Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Gongwer Interview with MDEQ Director Heidi Grether


New Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether is not planning any wholesale changes to the department that has been a primary target for investigations into the Flint water crisis, but she is overseeing a largely new leadership group because of retirements and a few departures in the wake of that crisis.
Ms. Grether is also overseeing review of a number of the state's key environmental regulations. And she said she is trying to position the state to take on additional responsibilities should the administration of President-elect Donald Trump move in that direction.
Though Ms. Grether is not directly involved with it, the Flint water crisis is still leaving a mark on the department.
"As director, I want to work to restore the confidence in the MDEQ and restore the employee morale," Ms. Grether said.
Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh continues to address the day-to-day issues involving Flint, a job he acquired when he was named interim DEQ director in January.
Between those pushed out in the wake of the crisis, including then-Director Dan Wyant, who was asked to resign, and a rash of retirements and other departures, Ms. Grether said she has essentially a new leadership team, both among the top administration and at the top of the various divisions.
"That is going to change the nature and face of DEQ going forward," she said.
Part of that change, she said, is a new attitude.
"We continue to be firmly focused on our mission to protect public health, protect the environment and try to find solutions to the issues coming up so we can encourage economic growth where appropriate," she said. "(But) I challenged staff in all they do to look at the big picture ... to look at the implications of their actions."
She said she is also encouraging staff to be more approachable, so interested parties feel they can come to the department.
Ms. Grether said she is working now to expand her communications staff to not only have departmental spokespeople, but to have people in place to help the rest of the staff with communications.
"We need to a better job of highlighting the work that we're doing in communities," she said. "We need to try and give staff some of the tools they need to help message and do their jobs better."
The department will also be working over the coming year on some potentially substantial regulation rewrites, Ms. Grether said.
The state's cleanup criteria, Part 201 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, have not been revised since 2002, she said. In addition to bringing them up to current standards, she said the department is working with interest groups to make them more flexible and allow easier updates in the future.
"We are continuing to meet to try to finalize a way to continue to update those as time goes on but also understand what the right science is behind some of the things we're choosing," she said.
For instance, science is indicating that some sites previously closed might need another look as some of the materials move or the sites are redeveloped.
"Unfortunately, we may have sites that we have given closure to in the past that may have vapor intrusion problems," she said.
As structured and funded, the DEQ has limited ability to address those issues. "We just don't have the capability to shift people over to that," she said.
The DEQ has been working with the Department of Health and Human Services and local public health departments on the issue, she said.
The initial goal is to develop a list of sites where it might be an issue, she said.
The state's solid waste laws will also get a new look in 2017, she said.
"At the time that was written 30 years ago, we were closing dumps and moving to engineered landfills," she said. "What we're looking at is recycling. How do we reuse things rather than just throw them away?"
The DEQ also will have a role in implementing the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission's report, she said. For instance, Michigan is one of few states that does not have a septic code, instead leaving all oversight of septic systems to local public health officials.
"We do not have the opportunity for developing or implementing new technology," she said. "We don't have the ability to do pilot projects or demonstration projects."
Ms. Grether said she would also be pushing for some changes in how those projects, and their oversight, might be funded.
A key source of funds for cleanups and other projects, the Clean Michigan Initiative bonds, are nearly exhausted, but she said the infrastructure report showed additional need for those funds.
"It isn't really highlighted, you have to dig it out," she said of mention of the need for a new Clean Michigan Initiative in the report.
And she said selling a new round of bonds to voters could be difficult because the effect of the current bonds is also something one has to dig out.
"One of my frustrations and concerns is we have not, over the life of those bonds, let the public know what those bond funds paid for," she said. "It would be a disadvantage if we were to go out today ad say we want to re-up this. Nobody knows where those funds went."
She said she has asked about putting signs on some of the sites now, but said it might be too little too late to affect public support for new bonds.
Ms. Grether is also hoping to see more General Fund in the department.
"I believe that we have an obligation to protect the resources on behalf of the citizens," she said. "Relying solely on fees to fund programs I don't think is appropriate. We should have more General Fund to support what we do.
She acknowledged that would be an uphill battle. "That's not been a popular idea," she said. "It means somebody else is not getting as much money."
Where the department is appropriately relying on fees, Ms. Grether said there is also value in looking at how those fees are structured.
"They are not tied to activity but an amount of discharge or the value of material," she said. In many cases, those amounts of discharge or materials have been reduced.
"That reduction does not necessarily equate to less work for us," she said.
The department could see more work depending on how the incoming Trump administration addresses environmental oversight.
"I would like the states to have more leeway in how we do things and less duplications," she said. The controversial Line 5 pipeline across the Straits of Mackinac, for instance, has both state and federal permits that she said could be consolidated.
She said the department is not in a position now to take on additional authority, but hoped over the next two years to prepare it for that. She expected it would take that long for any federal regulatory changes to take effect.
"I'm hopeful that what we will have is a position where we have more of a compliance target approach," Ms. Grether said of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under a Trump administration. "Leave the states and the permitted entities to figure out how to meet those."

