Gary Wilson's thoughts on Great Lakes issues and occasionally, other things
Conflicted Whitmer supports continued operation of aged nuclear plant that borders Lake Michigan
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.
Non-profit groups ticked at Biden for restoration funding cut. Quibble over slight in spite on $1 billion windfall.
According to folklore, hyper-wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller was once asked how much money is enough. “Just a little bit more,” Rockefeller responded.
That sounds like the current reaction of Great Lakes advocates who are disappointed at President Joe Biden’s proposed budget that makes a slight cut to the sacred Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). That’s the federal program designed to restore the Great Lakes from the ravages of the peak industrial era.
GLRI was initiated by President George W. Bush (the son) and first-funded by Congress after President Barack Obama pushed for it in his first budget. President Donald Trump tried to cut all of its funding but Congress said no.
Biden is continuing the funding but is taking a different approach.
It’s true, Biden’s budget would reduce GLRI funding from $348 million annually to $340 million. But the lead non-profit group on all things GLRI, the Healing Our Waters Coalition, called the cut a “head scratcher” saying “it really doesn’t make sense” to cut what it sees as a “marquee” program.
And in fact, the advocates want an increase for GLRI to $400 million and are lobbying Congress for that amount.
But the crying-poor advocates seem to have forgotten that Biden put $1 billion for GLRI in the big infrastructure bill that recently passed. Funding for GLRI has waxed and waned within a tight range since 2011, but this $1 billion infusion is unprecedented and it’s in addition to the annual funding.
The good news is that the $1 billion windfall will be targeted at cleaning up long neglected toxic sediment sites like the Detroit River. In spite of the $3.8 billion GLRI has received since 2010, the Detroit River still contains almost all of the estimated 3.5 million cubic yards of sediment it had in 2010.
It’s reasonable to ask, where did all that money go? The answer, to 6,000 projects big and small spread over eight states, 15 federal agencies and multiple state and local organizations. The program is classic overreach, a mile wide and an inch deep.
Biden’s focus on the toxic sites, intentional or not, will hopefully bring some rigor and financial discipline to GLRI.
Rather than using their time and access to members of Congress to quibble about a budget cut that amounts to a rounding error, here, a few ways advocates could better use their time and expertise.
Stop using GLRI money to fix Lake Erie’s algae problems. The program has spent $100 million between 2010 and 2020 on Lake Erie with few if any results. I know of no credible source who thinks Lake Erie’s problem can be remedied with money. And publicly tell Congress what everyone knows but few are reluctant to say; nutrient pollution from farms needs to be regulated in some form so Lake Erie can shed the summer toxic algae bloom syndrome.
Tell Congress the truth. GLRI needs a reset, not a tweak every few years. Not every federal agency deserves funding. Not every pet project is worthy. If you were trying to design a federal program for inefficiency, GLRI could be the template.
Demand transparency and accountability. A recent study revealed that success of a GLRI project is largely determined by the project manager. Sort of like grading your own test and telling the teacher you got an “A.” And, the study said, the public does not have access to necessary data that could help evaluate the success of projects.
I’ve followed the work of the Great Lakes restoration advocates since 2006. It’s a smart, determined and dedicated group and arguably, GLRI wouldn’t have happened without its advocacy against the odds.
But like any organization, it occasionally needs critical self-examination. It should get out of the echo chamber and ask itself the hard questions. Make decisions that won’t please everyone.
Because continued hyper-focus on money won’t restore the Great Lakes.
Michigan: The Potash Mining State
Controversial mining project to receive $50 million in taxpayer funding; will tap two million gallons of groundwater daily from already sensitive area
I’m old enough to remember when the motto on Michigan’s license plates declared the state a “Water Wonderland,” justifiably so given that it’s basically surrounded by the Great Lakes and is home to countless inland lakes.
“Up North’s” Black Lake was a vacation spot when I was a kid and those license plates were affixed to my parent’s Ford.
A subsequent version of the original plate that proclaimed Michigan a “Water-Winter Wonderland” is on the cusp of making a comeback based on demand, according to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
But Benson may want to stop the presses given recent events. Perhaps a better motto would be “The Potash Mining State.”
