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Clift: 2009 will see more work on key issues like energy, water, transit and phosphorus

Michigan Environmental Council Policy Director James Clift spoke with the Michigan Environmental Report recently about 2008’s victories, 2009 goals, and whether he sometimes wants to strangle people over at the State Capitol. Here’s what he had to say.

Tell us what were the environmental community’s biggest accomplishments in 2008.
The ratification of the Great Lakes Compact and passage of the water use legislation were major steps forward. That legislation puts in place a framework for protecting water resources into the future. However, it will be critical to maintain funding for that program in order to realize all of its benefits.

Clean energy legislation was clearly our other biggest accomplishment. It is comprehensive energy legislation that moves Michigan toward clean energy, toward renewable energy and energy efficiency. Clearly this approach is in line with the Obama Administration and their commitment to clean energy nationwide. Michigan’s energy policy needs to focus on keeping utility bills affordable so people can remain in their homes, and on creating jobs for Michigan residents.

Tell us about the phosphorus legislation.
Michigan passed legislation to phase phosphorus out of dishwashing detergent. In the 1970s, we phased it out of laundry detergent when we were seeing problems with Lake Erie and algae. At that time there weren’t a lot of dishwashers in use. Nowadays with dishwashers in most homes, it has become a larger and larger problem. This legislation will phase phosphorus out of that detergent and reduce the nutrient loading and algae blooms we’re starting to see reoccur today.

How long have we been working on the phosphorus issue?
We’ve been working on the phosphorus issue on a number of fronts for at least five years—from detergents to lawn fertilizer, removing phosphorus from lawn fertilizer when it’s not necessary, to agricultural runoff from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and other farming operations. We’re going to need to address all the sources of phosphorus leading into our waters if we’re going to address issues such as algae blooms and the growth of invasive and exotic plant species in our inland lakes.

How are we doing at keeping untreated sewage out of our waters?
More and more communities have stepped up and invested in upgrading their sewer infrastructure to reduce sewer overflows—which means we’re doing better, but that work needs to continue. In addition, the state needs a new program that requires periodic inspections of individual septic systems. Those counties that currently require inspections at the time of sale of a home have seen from 10-20% of the systems failing or illegally connected to waterways. These systems result in millions of gallons of untreated sewage entering our waterways.

For the coming year, what are some key goals for the Michigan Environmental Council and our allies throughout the state?
I think we need to figure out how to fund critical government services in good times and in bad. Currently, because of our budget shortfalls, there are critical programs that are important for protecting our environment and protecting public health that are being underfunded and, therefore, we’re putting our future at risk. We need to explore other potential funding options to ensure these core programs continue into the future at a level that protects our public health and natural resources.

Meanwhile, I think we need to take the next steps in clean energy. The steps in 2008 were good, but I think as more national attention moves toward energy independence, we need to figure out Michigan’s niche in that area and try to find where from both an economic development standpoint and an energy independence standpoint we can move even farther.

We have to look at increasing opportunities for energy efficiency and weatherization programs to ensure that we reduce the number of foreclosures and allow people to remain in their homes.

Additionally, we have to look at utilizing opportunities to build reliable public transit systems in Michigan. There are a number of exciting ventures moving forward in that area that will help residents save money, revitalize our urban core cities and reduce cost, congestion, pollution and global warming emissions from vehicles.

You talk about critical government services. What’s at risk?
We’re to a point now where we’re not credibly overseeing those people who are putting pollutants into our air and water. These facilities aren’t being inspected, complaints aren’t being answered because there’s not enough staff to do the job. We’re worried that as companies are being squeezed in these economic times, they might be tempted to cut corners and dump pollutants into our air and water. If government isn’t there to monitor this, our natural resources are in peril.

Also, we’re seeing clean-up activities at contaminated sites around the state grinding to a halt. Basic clean-up and monitoring of polluted underground water sources and contaminated lands aren’t happening. That’s a problem both for people who rely on groundwater for drinking, and for economic development that relies on clean land and water to prosper.

You’ve got a new cast of characters in the State House. Lots of new freshmen. How do you get those folks up to speed quickly?
Clearly, especially in these tough economic times, they’ve got a major challenge in learning the budget, how we fund things, and what our options are. On top of that they try to learn areas such as public health and the environment. Clearly there’s a major educational effort. The good news is that many of these new legislators are very interested in environmental protection, and we have quite a few champions who we think are going to step up.

You spend a lot of time over at the legislature, and making progress can be slow and frustrating. Don’t you just want to strangle some people sometimes?
“Well, luckily all of those people were term-limited and are no longer there.”

We don’t believe that, but you’re very diplomatic.
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