Past presidents have made big EJ pledges only to see their efforts fade. Now comes the Biden administration with a splashy new initiative.
As announcements go, they don’t get much bigger or more important than one last week from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“EPA Launches New National Office Dedicated to Advancing Environmental Justice and Civil Rights,” read the press release headline.
In it, Administrator Michael Regan talked about the commitment he and President Joe Biden have made to right the wrongs that have historically impacted communities of color; think Flint and Benton Harbor drinking water crises and Detroit's air quality in the Great Lakes region.
“With the launch of a new national program office, we are embedding environmental justice and civil rights into the DNA of EPA and ensuring that people who’ve struggled to have their concerns addressed see action to solve the problems they’ve been facing for generations,” Regan said.
At the nuts and bolts level, the new EJ office will be elevated to the status of the air and water programs, the traditional pillars of EPA’s work. There will be a $60 billion dollar investment in EJ and “more than 200 policy actions to move the president’s ambitious environmental justice and civil rights agenda forward,” according to the press release.
The new office will be the successor to three existing offices including environmental justice and civil rights compliance.
Heady stuff and good news, right? Sure, but some background is relevant.
This isn’t the first time a presidential administration put a spotlight on environmental justice. Sympathetic Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama also made EJ pledges.
In 2011 Obama announced a plan to “take a big step forward on environmental justice.” The plan would help federal agencies “integrate environmental justice into the programs they run, the policies they make and the activities they engage in,” according to the announcement on the White House website.
To codify his emphasis on EJ, President Obama brought federal agency executives together to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that committed each agency to development of environmental justice strategies, which Obama said was a “top priority” for his administration.
Before Obama in 1994, President Clinton issued an executive order that directed federal agencies to “develop a strategy for implementing environmental justice” and promote nondiscrimination in federal programs that affect human health and the environment.”
Presumably, if either the Clinton or Obama plans had been successful or even advanced the cause, there would be no need for another big splash environmental justice announcement from the Biden EPA.
So now the task falls to Michael Regan, the seemingly affable former top environmental executive from North Carolina who was tabbed for the top EPA job by President Biden.
Can Regan make good on EJ pledges where his predecessors failed? Will he avoid the entrenched bureaucratic tendencies of big federal agencies that focus on process? Or will he defy the odds and fix his attention on delivering positive outcomes, results that actually improve the lives of people in EJ communities?
Regan inherited an EPA that was at best deprioritized and ignored by the Trump administration.
And remember it was the Obama EPA under Gina McCarthy that botched its oversight responsibility that could have prevented or lessened the impact of the Flint water crisis. Years later, there is still a citizen lawsuit against the EPA pending in federal court over the agency’s handling of Flint.
Then came Benton Harbor’s Flint-like water crisis last year where activists had to petition the EPA to intervene as it did in Flint. Similar to Flint, the EPA Inspector General recently announced it is examining the agency’s role in Benton Harbor. That was on Regan’s watch.
The new Biden, Regan EJ initiative has the advantage of a lot of money to distribute and doling out big chunks of money makes for big headlines that imply progress. But federal money can’t cure all ills and is easily squandered.
The real test for Regan will be to change the culture of the EPA to one that aggressively enforces existing laws. And lobbies Congress for new ones where needed. To eliminate a check the box mentality where agency staff can do everything by the book and still not generate a positive outcome for EJ communities.
So let’s give Michael Regan a clean slate to start. Let’s hope he can generate positive EJ outcomes where his predecessors came up short.
Then hold him accountable to his pledge to make life better in environmental justice communities so a future president doesn’t have to announce a big EJ initiative.
As legal cases linger and loom, lessons from the Flint water crisis remain unlearned by Michigan and federal regulators.
The long and winding legal road of the Flint water crisis may have hit a turning point last week.
A federal judge ruled against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a negligence suit brought by Flint citizens.The EPA had sought to bypass the district court and take its defense directly to an appellate court, but Judge Judith Levy wasn’t buying the agency’s plea.
