President's Column: 2018 starts with a bang

This year started out with a blizzard of policy initiatives swirling around Lansing. Personally, I am encouraged by some of the serious proposals being put forward. Unfortunately, spring of an election year also brings some perennially bad ideas out into the open, and this year is no different. Michigan Environmental Council staff members have been at the Capitol, poring through the fine print, advocating for the good and shining a light on the bad. Here are a few highlights--and lowlights.

MEC takes part in governor’s environment and infrastructure week

Michigan Environmental Council was front and center as Gov. Snyder introduced new environmental and infrastructure proposals over five days at the end of January. We participated in four out of the five policy briefings with the governor and invited guests. The four proposals, briefly outlined below, put forward compelling plans to address significant environmental challenges we face in Michigan.

Replacing Clean Michigan Initiative funds

Michigan has 3,000 abandoned contaminated sites, in all 83 counties, which need to be cleaned up and hopefully redeveloped. In 1998, Michigan voters approved a $675 million Clean Michigan Initiative (CMI) bond to fund environmental cleanup and brownfield redevelopment ($385 million), water quality projects ($165 million), pollution prevention ($20 million), state and local park projects ($100 million), and lead contamination remediation ($5 million).

Those CMI funds are now basically gone. The governor has proposed raising Michigan’s solid waste tipping fee from the dismally low $0.36 per ton to $4.75 per ton, generating $79 million per year to be spent as follows:

  • Remediation & redevelop contaminated sites, reducing environmental risks at 300 sites annually : $45 million
  • Solid waste management planning for local governments, $9 million
  • Recycling grants to local communities to triple Michigan's recycling rate, $15 million
  • Water quality monitoring grants for beach monitoring, reducing phosphorus in Lake Erie, and removing contamination in rivers, lakes and streams, $5 million
  • State park infrastructure, $5 million

The increase in the solid waste tipping fee should only cost the average family $4.75 per year and will allow the state to collect more revenue from Canadian and out-of-state waste which combined account for 25% of what is landfilled each year.

With stories of contaminated drinking water headlining papers across the state, waiting even a year to secure new CMI funding would be a devastating blow to local economies where industrial contamination has prevented growth and polluted drinking water supplies. Our state lawmakers should approve a funding replacement quickly—the move would be a win for our state’s economy and public health.

Asian carp coalition forms

Gov. Snyder is building a coalition of Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces to work more closely together to stop the threat of Asian carp to the Great Lakes. The first step is to pledge money from the partners to pay for the annual operating costs of the proposed improvements at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, IL. The improvements, if approved, are scheduled to be completed by 2025. The annual operating costs of $8 million would be shared among the coalition partners based upon their percentage of Great Lakes shoreline.

Water infrastructure funds proposed

The governor proposed raising an additional $110 million annually to address Michigan’s water infrastructure needs. The 21st Century Infrastructure Commission found that in Michigan we are underfunding investment in our drinking water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure by $800 million per year. The governor’s proposal will not solve that deficit by itself, but it is a good first step to raising much needed revenue for critical needs, including the removal of the 450,000 lead service lines in our drinking water systems around the state.

Gov. Snyder is proposing an increase in an existing state-assessed user fee on public water systems, not to exceed $5 per resident. The $110 million raised would be spent as follows:

  • $75 million for grants to local infrastructure improvements, including lead service line replacement
  • $25 million to fund local asset management plans for water infrastructure
  • $10 million for emergency infrastructure failure funds, to provide direct financial support for emergencies arising from water and sewer failures in local communities

While I attended the governor’s public roll-out of his water infrastructure proposal, the governor’s staff also provided a private briefing for interested MEC member groups and partners later that day in our Lansing office.

Tripling Michigan’s recycling rate

Friday’s proposal focused on tripling Michigan’s low recycling rate from an embarrassingly low 15% to 45%. Gov. Snyder rolled out a five-point plan that includes making recycling available at all state offices. Michigan Recycling Coalition, an MEC member group, played a central role in the event, which was held in Dundee.

All in all, it was a great policy week with an agenda that we can get behind. We will be engaging with the legislature to support these needed investments to protect public health and our environment.

Strengthening Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule

Throughout the second half of 2017, I was part of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) stakeholder group revising Michigan’s current LCR. The final draft was released in January 2018, and MEC has been reviewing it with our drinking water partners. A public hearing was held on March 1, 2018 in Lansing and the public comment period ended on March 21. The final rules were presented this spring.

Gov. Snyder, based upon the events in Flint, proposed the toughest LCR in the country. The LCR is part of the Safe Drinking Water Act and was first published in 1991 to protect public health by minimizing our exposure to lead and copper in our drinking water. By 1997, all large water systems had to be in compliance with the LCR.

What we learned from Flint was that many water systems had not done everything they were supposed to have done to comply with the LCR, thus giving the public and all of us a false sense of security.

The main purpose of the governor’s new LCR is to get the lead out of our drinking water systems, ensure full compliance with the rule, and improve the sampling procedures and requirements to ensure detection of lead in drinking water. The new LCR, if enacted, will require the eventual removal of the 450,000 lead service lines in Michigan. It will also:

  • Require all public water systems to develop and implement plans to remove any lead pipes in their systems, at the expense of the public water system. They must begin removing lead service lines the year after the rule takes effect (roughly 2020) at a rate of at least 5% per year.
  • Reduce the Action Level for lead from the current 15 ppb to 12 ppb by 2025. While no amount of lead is safe, this is a step in the right direction.
  • Require communities to re-inventory their systems to identify where there are lead pipes.
  • Re-create sampling pools of the highest risk homes to test for lead in the drinking water.
  • Ban partial lead service line replacements (LSLRs) except when emergency repairs are done and the owner or the owner’s agent doesn’t approve the LSLR.
  • Significantly improve public education requirements to better protect public health.
  • Create a Citizen Advisory Council to engage the public in our public water system decision-making processes.

