The current West Michigan controversy surrounding permitting for a facility that processes pre-consumer food waste into fuel is a stark reminder of the delicate balance between environmental protection and economic interests. While proponents of the facility tout its benefits in terms of waste reduction and energy production, a closer look reveals serious questions about the true cost – and actual color – of this “green” technology.
This challenge to biodigester permitting is the proverbial camel’s nose under the edge of the tent when it comes to another kind of biodigester – the type that processes the massive waste stream generated by livestock confinements: a potent cocktail of manure, food scraps, and other organic materials, their toxicity concentrated by the digestate process. While proponents claim that digestate can be safely applied to farmland as fertilizer, there simply is not enough farmland in Michigan to absorb the amount of sewage processed by a proposed wave of taxpayer-subsidized manure biodigesters. Hundreds of millions of gallons of urine and feces, more than the human sewage of all ten million Michiganders combined.
The potential for groundwater pollution is enormous. Manure biodigester waste contains high levels of nitrates, phosphorus, and other harmful contaminants that leach into the ground and contaminate drinking water sources when applied to land. This is particularly worrisome in Michigan, where a significant portion of the population relies on private wells for drinking water.
There simply is not enough farmland in Michigan to absorb the amount of sewage processed by a proposed wave of taxpayer-subsidized manure biodigesters.
Another concern is air pollution. The anaerobic digestion process releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Applying digestate to land can lead to emissions of ammonia, a harmful air pollutant that contributes to respiratory problems.
Long-term impacts of applying digestate to soil are not fully understood. Some studies show that it can lead to soil compaction and reduced fertility. Others raise concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria developing in digestate-treated soils, posing a threat to human and animal health.
In the face of these concerns, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has taken the right first step to protect human health and the environment, by requiring facilities to comply with the standard testing and monitoring requirements already in place for municipal sewage, and implement measures to mitigate the risks of environmental contamination.
This is not just about one digester in West Michigan. It’s about setting a precedent for how we manage animal waste and develop genuinely sustainable energy in the 21st century.
However, digester operators are pushing back, arguing that these common sense regulations are too costly and burdensome. They claim that regulation will force them to shut down, resulting in job losses and lost revenue, but job projections for most biodigesters are minimal. This is really about investor profits. The deep pockets behind pricey manure biodigesters are in line for huge state and federal tax subsidies. Then, when the facilities are built, they’ll shift the environmental costs of their operations onto the public in the form of polluted water, contaminated soil, and degraded air quality. Taxpayers will also continue to cough up funds for water quality programs to counteract the pollution caused by land application of digestate.
The Great Lakes state of Michigan cannot afford to bear these burdens. The environmental and public health risks associated with poorly regulated digesters are simply too great. We must stand firm and ensure that these facilities are held accountable for the full cost of their operations, including the cost of protecting the environment and public health.
This is not just about one digester in West Michigan. It’s about setting a precedent for how we manage animal waste and develop genuinely sustainable energy in the 21st century. We can’t afford to sacrifice human health, quality of life, and environmental protection on the altar of short-term economic gain for a handful of wealthy investors masquerading as “green” energy champions.
It’s time for our regulators and elected officials to reject the siren song of Big Manure.
Funds to help communities deal with stormwater pollution triggered by climate change and to support water infrastructure are among budget increases proposed by Governor Whitmer.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning October 1 also includes some increases for clean energy initiatives that build on climate legislation that became law last year.
But these increases pale in comparison to a $150 million subsidy the Governor is proposing for restarting the Palisades nuclear plant near South Haven. This would be on top of $150 million in state money already set aside for the plant restart. A federal government loan would be necessary to set the restart in motion.
“We are pleased that the governor continues to emphasize clean water and clean energy in her budget recommendations. But the combined $300 million proposed for restarting a nuclear plant could go a long way towards solutions for Michigan’s drinking water and waste water issues instead,” remarked Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For Love of Water.
Released on February 7, the budget includes $40 million to provide loans and grants to local communities for water infrastructure, and $15.3 million to assist municipalities in mitigating and adapting to climate change through the installation of green stormwater diversion infrastructure.