Previously, EPA asked the court to dismiss the citizen negligence case claiming it is immune from private citizen suits, but that request was also rejected. That leaves EPA 0-2 in its legal attempts to deny accountability for the Flint water crisis.
Michigan settled a civil suit brought by Flint residents for $600 million and criminal cases against Michigan officials are still pending, though chances of convictions are starting to dim.
While the state of Michigan was responsible for the crisis, the EPA had direct oversight authority for drinking water and knew about Flint’s issues. But It didn’t use its emergency authority to intervene until well after the crisis had hit a tipping point.
That’s when Susan Hedman, the EPA regional administrator in Chicago with direct oversight responsibility, resigned under pressure. Hedman had told the Detroit News that her hands were tied when it came to bringing information to the public and action by EPA was delayed while legal counsel was consulted in order to determine the agency's authority, the News reported.
In 2018 the EPA’s Inspector General released its review of the agency’s handling of Flint and said that “management weaknesses” delayed its response to the Flint crisis.
The IG report called on EPA to “strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs to improve efficiency and effectiveness of the agency’s response to drinking water contamination emergencies.”
How’d that “strengthen oversight” advisory workout?
Not so well in Michigan as evidenced in 2021 in Benton Harbor where citizens and activist groups had been pleading with Michigan’s Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to sound the alarm about lead levels in drinking water.
Hitting a wall, the groups filed a formal petition with the EPA to intervene, which it eventually did. But it was a soft intervention that smacked of collaboration with EGLE while blaming the under-resourced city of Benton Harbor for deficiencies
And, EPA in a press release basically absolved itself of responsibility saying “EPA’s involvement has been instrumental to driving recent actions to ensure people are safe and healthy.”
Once again, prevention, getting in front of a potential problem, took a back seat to reaction, swooping in like a savior after an issue becomes a crisis as was the case in Flint and Benton Harbor.
And one would think that after all the national attention garnered by the Flint crisis that EPA would have Michigan’s EGLE under a microscope, but no.
The result? In February the EPA Inspector General announced that it launched a review of EPA’s handling of Benton Harbor’s lead issues. It’s Flint redux and lawsuits abound, again.
In January I asked environmental law attorney Nick Schroeck how the state of Michigan could break the cycle of repeating lawsuits based on regulation and oversight of municipal drinking water systems.
Schroeck said the lawsuits are based on regulatory failures and “the best way for the state to avoid future litigation is to have an aggressive EGLE making sure that municipalities are following the law and that people have a safe water supply.”
The key word is “aggressive” and Schroeck’s advice should apply to the EPA too.
The general nature of regulatory agencies like EGLE and EPA is to play it safe and stay within a narrow interpretation of their authority. Absent is any thought of using moral authority that would lead to decisions that are “right and good.”
I’d rather agencies take the heat that may come from breaking a few bureaucratic rules or taking a liberal interpretation of what is allowed if it protects citizens from the harm of lead in drinking water.
But that’s not the prevailing view among regulators and their overseers who think that strict adherence to regulatory protocol is necessary.
Meanwhile, the lawsuits pile up and the chances of harm to citizens remains.
A blind eye to health risks associated with Forever Chemicals?
A recent Chicago Tribune investigation reported that greater Chicago’s water and sewage agency has shipped sewage sludge that contained the Forever Chemical PFAS to area farms to be spread on fields.
The practice went on for a decade and the Tribune report said it was widely encouraged including by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
PFAS is a known, significant risk to human health. The sludge was marketed as biosolids by the agency, officially the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD).
On its website MWRD describes its biosolids program as “exemplary” and said it goes through “an extensive testing regimen to ensure each batch is of the highest quality.”
MWRD is a state agency and its commissioners who oversee its work are elected officials.
The Tribune report was authored by Michael Hawthorne, one of the country's top investigative environmental journalists and can be read here.
The practice described in the report is troubling enough on its face, especially in 2022 when we are supposedly in a more enlightened and transparent era.
