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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Michigan Sierra Club Announces Legislative Priorities for 2017-2018

Michigan Chapter
Legislative Priorities for 2017-2018

Want to help us make these visions a reality? Take a minute to call your State Representative and State Senator - tell them which of our priorities you want them to work on.

Expand Our Use of Clean Energy and Create Green Jobs
Michigan currently obtains most of its electricity from fossil fuel sources such as coal and natural gas. These energy sources are highly polluting and are a large source of greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change. However, clean energy such as solar, wind, and energy efficiency create green jobs, stabilize long-term energy prices, decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, and mitigate our impact on the climate. The Sierra Club supports policies that increase our use of clean energy, including but not limited to renewable energy standards, Energy Optimization Standards, clean contracts (setting a fair price to sell energy back to the grid), distributed generation (generating energy from small sources like rooftop solar), and expanding access to community clean energy projects. “Renewable” or “clean” energy should not be defined to include any fossil fuels, nuclear energy, incinerating waste, or unsustainable forms of biomass.

Fund Environmental Protection
Over the last decade, state funding for environmental protection has plummeted from about $100 million to $35 million. Aside from that, DEQ and DNR funding generated from fees and leases proves significant, but not adequate to support our environmental program. In addition, an over-reliance on permits and fees leads to these agencies being overly dependent on the industries they are monitoring. Combined, the budgets of these two agencies make up less than 1% of our state's allocations. Sierra Club strongly opposes efforts to further cut funding or keep it at the same levels because of its ability to significantly undermine environmental protection and community health. We support a steady increase in investment to the DEQ and DNR for the sake of safe drinking water, expanded recycling, recreation revenue, and the multitude of benefits these environmental programs offer. Our ground water, abundant surface waters, wetlands and shorelines are the foundation of our critically important tourism industry and our high quality of life.

Enact a Ban and Environmental Safeguards on Hydraulic Fracturing
The Michigan legislature must enact a Ban on High Volume Slickwater Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing; in the absence of a ban, we need a Michigan-specific framework to protect the public and our water resources. That framework should require gas companies to follow all state laws regarding water withdrawals – something they are currently exempt from. We should require gas companies to disclose up front all chemicals to be used in the drilling process. The permitting process must require full public participation, which currently does not exist. Fracking is too dangerous for the Great Lakes State and it stands in the way of making progress toward reducing the impacts of climate change and achieving true energy independence. In addition to fracking, we need to ensure that other oil and gas extraction technologies such as acidization and well flooding are adequately regulated and monitored to avoid adverse impacts on our water resources and public health.

Defend Michigan’s Public Lands and Natural Resources
Even though our economy is struggling, the state’s travel and tourism business constantly flourishes, generating $955 million state tax revenue and employing 200,000 people. Michigan’s public lands and natural resources are essential to supporting tourism and should be properly managed to deliver the Pure Michigan promise. The Sierra Club fights for protection of public lands, a sustainable forestry plan, the use of biodiversity as an ecological goal, and the ability of the Department of Natural Resources to own and manage public land.

Mitigate Michigan’s Pipeline Problems
The Great Lakes and Michigan’s inland water bodies are threatened by aging pipelines and new pipeline proposals all across the state, carrying both oil and natural gas. Eminent domain is also causing conflicts between property owners and companies trying to build new pipelines. The legislature should enact laws to increase pipeline safety, disclosure, and emergency spill response planning. The Sierra Club is specifically working to stop the flow of oil through the Mackinac Straits carried by Enbridge’s Line 5 pipelines.

Protect Water Resources
Our Great Lakes hold one fifth of the world’s fresh surface water, but are threatened economically and ecologically by untreated sewage, industrial pollutants, invasive species, factory farm pollution, habitat loss, nutrient runoff, and degradation. The Sierra Club supports policies that make sure we have safe, clean, and affordable water such as banning aquaculture in the Great Lakes, banning the application of factory farm waste on frozen or snow-covered ground, investing in green infrastructure, sustainable wastewater and water infrastructure, and keeping public control of Michigan’s water. The Michigan legislature must enact laws that will reduce agricultural nutrient pollution which leads to toxic algae blooms in the Great Lakes.

End Environmental Injustice
Sierra Club believes that all people, regardless of racial/ethnic identity or socio-economic status, have a right to a clean and healthy environment and the right to effectively participate in their government to achieve that end. No communities should bear disproportionate amounts of pollution because of their demographics or socio-economic status. Local citizens who deal with this pollution on a daily basis must be given a voice and empowered to defend their communities. The lead contamination of drinking water in Flint that resulted from negligence and criminal conduct involving state officials demands justice for Flint residents in the form of safe, affordable drinking water and long-term response and support related to the health, education and economic impacts on the community. The Legislature and Governor must take responsibility for replacing all lead water pipes in Flint and appropriate the funds needed to fulfill this obligation. The full text of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice policy can be found at: http://www.sierraclub.org/policy/environmental-justice

Restore Citizen Oversight and Public Participation
For too long, concerned citizens have been ignored by our State Government. Lawmakers should restore accountability by reinstating independent, transparent bodies to oversee the DEQ and DNR like the bipartisan Water Resources Commission and Air Pollution Control Commission from the 1970’s and 1980’s. These would be made up of a balanced cross section of representatives of the general public, science, regulated industries and agencies. These bodies would oversee all aspects of the regulation, permitting and enforcement, providing an on-going public forum for both victims of pollution and those concerned about agency overreach to have their complaints reviewed and responded to.

Expand Access to Public/Mass Transit
The Sierra Club supports transportation policy and systems that minimize the impacts on and use of land, airspace and waterways, minimizes the consumption of fuel, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. We support transportation planning that takes into account pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users. The full text of the Sierra Club’s Transportation policy can be found at: http://www.sierraclub.org/policy/transportation

Improve Access to Democracy
We are facing many proposals that would make it harder for individuals to vote, increase the role of money in politics, and decrease political campaign finance transparency. Lawmakers currently design their legislative district boundaries in a partisan way that undermines public confidence in government and reduces accountability to constituents. These proposals make it harder for individual citizens and the Sierra Club to be heard by elected officials. The Sierra Club advocates for getting the money out of politics, allowing no-reason absentee voting, increasing government/campaign transparency, creating an unbiased redistricting process, and stopping voter suppression.

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."