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Midwestern lawmakers green the grid, slightly

Midwestern lawmakers green the grid, slightly

Midwestern state capitals buzzed with energy legislation in the dying days of 2016.
In Illinois, legislators handed out $2.4 billion in subsidies to two nuclear plants, bolstered the state's renewable energy mandates and gave utilities added financial incentive to pursue energy efficiency measures. Michigan lawmakers haggled over how much of the state's power market should be open to competition but ultimately made few major changes. And in Ohio, legislators passed a plan to effectively make the Buckeye State's renewable power standards optional. The measure's fate now hinges on Gov. John Kasich (R), who has voiced his displeasure with the plan.
The net impact of all that paper-pushing: a slightly greener grid in one of America's most coal-dependent regions.
How much credit, or derision, lawmakers can claim is unclear. Coal was already under siege from cheap natural gas in the Midwest. Wind, too, has made inroads — especially in Illinois, where it accounts for the majority of new capacity.
"On the margin, some of the legislation will have an impact," said Travis Miller, an analyst who tracks the power sector at the investment research firm Morningstar. "But these are very large power markets, and at the end of the day, economics are going to drive what type of generation is in the energy mix."
That's not to dismiss the entirety of what lawmakers did, particularly in Illinois. Subsidies for Exelon Corp.'s two nuclear plants make the economic landscape for Dynegy Inc.'s coal plants even more challenging, analysts said. The Illinois Power Generating Co., an Dynegy subsidiary, filed for bankruptcy a few days after the bill passed.
Lawmakers in Springfield, Ill., provided a fix to Illinois' renewable portfolio standard, ensuring an annual budget of $200 million in renewable energy credits. Greens are especially excited that roughly half of that sum will go toward distributed and community solar.
"Illinois will have more wind power and solar energy, as they receive policy support and are increasingly economic in the marketplace," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. "The public wants more clean renewable energy, and the public is going to get more clean renewable energy."
The bill also set energy efficiency goals of 21.5 percent and 13 percent, respectively, by 2030 for a pair of distribution utilities, Commonwealth Edison and Ameren Corp. (Energywire, Dec. 2)