But equally concerning is MWRD”s official response to the Tribune report as posted on its website.
MWRD released a lawerly statement saying its biosolids program follows all the applicable rules and regulations. Ok, a predictable response and it may be technically true.
But what followed in MWRD’s response is cause for concern.
“With regards to human health concerns, the U.S. EPA is currently doing a risk assessment on PFAS substances. The risk assessment is expected to be completed by 2024,” MWRD said in the release.
It’s as if MWRD knew nothing about PFAS’ health risks, in spite of the fact it has received widespread coverage for years. Plus, it’s the agency’s job to know.
The statement made no mention that the EPA website says “exposure to PFAS may be harmful to human health” and lists cancer, diminished capacity of the immune system and developmental delays in children among a list of the risks associated with PFAS exposure.
It is hard to believe that a state agency with publicly elected board members could be so blind to a human health issue like Forever Chemicals.
I contacted Cameron Davis, a commissioner on the MWRD Board of Directors. Disclosure, I’ve known Davis for approaching 20 years.
He has been a prominent environmental advocate and executive working on Great Lakes issues including as a senior adviser to the EPA Administrator during the Obama administration.
The Tribune article said Davis had been pressing MWRD staff to take on the PFAS issue.
In an email, I asked Davis if he was onboard with MWRD’s press release on the Tribune article. Specifically, the section of the response where MWRD failed to address the well-known health risks from PFAS exposure.
Davis didn’t comment on the specific health concern question, said he is still working on the issue and referred me to his quotes in the Tribune article as his response.
In the Tribune article Davis pivoted away from any responsibility MWRD may have and said, “Public utilities across the country didn’t create this problem, but they’re forced to deal with it in ways that put the screws to all of us.”
Davis said protecting public health comes first and manufacturers need to be held accountable.
It’s worth mentioning that the EPA’s current top executive in the Great Lakes region, Debra Shore, was a commissioner on the MWRD board from 2006 until 2021. While there, Shore was known to be an advocate for the agency to take more progressive stances on environmental issues.
MWRD’s response to PFAS in biosolids reminds me of the EPA’s early reaction to the Flint water crisis where the agency dawdled, deflected and blamed others while Flint citizens suffered.
In that case, the Great Lakes region administrator who had oversight of Flint’s lead in drinking water issues eventually resigned under pressure.
A follow up investigation by EPA’s Inspector General said “management weaknesses” prolonged the Flint crisis. And six years later there is still a pending federal lawsuit against EPA that was brought by Flint citizens.
The current MWRD board makeup is a diverse mix of relatively young and veteran commissioners. They have a high public profile frequently appearing at community and educational events that are designed to engage the public.
Let’s hope in the confines of the boardroom they have the rigor to make the hard decisions concerning PFAS in biosolids and other human health issues.
MWRD’s full statement on the Chicago Tribune article is here.
Prohibits privatization of water system and makes incremental progress on affordability
In May 2019, newly sworn in Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot wasted no time in providing relief to people facing water shut offs for lack of funds to pay their bills.
Lightfoot, a Democrat, had previously said “when you cut somebody off from water, you’re effectively evicting them and putting them on the street. We will not do that in the city.”
On day one in office, Lightfoot directed the water commissioner to immediately end shut offs and she promised to work toward an affordability plan.
Fast forward to last week and the city council officially strengthened Lighfoot’s shut off directive by codifying it in law. Incremental progress was made on affordability but a comprehensive plan remains a work in progress.
The council also prohibited the city from allowing the system to be privatized, a slippery slope to loss of control and higher rates for something that is fundamental to human health.
Lightfoot’s drinking water action should not be minimized. She accomplished it by securing buy-in from the unwieldy 50 member city council in an era where the council is no longer subservient like it was to powerful former mayors like Richard Daley, the son, and Rahm Emanuel.
I posted Lighfoot’s no shut offs and privatization ban accomplishment on Twitter for the rest of the region to see what is possible when elected officials are willing to take a risk. I had barely hit send when I received a response from Monica Lewis-Patrick in Detroit.