It also includes $25 million to install charging stations at multi-family residential complexes and commercial parking lots, and $20 million to provide grants to municipalities, transit authorities, and key infrastructure hubs to replace medium and heavy-duty fleet vehicles with emission free alternatives such as battery EVs and hydrogen fuel based vehicles.
The budget proposes an increase in fees for landfilling solid waste in Michigan to extend “the lifespan of Michigan landfills, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from solid waste, and drive economic growth by increasing the tipping fee to competitive parity with neighboring states.”
The budget also proposes turning the state recreation passport, which provides access to state parks, from an opt-in to an opt-out, meaning the fee would be assessed unless a citizen explicitly declines it when obtaining an annual vehicle registration. That would raise $17.1 million in funds to support state parks. The current annual passport fee is $14.
In the wake of massive water service shut-offs in recent years affecting residents of Detroit and other communities, members of the Michigan Legislature are offering bills to make water rates affordable for all citizens.
“We are the Great Lakes State, surrounded by fresh water, but many Michiganders do not have the same access to water due to their financial situation,” said one of the bill sponsors, Senator Stephanie Chang of Detroit. “It should not matter how much money you have — every human being needs water to live.”
Chang noted that according to Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) data, over 317,000 Michiganders were behind on their water bills during the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2022 study by the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan found that average inflation-adjusted water costs have roughly doubled for the state as a whole since 1980. Large urban areas such as Detroit and Flint have seen a much greater increase.
“The People’s Water Board Coalition overwhelmingly supports the monumental package of water affordability bills championed by Michigan State Senators Chang and Bayer,” said Sylvia Orduño of the Coalition, which consists of three dozen grassroots groups, NGOs, faith-based, social justice, and community-based organizations. “For many years our grassroots groups have labored to bring visibility and advocacy to the need for statewide water affordability that protects households and community water systems. These bills offer new support and safeguards for vulnerable residents who experience water insecurity in all corners of the state.”
The key bills include:
An affordability program. Senate Bill 549 and House Bill 5088 create a low-income water residential affordability program within the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that water bills for low-income households do not exceed 3% of that household’s income, with tiers developed for lower thresholds based on percentage of the federal poverty limit. Water providers can opt to use the program developed by DHHS or administer their own program.
An affordability fund. Senate Bill 550 and House Bill 5089 create a statewide Low-Income Water Affordability Fund. The primary funding source would be a $2/meter monthly funding factor on water bills, and the fund would be allowed to take philanthropic donations.
Shut-off protections. Senate Bill 551 and House Bill 5090 provide protection from water shut-offs for Michiganders whose health conditions require access to water. It requires that a water provider notify a customer who is facing shut-off at least four times through a mailing, door knock, phone call, and/or text message. It also protects a customer who is attempting to enroll in a water affordability plan or who makes a minimum good faith payment.
The Human Right to Water Act. Senate Bill 25 establishes that each individual has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes. It requires all state agencies and departments to carry out all reasonable means to review, revise, adopt and establish policies and regulations, plus grant criteria for establishing water affordability as appropriate, and to the extent that such actions do not affect federal funding eligibility.
The Michigan legislature is poised to require that 100 percent of electric power come from carbon-free sources by 2035, in what would be among the most comprehensive clean energy initiatives in the country. The ambitious legislative agenda, fulfilling Governor Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan, would also increase energy efficiency standards, address energy equity in disadvantaged communities, and empower the Michigan Public Service Commission to consider climate change, affordability, and equity in its decision-making. The passage of the bills would save Michigan ratepayers an estimated $5.5 billion through 2050.
These benefits to Michigan are on top of the energy investments flowing from the federal Inflation Reduction Act that have catalyzed an estimated over $21 billion in new investment in Michigan, helped create almost 16,000 good-paying clean energy jobs, and brought 24 major new clean energy manufacturing projects to Michigan – more than any other state.
But these are not the only measurable benefits that the energy transition brings to Michigan. As we celebrate Michigan’s newfound leadership in clean energy, it’s vitally important to underscore the positive impact the energy transition will have on Michigan’s water resources.