The mega-budget bill just signed by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer contains a line-item, a fragmented sentence actually, that says “Michigan one-time grant” of $50 million. There was no further explanation which, of course, leads to inquiries about where $50 million is going.
In the run up to passage of the budget bill, the buzz was the undefined $50 million would support a potash mine near Mecosta. Potash is an agricultural fertilizer and Michigan is the home to a lot of it.
The mining company is in the final stages of receiving the necessary permits in a process that started under the administration of former Gov. Rick Snyder, and is wrapping up under Gov. Whitmer.
But here’s the kicker, to extract all of that potash requires withdrawal of groundwater, a lot. Two million gallons a day. That’s approximately five times the amount of groundwater that Snyder and Whitmer have allowed Nestle (now Blue Triton) to take for bottled water from the same geographical area, according to Detroit Free Press reporting.
That's water held in trust for the people by the state.
It gets worse. The wastewater, brine, will be sent back underground for storage. Sure, we’re told the process is safe and regulations will be enforced but we’ve heard that story before.
I asked Whitmer’s office what justified the $50 million in taxpayer dollars and withdrawal of all that groundwater that helps make Michigan the “Water Wonderland,” or Pure Michigan, the current way the state presents itself.
Spokesperson Robert Leddy responded saying Michigan needs to diversify its economy to stay competitive in the world and cited Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a justification for the potash mine.
Russia, now a rogue country, is a large producer of potash. Not mentioned by Leddy is that Canada, a really friendly country that borders Michigan and the U.S., is by far the world’s largest producer of potash.
Canada is also a large trading partner with Michigan and the U.S. Plus, Canada is financing the new bridge under construction between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit. That’s a big infrastructure deal inked in a time when infrastructure wasn’t happening. It’s hard to imagine that the U.S. and Canada couldn’t strike a deal for potash.
And Leddy said the environment would be protected because Michigan’s Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) “will be there every step of the way to ensure compliance.”
Worth noting is that EGLE’s track record for protecting water is checkered, at best, given that it gave Nestle the green light to take more groundwater from the Mecosta area. That was in spite of overwhelming public comment in opposition to the increased withdrawals.
And EGLE’s oversight failure of Benton Harbor’s water issues led to an intervention by the U.S. EPA, a move that put Michigan back in the national spotlight on a water issue. Plus, there are civil rights complaints against the agency over air quality in environmental justice communities. The potash mine also requires air permits.
Leddy’s complete statement is below as are links to Detroit Free Press and Bridge Michigan reporting, and a press release from the potash mining company.
Like most issues, Michigan’s decision to approve the potash mine and pony up $50 million in taxpayer money is more complicated than can quickly be explained here.
What isn’t complicated to understand is that Michigan is casual with management of its groundwater, often referred to as the sixth Great Lake.
And why is Michigan, in a supposed forward-looking era with a supposed forward-looking administration supporting a new extraction venture anyway? When I hear extraction, I think legacy commodities like oil and coal, neither of which reflect the future.
In a follow up statement, Leddy said the budget legislation the governor signed “will go a long way toward making our state a national leader on the environment.”
I get it. Leddy took license to put the governor’s action in the most favorable light. It’s how it works in politics, especially in an election year no matter which party is in power.
Sadly for the Water Wonderland state, the facts indicate Michigan is heading in the wrong direction on protecting its vast water reserves.
No matter which party is in power.
Statement of Gov. Whitmer spokesperson Robert Leddy.
“Governor Whitmer has been focused on growing and diversifying Michigan’s economy in a way that makes our state competitive with the rest of the world. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine causing unprecedented disruptions to the global supply chain, it’s crucial that we work to protect our state’s economic security by bringing critical industries, like Potash, back home where Michiganders can do the job better and more reliably. The Michigan Potash and Salt Company are adding their names to a growing list of companies who will call our state home, creating hundreds of new jobs and investing more than $1 billion to grow our economy.
“As with every investment, businesses must do their part by following all permitting or regulatory requirements to be good stewards of our state’s natural resources, and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy will be there every step of the way to ensure compliance.
Detroit Free Press reporting on the potash mine.
Bridge Michigan reporting on the potash mine.
Press release from Michigan Potash and Salt Co,
Chicago-based environmental journalist