“Congratulations Chicago on being the leadership we wish we had in Detroit,” said Lewis-Patrick, who leads the water-justice activist group We the People of Detroit.
You see, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan hasn't made ending shut offs a priority. Yes, there is a shut off moratorium in place in Detroit based on Covid protocols but it expires later this year.
But that’s like shooting a layup, it’s easy. And it also smacked of benign neglect as in, you have a right to water during this pandemic, but not beyond.
Detroit recently announced an affordability plan but no absolute end to shut offs.
I wanted to be optimistic that Detroit would follow Chicago’s lead without parsing the issue, but that didn’t happen. The Detroit plan reads like it was written by government bureaucrats and lawyers,
Thankfully Lightfoot, who called water shut offs “heartless,” led with doing the right thing and ended them unconditionally.
That didn’t happen in Detroit.
We justifiably fawn over Piping Plovers returning to a Great Lakes beach. But outrage when people are denied drinking water? Not so much.
In case you’ve been in a years-long deep sleep, there’s been a renaissance of interest in the Great Lakes’ signature bird, the Piping Plover.
Piping Plovers were nearly extinct and were placed on the official Endangered Species list in 1986. Once 800 nesting pairs, their numbers dipped to as low as 13 and are now estimated at 65-70 in the Great Lakes region, according to the website Great Lakes Piping Plovers.
Interest in Piping Plovers has been mostly the domain of bird-watchers and not-for-profit environmental groups who used them as an example of what happened when their Great Lakes habitat was degraded as it was for decades.
And until recently, their recovery was used to illustrate how it aligns with the nascent restoration of the Great Lakes from the depths of degradation. That is until a 2019 documentary film, Monty and Rose, chronicled the return of Piping Plovers to Chicago’s Montrose Beach, a bustling urban Lake Michigan setting.
Suddenly all eyes were on the lovebirds.
The urban beach crowd rallied around the birds to protect them from the perils of beachgoers who, to put it politely, can be oblivious to beach habitat as they pursue sun, surf and fun.
The story reached a peak this past Spring when Monty died of natural causes on the beach. A plethora of media coverage followed and a memorial service was held. Hardly standard fare for the passing of a bird on a beach but Monty was no ordinary bird.
The Monty and Rose saga was a Great Lakes feel-good story that transcended age-groups and offered a ray of hope that maybe, we could make the Great Lakes a better place after decades of degradation and neglect.
But the title of this commentary includes water shutoffs, which has no connection to lovable Piping Plovers. It’s about denying access to drinking water to people who can’t afford to pay their bills. And this is happening in the most water-wealthy area of the world.
That’s not lovable, it’s cruel. It’s the opposite of caring for cute birds making an environmental comeback on a big-city beach.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said when she ordered an end to shut offs that when you deny people water, you basically put them on the street.
As much as Monty and Rose deserved our adoration, should we not express equal outrage when government agencies deny basic drinking water to people?
Yes, there are grassroots groups who champion their end in places like Detroit where water shutoffs have been rampant. They also push for affordability programs that will allow access to water for all, no matter their financial status.
But water equity is not top of mind for politicians of either political party or the mainstream environmental groups.
I have heard water rights activists say the Great Lakes intelligentsia - politicians, commissions, agency-types and the NGO’s - thinks more about Invasive (Asian) Carp and bioswales than water shut offs. That was true 10 years ago when I first heard it and it remains true today.
President Joe Biden, who ran on environmental justice, did not include water affordability in his Build Back Better plan in spite of the pleadings of Detroit Democratic Rep. Rashida Tbalb and others.
In 2014, Canadian social justice advocate and international water rights icon Maude Barlow brought the United Nations to Detroit. Barlow wanted the U.N. to observe and document the pain and suffering Detroiters were incurring as a result of water shut offs.