Decarbonizing Michigan’s Economy Will Dramatically Improve Water Quality
Governor Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan will not only accelerate Michigan’s clean energy transition and decarbonize our economy, it will provide long-term benefits to Michigan’s water resources.
As we retire fossil fuel-based energy sources and replace them with clean energy technologies – wind and solar power, green hydrogen, electric vehicles, and energy storage devices – we will markedly and measurably reduce the harmful impacts that producing and burning fossil fuels have on our Great Lakes, rivers and streams, and groundwater.
Unlike fossil fuels which are finite, costly, inherently dirty, and cause billions of dollars of negative environmental and health impacts, wind and solar energy are free, clean, and are almost without harmful impacts to the environment and human health.
Impacts from Thermoelectric Generation
Water and energy have always been highly interdependent. Producing power uses tremendous amounts of water. From the first water wheels used to ground grain 6,000 years ago, through the Roman age of invention where water was moved great distances to irrigate crops and provide drinking water, to the production of energy from hydropower, fossil-fuel, and nuclear power plants, water has always been an essential component of energy production.
Electricity generated by steam from burning coal or natural gas, and nuclear fission – called thermoelectric generation – accounts for 67 percent of water use in the Great Lakes Region, and 74 percent of all water use in Michigan. Thermoelectric generation causes significant, harmful, and destructive direct impacts on our water resources.
Power plants need massive amounts of cooling water to operate. Water pumped from the Great Lakes and their tributary rivers “entrains” or kills millions of fish and aquatic organisms, including early-life-stage fish, eggs, and larvae. Once heated, water released from power plants causes thermal impacts that stress and kill fish and other aquatic organisms. Warm water also can change fish populations, decrease dissolved oxygen levels, propagate algae, and alter “benthic communities” – the broad ecological biome of animals (including crustaceans and mussels), plants, and bacteria that live in the water and the lake bottom.
In addition to these contaminants, coal combustion produces air emissions that contain lead, particulates, and various other heavy metals that are deposited in our lakes, rivers , and streams. Coal combustion also produces fly ash and slag, which have been deposited in unlined landfills for many decades. Recent research has revealed that of the 52 known coal ash landfills in Michigan, almost all are leaking heavy metals into Michigan’s groundwater.
Oil and gas produced from shale formations require “hydraulic fracturing,” a process using large volumes of water, chemicals, and sand pumped under high pressure to keep pore spaces open so that oil and gas can be recovered. The drilling process yields contaminated “flow-back” water, as well as naturally occurring brine that is pumped out with the oil and gas. This chemical laden water is then disposed of by pumping it back deep underground.
Burning natural gas produces emissions that include nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter – all of which inevitably find their way into Michigan’s surface waters.
Pipelines transport crude oil and gas to refineries, and refined oil and gas to their end use. Between 1998 and 2017 there were 11,758 pipeline spills in the United States that were classified as “significant” by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Included among them is the most catastrophic pipeline failure in United States history. The Enbridge pipeline rupture near Marshall, Michigan in July 2010, released more than 1 million gallons of tar sands oil into a direct tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The rupture of Enbridge’s Line 6B resulted in pervasive contamination and massive ecological damage to the waters and surrounding wetlands.
Another oil pipeline now threatens the world’s most valuable fresh surface water system. The 70-year-old Line 5, also owned and operated by Enbridge, traverses the Straits of Mackinac at the confluence of Lakes Michigan and Huron. The free spanning underwater pipeline has been repeatedly struck by ship’s anchors and cables dragged by passing vessels have damaged the pipeline and its supports. Line 5 is uniquely vulnerable to multiple impacts that could result in irreversible environmental harm and billions of dollars of damage to the Great Lakes regional economy.
Climate Change and Michigan Waters
We are only beginning to understand the pervasive impact climate change is having on our lakes, rivers, and other water-dependent resources. Climate change brings specific climate related impacts, risks, and challenges to the protection and management of public water resources.