Coal's struggle for survival

In Michigan, lawmakers boosted the state's renewable portfolio standard from 10 percent to 15 percent by 2021 (Energywire, Dec. 16).
The bill calls on utilities to provide a more robust analysis of their long-term plans to the Michigan Public Service Commission. Independent power providers will be able to submit bids when utilities file plans for generation projects greater than 225 megawatts. Though the commission is under no obligation to accept those bids, they can use them as a benchmark for rejecting the utilities' plans.
"I think these bills have clarified and reinforced the course we're on, which is a steady move away from coal and a reorganization of power markets toward wind and solar," said Nachy Kanfer, deputy regional director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.
More telling, perhaps, is what the debates symbolize: Baseload power generators, like coal and nuclear facilities, are struggling to compete in markets with stagnant power demand and weak prices.
The dynamic is particularly acute in states like Illinois and Ohio, which boast competitive wholesale power markets.
Illinois lawmakers followed in the steps of New York in giving financial assurances to nuclear plants. Michigan lawmakers ultimately rebuffed calls to either expand or eliminate the 10 percent of its power market now open to competition. Instead, they effectively required independent producers to guarantee their supply.
The fights look set to continue. Ohio utilities are now lobbying lawmakers to re-regulate struggling coal facilities, guaranteeing them a financial return. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator has also proposed reforms to ensure future capacity, in a move analysts say would bolster struggling baseload plants (EnergywireJuly 15).
Utilities' switch to natural gas would likely be even greater if the matter were left to the market, said Paul Patterson, a financial analyst at Glenrock Associates LLC.
"What you're seeing is people having second thoughts about what the outcome will be," he said. "Otherwise, competition will drive out a lot of the generation we have, and we don't like the idea of that happening."

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Tsuga’s View - Part 4

A Long-Term Look At Environmental, Political, and Social Issues, From The Perspective Of Michigan’s Oldest (and Most Optimistic) Tree Species

Installment 4

By Marvin Roberson

The photo which accompanies this column is at the end of my neighbor’s driveway. Look at it, and think closely about what it tells us about my neighbor. It says that not only is he a Trump supporter, but that he is pleased by Trump’s angry, combative attitude (“Give ‘em Hell, Donald”). It says that he’s not only not a Clinton supporter, but that he’s a virulent sexist (note the “bayatch” reference).

But one of the things it points out to me is how strongly held his views are and how important it is to him to broadcast them publicly. He didn’t just go down to Republican headquarters and say “Give me the biggest Trump banner you’ve got”. No, he went to a professional sign painter, and paid money to have his personal brand of anger, bigotry, and sexism memorialized for all to see. He is indicating not just support of Trump, but a desire to make sure that all can see that what it is he finds so attractive about Trump are these odious attitudes.

We see this kind of this everywhere, and since Trump’s win they have only increased. Attacks on those of differing races, religions, gender identities, and national origin are on the rise. A clear sense among some that “white anger” is justified and should be expressed. A strong sense that  white privilege is under attack, and needs to be protected.

Many of us are astounded. As I said in my first installment of the Tsuga’s View, what I found most disturbing about the election was not that Trump will be president, with all that brings and means (although I’m pretty disturbed by that). No, what I found truly horrifying was that No one in the electorate could have failed to see that Trump expressed bigoted, racist, repugnant views. And yet 50 million people though that either that was not a problem, or more likely, approved of it.

During the election, a friend and I had a continuing series of conversations about this phenomenon, what it meant, and whether or not it was a good thing (before you start throwing things, remember that the Tsuga’s View is the long one, and give me a bit to explain). What our differences came down to was the question of causality, and which direction the causal arrow points.

My friend was convinced that Trump was the cause of a significant portion of this, and therefore felt that it was terrible. I feel that the causal arrow runs in the other direction, and is therefore a good thing, even though it’s also terrifying.

Here’s what I mean - I don’t think Trump took millions of otherwise reasonable, rational people, and turned them into rabid bigots. I think that we had millions of rabid bigots in this country already. They didn’t feel able to speak or act on those disgusting attitudes. However, with the rise of Trump, they felt empowered, as though it was now OK, they had been given permission to be publicly racist, sexist, homophobic, you name it.

And, in the long run, that’s a good thing. No, it’s not a good thing that millions of Americans hold those horrifyingly hostile views towards others. But if they do hold those views (and it certainly appears that they do), it is good that we now all know it. Because I don’t think most of us realized the depth, and extent, of bigotry in this country. It has been simmering under the surface, but now it’s broken through and we can all see it. And we have to be able to see it to address it - invisible bigotry is unaddressed bigotry.