Given the official inertia over ending shut offs and implementing affordability plans, maybe it’s time for another U.N. visit. A visit to chronicle a day, week or month in the life of a family without access to water
I suspect Monty and Rose would approve.
Flush with $600K in federal funding diverted from Great Lakes restoration, Illinois tries to rebrand Invasive (Asian) Carp.
By Gary Wilson
It could have been an Onion headline
From ‘Carp” to ‘Copi’: unpopular fish getting a makeover
The Associated Press headline referred to the recent initiative to rebrand the fish formerly known as the Asian Carp, now Invasive Carp, to the concocted name, Copi.
At least that’s what Illinois, which “market-tested” Copi, will call it in yet another attempt by the state to make carp more palatable to the fish-consuming public. A few years ago the name “Silverfin” was floated but no takers.
Michigan officials aren’t impressed though and will still call the Invasive Carp by its proper name.
The rebranding is part of the Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources’ effort to reduce the population of Invasive Carp in the Illinois River to keep them away from the Great Lakes.
A permanent solution to keep the carp at bay is modifying the Brandon Road Lock and Dam past which the carp must traverse to get to the Great Lakes. But since 2009, efforts for an infrastructure fix have moved at glacial speed with late 2020’s now the estimated completion date. But that assumes funding is approved and Illinois is willing to incur a significant portion of the cost of the project, neither are a given.
But here's the real head-scratcher. The Copi branding endeavor is being funded with $600,000 in federal Great Lakes restoration money. Restoration, as in cleaning up toxic hot spots that remain from the peak industrial era of the 1950’s and ‘60’s.
Restoration as in restoring wetlands, removing dams to allow for free-flow of rivers and fish species to be in a natural habitat. Or educating grade-schoolers and beyond on the value of the Great Lakes since they will be the custodians of them.
I can think of no reason to spend $600,000 of taxpayer money on a frivolous marketing project, the type of which never gained traction in the past. And apparently others agree as my inbox and Twitter feed received a number of WTF inquiries.
And while we’re discussing names, what’s up with the use of “Invasive Carp?”
I understand the need to drop “Asian.” It’s socially inappropriate as it tags people of Asian descent with a negative they don’t deserve, similar to Asian Flu. We Americans need to stop doing that.
But “invasive” is not fair to the fish. The carp didn’t “invade” from Asia, they were brought here. Once here in the American South they went where the water allowed them to go, as fish do, and migrated up the Mississippi River. But our need to demonize what we don’t like or understand is alive and well.
But some good could come from this $600,000 folly if it is used to take a serious look at the multi-billion dollar Great Lakes restoration program that funded the “Copi” initiative.
How many more Copi-type, pork-barrel projects has it funded? I bet more than a few.
Michigan on the sidelines as momentum builds for cleanup of decades old toxic sediment
There’s an axiom that goes like this. If you want to know what’s important to an elected official, don’t listen to what they say, watch what they fund.
I’m reminded of the axiom based on recent goings on with Great Lakes issues.
The U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers announced last week that the cost to build a new Soo Lock to enhance shipping could double or even triple from the original $929 million estimate.
Michigan and the region have wanted the lock upgrade since the mid-1980’s.
Work on the new lock has been underway for some time as Congress already approved and funded the project, which included about $50 million that Michigan kicked in while former Gov. Rick Snyder was in office. That contribution was said to be the commitment the feds were looking for to get the project approved.
A federal project costing more than anticipated isn’t news, it’s basically expected. But not by the whopping amount that doubles or potentially triples its cost.
Asked to explain the increase, an Army Corps spokesperson cited “market conditions” as the culprit and said it was working on an update to Congress, according to Detroit News reporting.
Sources told me that while market conditions may have changed, economists who developed cost estimates were out of touch with the reality of the magnitude of the project. And now with the addition of federal infrastructure money in play, there’s too much federal money chasing not enough contractors. The perfect storm for higher costs.
Politicians from both political parties in Michigan who worked to secure the funding expressed the requisite outrage, but acknowledged they will have to find a way to fund the project.