The combustion of fossil fuels has raised regional temperatures 2.3 degrees since 1951. Warming temperatures destabilize lake, river, and stream ecology, altering conditions and habitat for fish and aquatic organisms. Like the oceans, the Great Lakes are absorbing excess heat. Lake Superior, despite its size, is one of the fastest warming lakes in the world with temperatures increasing 3-4 degrees fahrenheit.
Warming temperatures are changing our weather. The National Climate Assessment forecasts both increased frequency and severity of storm events in the Great Lakes region. Increased flooding will cause sewer overflows that reach our Great Lakes; increased soil erosion; and more fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides washing into our streams and rivers.
The Energy/Water Nexus.
We can mitigate or even potentially avoid the most severe effects of climate change by implementing Governor Whitmer’s energy and climate plans. The transition from fossil fuels to clean energy cannot come soon enough.
An acre of solar panels producing electricity keeps 121 to 138 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, every year. That same acre of solar panels can power an electric vehicle 40 to 100 times farther than ethanol produced from the same acre of corn. And ethanol production can require up to 865 gallons of water for each gallon of fuel produced.
The benefits of clean energy, significant as they are, pale when compared to the harms that clean energy can help us avoid. The economics of clean energy do not include the difficult to quantify but very real aggregate cost of “negative externalities” – the harmful environmental and health impacts that flow from the use of fossil fuels.
Annual environmental and health damages linked to coal mining, processing, and combustion have been estimated at $345 billion annually (2010 dollars). The annual environmental and health damages from burning fossil fuels has been estimated at up to $970 billion annually.
Globally, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that pollution from fossil fuels cost the world’s economy more than $5.6 trillion in 2022. This amount, when added to the cost of fossil fuels, is roughly equivalent to total annual global energy expenditures. The favorable economics of clean energy technologies are undeniable. There is an overwhelming and compelling basis to transition from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
Governor Whitmer’s clean energy and climate initiatives redound with multiple benefits to public health, the environment, the business community, and Michigan citizens at large. And thanks to the Governor’s policies that are being advanced today, the largest, most extraordinary fresh surface water system in the world – our Great Lakes – will also enjoy long-term future benefits and be preserved and protected for our future generations.
Michigan households relying on private wells may be drinking polluted groundwater without realizing it. A new state program aims to change that.
Common water quality concerns include coliform bacteria, nitrate, nitrite, fluoride, chloride, sulfate, sodium, hardness, and metals like aluminum, antimony, arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, iron, manganese, mercury, selenium, uranium, and zinc.
Now, thanks to a new $5 million allocation in funding from the state legislature, residents can get their water tested for FREE through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and their local health departments. (Your local health department can provide information about drinking water concerns in your area, and what testing is best for your water source.)
Michigan has the most private drinking water wells drilled annually of any state. About 45% of the state’s population depends on groundwater for its drinking water. FLOW has been a strong advocate of removing cost barriers to well testing, as part of our groundwater policy agenda:
“Thousands of Michigan citizens relying on private wells may be drinking polluted groundwater without realizing it. The state should remove cost barriers to testing of such wells initiated by their owners. The Michigan Legislature should appropriate funding to enable owners of residential drinking waterwells to obtain testing of wellwater samples.” The Sixth Great Lake (p. 17), September 2018
“WATER TESTING: Michigan homeowners with private wells are not served by routine water testing and may unknowingly consume contaminated water. The state should create a fund to assist such homeowners, largely in rural areas, in regular water well testing.” Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake (p. 21), May 2021
“Phil Roos is an outstanding strategist and environmental thought leader who is just the person to lead Michigan’s top environmental agency to protect our air, water, and land resources. We are fortunate to have a leader like Phil who deeply understands the systemic challenges and solutions necessary to craft during the most important decade of our lifetime.”
“Kara Cook understands policy and she knows the Capitol policy process. She has strong environmental values. With prior experience both in the Governor’s office and nonprofit environmental policy work in Lansing, Kara Cook has a deep understanding of the environmental priorities of the Whitmer Administration and will be a key asset for EGLE Director Roos and staff.”