I have friends (we’ll call them T and C) who live in a beautiful house in a wonderful location in northern Michigan. C is very sensitive to toxins and other problems in her immediate environment. A number of years ago, she began having some respiratory issues in their home. The problems seemed to be coming from the floor in the living room.

Now, they had a number of options. They could have just ignored it, since it wasn’t really all that bad. They could have put down new carpet, or refinished the wood, and hoped that replacing the surface would be enough. Or, they could pull up the floorboards, inspect the subfloor and joists to determine the extent of the problem, and conceivably put themselves on the hook for time consuming, expensive, and life-disrupting repairs to solve a deep-seated problem.

They pulled up the floorboards. They discovered black mold all through the subfloor, joists, and parts of the walls and basement. This required ripping out and replacing large amounts of material in the house, some of it structural. It costs a mint. They had to live elsewhere while the work was done.

However, if they had done nothing, and lived with it, the mold would have spread and gotten worse. If they had gone with a surface treatment, the result would have been the same as doing nothing, although it might have taken longer to manifest. Only by pulling up the floor and exposing the true extent of the problem could it actually be fixed.

I see the Trump candidacy as helping pull up the floorboards in this country, exposing the moldy, rotten attitudes which many of our fellow citizens hold. My neighbor’s sign is a view of that black mold. But it’s also a wake-up call that more needs fixing than we probably realized.

In previous columns, I’ve expressed the views that overall, we’re moving in the direction of Progressive victory, and that we’ll continue to do so. We elected an African-American President.  We almost elected a woman. And keep in mind, that while a bigot won the election, a woman won the vote. Hilary got over 2.5 million ore votes than Trump.

However, I’ve also expressed the admonition that this doesn’t mean we can get complacent or rest on this progress. We can’t.

But now that we’ve exposed the extent of the problem, we can get to work on it with a vigor that I think many of us didn’t realize was needed.

A friend has taken issue with my description of the current political situation as analogous to Hemlock Control (see installment #1 for a description of Hemlock Control). He thinks that it’s more akin to a crown fire which results in the death of the Hemlock grove, and a replacement with something else. I think Hemlocks (Progressive ideals, in this metaphor) are far more resilient than he gives them credit for, and that while we’re seeng a big fire coming, it’s far too early to predict the demise of the Hemlock grove

And That’s The Tsuga’s View

In the next installment of “The Tsuga’s View”, I explain why we almost all of the current attacks on the environment are, by the very way they are presented, in fact progress.

The Tsuga’s View - Part 3

A Long-Term Look At Environmental, Political, and Social Issues, From The Perspective Of Michigan’s Oldest (and Most Optimistic) Tree Species

Installment 3

By Marvin Roberson

I’m a huge Gloria Steinem fan. She is one of the smartest, most insightful, most thought-provoking people I’ve ever read, heard speak, or met (I say “met” just to burnish my credibility - 15 years ago, I paid to sit in an auditorium with hundreds of other people to hear her speak - after, I waited in line to have her sign my book, while I gushed like a fanboy - I don’t think she has me on speed dial).

However, lately, I think she is misreading the strength of our social fabric in a way that my 16-year-old niece Molly is not, and I think Molly is right.

The past couple years, and especially during this election, Ms. Steinem has been admonishing us to remember how hard-fought the gains were in civil rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights, etc. She has expressed concern that many young people today take those gains for granted, without recognizing that they are relatively recent gains. She has also been cautioning us to consider this progress. as fragile and possibly temporary.

I think she’s right about almost all of that. However, I think that the fundamental foundations of that progress are fairly secure, and I think that the very fact of the manner in which the younger generation takes it for granted is both an indicator of this, and a measure of how secure it is.

Let’s take an example from Molly. She is a Junior in High School, at the same school where her mother (my sister) and I went, our mother went, and her mother and father (our grandparents) went. We’ll follow a couple examples through the time our family attended this school.