You can read our full statement here: Michigan Environmental Council commends Snyder administration for establishing strictest Lead and Copper Rule in the country.

Bad legislation is moving fast

Fox guarding the henhouse

The Michigan legislature passed several bad environmental policy bills. They include two Senate bills, SB 652-653, that would delegate the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) rulemaking and permit authority—some of the most important functions in state government—to new boards dominated by industry interests. These bills passed the State House on May 22.

The individuals appointed to the two new panels overwhelmingly would represent business interests that directly profit off of the discharge of pollutants into Michigan’s air and water; literally, putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

The DEQ—the state agency currently charged with protecting our natural resources—would no longer have the final say on matters of public health and environmental protection. Instead, corporate polluters who profit off lax regulations would write their own regulations and determine what they’re responsible for cleaning up when things go wrong.

While Gov. Snyder and lawmakers negotiated some of the sting out of the bills—by making the new unelected DEQ rules committee more advisory in nature—this legislative package still gives polluters and other corporate interests who are unaccountable to Michigan voters and taxpayers an oversized voice in crafting environmental protections. In particular, it vests too much power in the permit appeals panel, giving members of that newly appointed body final say over the contested case process as the last decision maker before the court system.

The bills would also establish convoluted decision-making procedures and greatly slow down approval of environmental rules that are designed to protect the health and well-being of Michigan residents.

Water withdrawal legislation

Hot on the heels of SB 652-653 comes House Bill 5638, legislation launched by the Michigan Farm Bureau to attack and weaken Michigan’s national award-winning, science-based water withdrawal program. Michigan’s current program was designed by scientists at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the State of Michigan.

The current water withdrawal program helps evaluate large water withdrawal requests of 100,000 gallons per day or more. A computer-based initial review evaluates the impact on surrounding water resources to see if the requested withdrawal will or will not have an impact on the water resources. If the request is deemed by the computer analysis to have a negative impact, a site-specific review is implemented to re-evaluate the request. A very small number of requests are actually denied: through the first eight years of the program, only 41 of 3,678 requests were denied (about 1%).

As introduced, the bill would have provided businesses quick approval for water withdrawals. They just had to hire a hydrologist to submit data and attest that their business’s water withdrawal would not cause a resource impact, and they would have been granted a provisional approval. The DEQ had no way to deny a permit that would adversely affect our natural resources. The bill also had blanket exemptions for certain aquifers based on bedrock location and geology.

However, over the last two months, we and our members and partners, led by Michigan Trout Unlimited Executive Director and MEC Board Member Bryan Burroughs, were able to work with Michigan Farm Bureau and Rep. Aaron Miller to reach a compromise. It addresses the underlying concerns that the agriculture industry has in a way that makes the water withdrawal program more responsive and up to date for all who are concerned about water protection in Michigan.

The DEQ will now have 20 days instead of 10 to review a withdrawal request (25 days if it is in an area at highest risk of an adverse impact) and either permit or deny the request. Also, the deal now includes a new full-time equivalent staff member at the department to review withdrawal requests.

Additionally, the bedrock exemptions were removed, and money will be appropriated to update the water withdrawal tool to address these types of aquifers appropriately.

This compromise would not have been possible without policy expertise and relationships that MEC and our members can leverage to take bad bills and make them into ones that provide true solutions while protecting our natural resources.

Environmental Justice Work Group

On March 2, the Environmental Justice Work Group (EJWG) appointed by Gov. Snyder publicly released our final report, which includes 33 recommendations that address the governor’s charge “to develop and provide recommendations that improve environmental justice awareness and engagement in state and local agencies.”

It was an honor to serve as co-chair of the EJWG, along with Fadi Mourad, DTE director of environmental strategy. Personally, I think our first recommendation sums up the EJWG’s hope and expectations that Michigan should strive to be a national and global leader in advancing and achieving environmental justice.

As I stated when we released our report, this was a real learning process and emotionally moving for all of us involved in the EJWG. Our hope is that Gov. Snyder will take to heart not just this report and our recommendations but also the lessons we collectively have learned over time to help lead the way to further increase the quality of life for all Michiganders.

The EJWG examined existing policies and best practices across the country to make its recommendations on environmental justice guidance, training, curriculum, and policy for the State of Michigan. Members toured and held listening sessions in three communities—Detroit, Grand Rapids and Traverse City—among other learning and data-gathering activities.

The EJGW was composed of 23 members, representing communities across the state, environmental groups, businesses, state and local governmental bodies, academia, and federally recognized tribes. The final report can be found at,4668,7-277-61409_61417-425790--,00.html.

MEC looks forward to working with our partners and allies to get moving on the implementation of the 33 recommendations and to help elevate the issue of environmental justice in Michigan improving the quality of life for our fellow Michiganders.

As I said at the beginning of this column, 2018 began with a bang and it doesn’t look like it’s going to let up anytime soon. Fortunately, we know how to handle unpredictable seasons. MEC will be camped out at the Capitol, regardless of the weather, and glad to know we have your support!

by Chris Kolb

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