That’s because the project is a priority for the state of Michigan, writ large. And priorities get funded.
Iconic river is a low priority
The other side of the coin is also true. When something isn’t a priority it doesn’t make the budget, even when cash is available like it is now.
A classic example is the cleanup of toxic sediment in the Detroit River that’s been there for decades, it hasn’t been a priority.
The river contains over 6 million cubic yards of sediment of which, the U.S. EPA estimates 3.5 million is toxic - as in PCBs, grease, metals and a lot of bacteria.
Since 2010 with the advent of federal Great Lakes restoration funding, $3.8 billion has been spent on an array of projects including on sites like the Detroit River. But very little spent on sediment remediation for the river that’s described as the heart of the Great Lakes.
But now comes President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill and Biden has promised $1 billion to clean up legacy toxic sites in the Great Lakes region. The cost for the Detroit River is at least $100 million and no surprise, it could be more according to the EPA.
But this is the federal government and that means bureaucracy. The mechanism for how to get that money hasn’t been revealed yet. And it’s likely that the current requirement for a state or local contribution will be required.
The state of Michigan would be the best source of the funding, it’s flush with cash these days and is reporting budget surpluses. But in a waffle of an answer on providing funding, a senior state executive called the Detroit River “iconic,” but dodged the question of the state kicking in from its own coffers.
You see, that’s because the Detroit River is not a priority for the state. Like it wasn’t a priority for the federal government from 2010-2022 when billions of dollars were available.
I shared that opinion with a source who is close to the issue recently at a conference about the health of the Detroit River. He bristled and said that’s not true. I replied, “ok, a low priority?” A pause and a blank stare followed and he shrugged his shoulders. I took that as a yes.
My take on Michigan is that it sees cleanup of these toxic sites like the Detroit River and its cousin the Rouge, as a federal responsibility. The state will provide staff support so it can say it’s in the game. But the river won’t be a priority, no matter that it’s arguably the most important waterway in the state.
It’s important because it’s shared with Canada, the country that’s financing the new Gordie Howe Bridge over the river that will connect Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. And because it’s the connecting point between the upper and lower lakes through which critical commodities pass that drive the regional and national economies.
And the Detroit River is important to the people of Detroit. Think Belle Isle, which the state likes to tout in its Pure Michigan ads, plus freighter watching and the Riverwalk. Not to mention people who fish from the banks of the river with PCBs lurking below. There’s no mention of that by Pure Michigan.
Michigan and other Great Lakes states are still regularly referred to as the Rust Belt, a tag the region has been unable to shake. But if you wanted to ditch that legacy moniker, one way would be to clean up the toxic mess that makes it still accurate.
At the Detroit River conference, University of Michigan - Dearborn Chancellor Domenico Grasso told the attendees that “we use ecological systems and services, but we don’t pay for them.”
That’s Michigan in a nutshell. It professes to value the river but not enough to invest money in its cleanup.
And this from my Twitter feed.
“The state of Michigan gives the city of Detroit a hard time every chance they get. It’s been that way for decades,” said a follower.
Now, the state has a chance to make amends. But it has to make its “iconic” river a priority. About $50 million like the state put up for a new Soo Lock sounds right.
It’s also the amount Michigan quietly budgeted recently to support a questionable potash mine. One that will suck up precious groundwater from the area already stressed by the state’s approval of water taking for bottled water.
Photo: The Detroit River with
Lake St. Clair to the north.
“Puffery” prevails over substance, bottled water company says in legal proceedings. But does the public care?
Companies making exaggerated claims about their products is nothing new. But when they do it about sustaining a natural resource, the stakes are raised. And how we react matters.
It was a rare occurrence.
In a legal proceeding the bottled water company, Blue Triton (ex-Nestle), said its sustainability claims like “water is at the very core of our sustainable efforts,” are simply aspirations.
It went further saying its sustainability statements were “non-actionable puffery,” according to reporting in The Intercept. Meaning, I presume, the company was puffing up its claims beyond what it’s actually doing, but that’s not illegal.