This fall, a young man with Autism was elected to the Homecoming Court. Some folks made a big deal about this. Molly was outraged about that, expressing the opinion that it was not relevant and no one’s business, he was just a student like anyone else.

Think about that in the context of my family’s attendance at that school. During my grandparents’ tenure, this young man would have been hidden at home or sent away to a “home” (as in fact my eldest uncle was). During my Mom’s time, he would have likely been in “Special Ed” classes, possibly not even in the same building as the rest of the students. When my sister and I were there, he probably would have been beginning to be “Mainstreamed”, where he had some Special Ed classes, but possibly some regular classes, and he would have had “opportunities” to interact with the “regular” students.

And today, not only is he eligible, but in fact elected, to the Homecoming Court. And not in the “aren’t we tolerant for electing him” sense that would have been the case a decade ago. No, his classmates don’t think that it’s terrific that he’s “overcoming his autism” to accomplish this. They think it simply isn’t relevant, and is no one’s business, it’s just part of who he is.

This is progress that was hard won, and fought bitterly. “Mainstreaming” was very controversial when I was in high school. Parents expressed concern over the safety of their children interacting with “those kids”. My family actually went to court to help establish the first group home for developmentally disabled adults in our county (for the uncle who was sent away as described above).

But it’s not fragile. And it’s not going away, exactly because of the fact that Molly takes it for granted, not in spite of that fact. That doesn’t mean folks with disabilities won’t experience intolerance - recall Trump’s horrific mocking of a disabled reporter. It doesn’t mean that some, or many, individuals won’t experience serious discrimination, and the resulting isolation, rejection, and pain that comes with it.

And we need to fight against all of that. But remember, we’re taking the long view here. And in the long term, the student Molly voted for in the Homecoming Court isn’t being sent away to a “Home” for “people like him”. He’s part of the fabric of our society, and he’s here to stay.

Let’s follow another example through my family’s history at that same school. My grandfather graduated from that school. My grandmother stopped in 6th grade, because that’s as far as girls were allowed to go. My mother graduated at the top of her class. However, she was told not to apply for law school at UM, and had to forsake her dream for something “more suited to a woman”.

My sister, however, has more degrees than you can shake a stick at, and her daughters look poised to do the same. Heaven help the fool who tries to tell either girl (or their mother, or in fact their uncle) that they are disqualified from some field of study pr profession by their gender.

Or consider this - my grandmother attained voting age at a time when voting age didn’t affect her - because women were simply not allowed to vote.

My mother vividly described her joy at seeing the beginnings of women representing Americans in Congress. My sister and I both were ecstatic at the prospect of being able to vote for a woman for President of the United States, for the first time ever.

And here’s where I will again cite Molly over my hero Ms. Steinem. Gloria Steinem (and many others, I’m using her as an example, not singling her out) has expressed concern over the fact that not enough young people, especially women, understand how historic that was, and what a bitter disappointment the loss represented.

I get that, and I understand it. However, I asked Molly about that. Her response was that while she understood that no woman had been elected as President of the US, that all it meant was that no woman had been elected - not that being a woman disqualified a candidate from office, or that no woman could be elected.

And that, folks, is Progress - permanent, irreversible progress. It is unthinkable that the US will ever again tell women they can’t vote because they are women. It is unthinkable that policy makers will ever again debate in public the question of whether a person’s gender in and of itself makes one unsuited for office.

And again, don’t get me wrong. Some (maybe many) people feel that way (see the next installment). There will still be obstacles, and attempts to roll back progress. Reproductive rights are clearly under attack.

But the fact that women vote, run for office and get elected, will eventually be President of the US, and that no one is debating these fundamental rights, means that we have been, and will continue, to move in the Progressive direction, and that’s good news, even in this terrifying time.

And that’s the Tsuga’s View

In the next installment of “The Tsuga’s View”, I explain why we should thank my neighbor for helping pull up the floorboards, and why the current political situation is not yet a crown fire, no matter what my friend says.