of the law of free markets and legally justified greed, our fragmented attempts at dishing out money to help the poor are not working. He says this because we are living a material, market place illusion, and not in harmony with the reality that the earth is our “common home,” and that if we do not share its gifts and respect its inherent natural limits, earth’s water, weather, soil, and the biological diversity on which all life depends will continue to worsen to even greater extremes. He points to a new paradigm, a framework in which we work and live with the understanding that a body of water, whether ocean, Grand Traverse Bay, or Lake Chad, are a commons, part of the gift of earth as commons to all. If we do this, not only with water, but the ridge lines and forests, the beauty and land that are home to our relationships, our cities, the neighborhoods within our towns, the soils beneath our feet, the air we breathe, then we will begin to reshape our life around truth and the given limits of nature, and this will guide our living, our way of life, or economy, full and rich with newly directed creative and sustainable opportunities and entrepreneur ship.
Second, amidst a world of conflicts, from Syria to the Ukraine, from our own cities, to Nigeria, Sudan, and Afghanistan, and in the aftermath of the mass murders from extreme terrorists in Parrs, the nations of the world cooperated: leaders of large and small, developed and developing, or undeveloped countries, recognized the responsibility to each other, agreed to something, the world temperature will not rise more 2 degrees, and maybe less. While it is not law yet, if taken implemented, it will help stave off global calamity greater than two world wars last century, by reducing the irreparable damage we face from climate change and global warming. There is hope in the agreement that we stop denying and see the mounting harm and set a goal that through hard-work and common sacrifice offers a way out of an unthinkable alternative for people everywhere.
Third, we witnessed the bridging of differences by our Supreme Court in precedent setting cases that demand human dignity for marriage between two people, human rights to housing and water for the poor without access, as wells as the genuine search for a common goal to address wasteful and harmful water rights in the middle of the historical California droughts.
Fourth, our political debate heating up even before the 2016 presidential election has pointed to something more than the old, increasingly polarized beliefs in market economy, through money at wars and problems, rather than considering the root of the problem might be the way we are looking at them. Regardless of my own or others’ political persuasion, there is a fresh voice in Bernie Sanders, laying out the case for a community based on sharing of wealth, taking care of neighbors, and our neighborhood, what Pope Francis calls our “common home,” and at the same time helping with services to the poor, respecting and honoring diversity, and encouraging new business innovation. We have been trapped in this country in a red and blue, right and left, straight-jacket of false ideology, rather than identifying those things that are essential to every one of us and providing for them as principle of our country—the common good.
Fifth, then Michael Moore comes out with his latest film Where to Invade Next? Good God, here we have the message that we here in the USA had the idea, come up with the ideas, of common good, yet go in the opposite direction of individualized competition based on a law of the jungle called free markets. Everything is about profit and money and bottom line. The world is not a corporation, it is a commons in which corporations organizations are simply a means, not an end.
Do we really have a choice? Our common home and communities are simultaneously local and global. It’s not just act locally, think globally, or act globally, think locally. It’s all of this and more. If we don’t act, for example, on climate change, or understand that climate change is not just an energy issue but about water and food, if we don’t move toward a renewable economy within a few years, small island countries will literally disappear, rainforests and biodiversity will disappear, coastal cities and other areas will increasingly flood and fail from even more extreme storm events or the day-to-day failure to change, adapt and embrace resilient cooperation—the common good. All one has to do is read through “4 Degrees Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the Case for Resilience,” a report published by renown scientists and even sponsored by the more conservative World Bank. The picture is not pretty, and it would it is ignorant, even immoral, at this time in history not to act, even out of self-interest, for this common good.
So I end this year and start the next with hope. At FLOW, the Great Lakes and Water Policy Center, here in Traverse City, and other organizations throughout the region, we have chosen as a mission and goal to protect the waters of the Great Lakes basin as a commons with principles, known as the public trust doctrine, that require government as trustee and people as beneficiaries, to work together to respect and protect water and community that depend on it from impairment. Private control of public waters and other public commons has always been prohibited; this is because some things essential to all of us are common to all of us. If we don’t protect the commons, we undermine the air, water, community and neighborhoods where we live. To work and live toward the common good is to work for the commons and at the same time work for yourself, family and friends. To not work for the common good, is to continue the long, slow, or perhaps not so slow, disintegration that leads to destruction of the earth, water, air, community, people, and leads to a world violent and unsafe.
It is hopeful and reassuring to see positive events pointing toward this new way of seeing, understanding and doing – living and working for the protection and sustainability of our common home and the common good. They are one and the same. Here’s to another hopeful New Year.
Each year, Patagonia pledges 1% of their sales to the protection and restoration of the natural environment—regardless of the health of their sales or the economy. They call it the Earth Tax. This year, we identified 741 grassroots environmental groups in 18 countries and gave them $6.2 million in cash to do important work to restore rivers and forests, stop mines, protect endangered wildlife and habitat, and mitigate the effects of climate change. FLOW is proud to be among Patagonia’s grantees, and one of two Michigan nonprofits they recommend supporting. See the full breadth of their environmental and social efforts over the past year, including a list of all Patagonia grant recipients here.
FLOW is excited to be collaborating with Patagonia filmmakers on a new film about Line 5, coming in Spring of 2016.
According to a press release issued by Citizens for Oil-Free Backyards, earlier this week the Supervisor of Wells, Harold R. Fitch, issued an instruction concerning the regulation of oil and gas drilling in high population density areas. The instruction, aptly named Oil and Gas Development in High Population Density Areas, is an important legislative step in the right direction to regulate oil and gas development. That being said, the instruction’s scope is extremely narrow. For example, due to population minimums stated in the instruction, it applies to only three Michigan counties. For more information, read the full press release here.
This week, the Detroit Free Press published an interesting article detailing some of the conflict related to the drilling that happened in Shelby and Scio Townships this past summer. Jim Olson, FLOW’s President and Founder, was interviewed for the article and in it talks about the rights and abilities of local governments in relation to oil and gas drilling. Jim explains, “The idea that there is no jurisdiction at the local level just isn’t true… Light, noise, truck traffic and routes, odors, hazardous substances moving over streets with the risk of spills, protection of water resources, you name it. Quality of life, property values, anything that would risk the health, safety and welfare of residents, townships have the right to regulate.”
A great article calling for full transparency from Enbridge and the State in relation to the Line 5 oil pipelines, written by Sarah Koehn (a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, and the policy intern at West Michigan Environmental Action Council), was recently published in the Grand Haven Tribune. She concludes:
“The people of Michigan deserve full transparency and a proactive, thorough process to assess the risk of moving oil through the Great Lakes in an aged pipeline. Taking Enbridge’s word on its safety is not good enough. The state of Michigan should act decisively to protect our most valuable natural resource.”