Puffery is, “exaggerated commendation especially for promotional purposes,” according to Merriam-Webster who then wrote, “hype.”
It should come as no surprise that companies hype their claims about the products they sell and the services they provide. Hasn’t that long-been understood, think caveat emptor? It’s like the fine print disclaimer, actual results may vary. The burden is on the consumer to make a discerning choice.
The surprise is that Blue Triton admitted to it. A court will sort that out but for me, there’s a bigger bottled water issue in play here. It’s as a collective, do we care?
By law, water is held in trust for the people by the state. That’s the Public Trust Doctrine. But a company extracting it, putting it in plastic bottles and selling it back to the public issue appears to be a settled practice, it’s ok. At least in Michigan.
The public, writ large, has weighed in on the issue and is onboard with the bottled water biz. If you doubt that just look at the size of the water aisle at your local big box store. Or at the carts carrying cases of water in plastic bottles headed for cars in the parking lot.
Is it of concern to the state of Michigan? Not really. Bottled water fights where grassroots activists effectively challenged the legality of the water taking is a memory from 20 years ago when Nestle was setting up shop in Michigan..
Since, there have been skirmishes between Nestle and activists but the administrations of both political parties have sided with the bottled water biz, saying they’re required to do so by law.
Change the law you may say but there’s been no political will to climb that mountain. It’s not a Gov. Gretchen Whitmer priority and other top officials like Liesl Clark, who runs Michigan’s environment agency and Attorney General Dana Nessel occasionally give it an obligatory mention. But nothing beyond rhetoric happens. And it’s not seriously on the radar of Michigan’s legislature.
So, case closed? Yes, for now.
Puffery will prevail over substance until the public rejects bottled water by weighing in with its pocketbooks. Or until politicians have an epiphany and say, “what were we thinking.”
And as long as puffery and political "see no evil" prevail, water and society will continue to be the loser.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is strident on closing the Line 5 oil pipeline to protect the Great Lakes. Turns a blind eye to Lake Michigan by moving to keep a nuclear power plant open.
The puzzling moves on environmental protection continue from the administration of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. She’s the progressive Democrat who ran for election on a strong environmental platform that was welcomed by the people of Michigan.
Recently Whitmer and the Republican controlled legislature agreed on a multi-billion dollar budget that included $1.7 billion for drinking water. That’s cause for applause. Most of the funding is found money leftover from federal Covid relief funding, so it won’t be available again. But it’s available now.
The drinking water portion is targeted at replacing lead service lines, eradicating PFAS and other water quality issues.
All good, right?
That puts Whitmer on track to keeping some of her water-related campaign promises. Well, except for the Benton Harbor water crisis where the USEPA had to intervene like it did in Flint in 2016 when Rick Snyder was governor.
But all that glittered in Michigan’s bi-partisan budget deal wasn’t gold. It included an undefined $50 million.
As budgets go, $50 million is a lot of money to not have a stated purpose. Turns out, the undefined line item was a subsidy to a private mining company that’s intended to jump start a potash mine. A project that will allow the taking of 725 million gallons of groundwater annually from an already sensitive area.
Tapping groundwater for a mining project is not progressive. It’s regressive, as is subsidizing an extraction project. That’s something a moderate Republican like Snyder would do.
Whitmer has teamed up with President Joe Biden’s energy secretary and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, on another less than progressive project. It’s an effort to secure funding to keep an aged nuclear power plant that borders Lake Michigan from shutting down.
The Palisades nuclear plant in SW Michigan is now 50 years old which is about the expected life of a nuclear plant and is scheduled to be shut down this year. The Whitmer-Granholm deal could extend its life until 2031.
The idea is that keeping the plant running will help Michigan meet its climate change goals, a top priority for Biden and Whitmer. Whitmer says the move is also to save high-paying union jobs. That’s probably an election year pitch for union votes, a constituency that struggles with some Whitmer policies. Whitmer made no mention that developing renewable energy will create high-paying jobs too.
Here’s the real head-scratcher.
Whitmer has been dogged on shutting down the old Enbridge oil pipeline that threatens the iconic Straits of Mackinac. That’s the right move and a progressive, forward-looking step that keeps her true to a campaign pledge to protect the Great Lakes. The issue is tied-up in the courts now and has an uncertain ending.
But she’s willing to extend the life of an aged nuclear power plant that’s literally on the shores of Lake Michigan. Like oil pipelines when they fail, a nuclear power plant failure can have disastrous results. One only has to look at a photo of the 50 year old Palisades plant abutting Lake Michigan to question its continued existence.
If Whitmer wanted to let the Palisades plant close but needed political cover, she only had to look to California. California, the undisputed leader in embracing climate change going back 10 years and more to the administration of former Gov. Jerry Brown.
California’s last nuclear plant is scheduled to shut down in 2024. So far, California’s progressive governor, Gavin Newsom, is letting that happen in spite of Granholm’s plea to keep it open. The community around the plant wants it shut down.
Shooting environmental layups
Whitmer seems to have pegged her environmental credibility to shutting down Line 5 and splashing money around the state for projects like replacing lead service lines.
Both are worthy endeavors but embracing them is like shooting layups, it’s easy. Press releases about spending billions of dollars make for popular headlines but it isn’t the hard and necessary work like environmental justice.
Whitmer made environmental justice a priority but she has failed. See Benton Harbor where Whitmer’s chief of the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) struggled to answer the simple question about the safety of the city’s drinking water.
And EGLE embraced the Snyder administration’s decision on taking water for bottled water. A decision made worse by subsidizing the water-sucking potash mine which is in the same area.
Whitmer wants Michigan to be seen as a state that leads, it’s a continuing thread in her statements and press releases.
If that’s the case, she should follow California’s lead and let the Palisades nuclear plant close.
Billions of dollars are being spent on Covid-19 relief needs, but water affordability for poor and dis-invested communities doesn't make the cut.
“Michigan schools get creative in spending federal Covid-19 relief funds.”
It was the “creative” in the Detroit Free Press headline that caught my eye
The relief funds are $6 billion in federal money that President Joe Biden said should be targeted at getting schools open post-pandemic. Congress said a significant part of the funding should be dedicated to help recapture lost-learning. It’s up to the states to dole out the money.
In a nutshell, the funds were to help students cope with the effects of the pandemic.
But the Free Press story put a spotlight on school districts’ creativity in their spending requests. Upgrading athletic facilities, new security systems, better nutrition via a smoothie bar and the list goes on. Are those really pandemic related issues? I doubt it.
I’ve got no ax to grind with the school districts. Many are cash-strapped and they’re taking advantage of a one-off opportunity by accessing federal largesse, warranted or not. That doesn’t make it right but it comes under the, everyone does it justification. It’s how it works in the U.S.
But how is it that federal Covid-19 relief money can be spent on smoothie bars, and none is spent on helping people in poor and dis-invested communities pay their water bills?
If there was ever a need for access to clean water, it’s during this ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
But as the states and the feds toss billions of dollars around like they’re nickels, cities like Detroit, Benton Harbor and others lack water affordability plans. Plans that remove the threat of ongoing shutoffs. What could be a better use Covid-19 relief and wellness funding?
But water affordability never seems to make the top of any politician’s agenda in Michigan.
While the Free Press story was about questionable use of federal funds, the state of Michigan is a bad actor too.
In its recent multi-billion dollar budget bill was an undefined grant of $50 million.Turns out it was for a private corporation to help jump-start a potash mine. An unnecessary venture that will take a couple million gallons of groundwater a day from an already sensitive area. (Scroll down for more on the mine.)
So as it always is, the neediest people are at the end of the funding line. The mining company will get its water while people in dis-invested communities struggle to pay water bills. And a school district will get a smoothie bar. And I'm not hearing outrage.
That’s where we are, and who we are.