Gary Wilson's thoughts on Great Lakes issues and occasionally, other things
I'll close this "worth noting in 2021" series with a couple of random thoughts. Things I've thought about but haven't reduced to writing.
How long does it take to restore an ecosystem?
It depends on who you ask. Great Lakes advocates may respond it's ongoing. There is no end date because systems are complicated, they evolve and new threats emerge. It's like funding the Department of Defense in the federal government one former Great Lakes exec told me recently. You fund it every year.
I ask because the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) is entering its 13th year. It has received $3.8 billion to date and will get an extra $1 billion spread out over the next four years plus, it's eligible for $300-$400 million a year for the next four years in the annual budget.
But legislators who have to write the checks are asking how much longer they have to do that. Florida Everglades advocates led by Sen. Marco Rubio tried to get $5 billion for the Everglades in the recent infrastructure bill, but it didn't make the cut.
That should be a heads up for the Great Lakes region whose restoration program is modeled after the Everglades. The money will dry up some day and it should. I'm all in for the funding the Great Lakes has received to date. It was long overdue but at some point the region that regularly touts its $6 trillion economy needs to get off the federal dole and take responsibility for the bounty and treasure that are the Great Lakes.
Plan now I say because it will be sticker shock for the states if and when the feds bail out on Great Lakes funding.
Where's Michigan AG Nessel?
If you follow Michigan politics you're aware of Dana Nessel, the high-profile, sharp-elbowed Attorney General. She's seemingly everywhere with an opinion on every issue. Nessel is best known for her involvement in trying to shutdown the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline. Even though the attorney general isn't part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's team, they've worked hand and glove trying to shutdown Line 5. If you get her press releases, I do, not a day goes by that she isn't touting her official endeavors large and small.
But she's been uncharacteristically silent on Michigan's biggest faux pas of the year, the Benton Harbor drinking water crisis. And it's the type of issue tailored to her activist leanings. Disadvantaged, predominantly Black community plagued by drinking water issues. State agency slow-walks a response while denying responsibility. Federal government intervention required. It's Flint redux from an administration that didn't learn the lessons of Flint.
But deafening silence on an issue of environmental justice from AG Nessel, a former civil rights attorney.
More to come in 2022!
Whitmer ignores longstanding relationship with Canada to promote Line 5 agenda.
There's so much about the Line 5 saga that has been predictable.
That former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder would make a last minute deal with Enbridge to construct (and pay for) the pipeline in a tunnel to replace the existing Line 5. That Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who campaigned against Line 5, would actually try to shut it down and that Attorney General Dana Nessel would join the fray as Whitmer's de facto team mate.
What I didn't foresee is that Whitmer, Nessel and their supporters would make Canada the bogeyman. That's right, Canada, Michigan's neighbor. The country with whom Michigan shares the Great Lakes. The country that's building a new bridge between Windsor and Detroit. You get the picture, collaborators.
It started in 2019 when Nessel characterized Canada as a foreign country. Michigan "will not rely on a foreign corporation to protect and preserve our state's most precious resource, its Great Lakes," Nessel said as reported in the Detroit News. Enbridge is a Canadian corporation.
Canada is a foreign country in a legal and diplomatic sense. But the U.S. and Canada relationship has been one of cooperation and collaboration seemingly forever. And growing up a mile from the Detroit River which separates the countries, the words "Canada" and "foreign" never entered my mind.
Then came Whitmer, who must have thought it was best to just ignore Canada, like it wasn't there, as she pushed her Line 5 agenda.
As time passed and the shutdown of Line 5 moved closer to being a reality, Canadian officials wanted to have a conversation with Whitmer.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford tried to contact Whitmer to discuss Line 5 but was rebuffed, he said, never being able to get through to her. Sarnia, Ontario has 3,000 jobs that are in jeopardy if Line 5 is shut down.
It's worth noting that Whitmer and Ford represent Michigan and Ontario respectively on two U.S. and Canada intergovernmental organizations that deal with common Great Lakes issues.
Then came a protocol breach by Whitmer.
Canada invoked a 1977 treaty with the U.S. that Canada says would prohibit the shut down of Line 5. That move elevated the discussion with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden being the principles.
Whitmer reacted with a direct criticism of Trudeau.
Whitmer said she was "profoundly disappointed" by Canada's decision and called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reverse the invocation of the treaty, the Detroit News reported in October.
In an instant Whitmer went from not returning a call from a Canadian colleague to publicly criticizing the Prime Minister of Canada.
I'm not sure how the Line 5 saga will end. It's now in a protracted legal process and is being discussed at the highest levels of the U.S. and Canadian governments.
Michigan is losing the legal battles but predict what a court will ultimately do at your own peril. And the Biden administration is caught between two allies, Trudeau and Whitmer.
But I do know that Whitmer, Nessel and their supporters haven't acquitted themselves well in the Line 5 debate. Agree with Canada or not, blatant disrespect of Canada was the tactic of the D.C. administration that left office in January.
For the long term, it's in the best interests of Michigan and Whitmer to mend fences with Canada. Hopefully that happens in a second term, if she's re-elected. If not sooner.
Drinking water advocates form coalition, challenge Michigan on Benton Harbor.
I'm not a fan of year end top 10 lists. They over-simplify complex topics and help perpetuate our Super Bowl mentality where an ultimate winner must be determined.
But there are 2021 stories worthy of recognition. Here's the first, others will follow.
Benton Harbor drinking water advocates
In September a coalition of 20 groups and individuals sent a formal petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asking it to use its emergency authority to intervene in Benton Harbor's drinking water issues. Lead in the water, think Flint, was the issue and the groups had tired of Michigan's slow-walk and bureaucratic response.
It was time to put the issue in a different venue, one that was likely to take action on an environmental justice issue versus one, the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), that talked a better EJ game than it played.
What followed was a rapid response to get bottled water to Benton Harbor citizens and other actions for the longer term. You can read more about Benton Harbor here and in other media outlets. My purpose is to recognize the coalition of activists. Without their willingness to challenge EGLE, the EPA intervention would not have happened. The national spotlight needed to hold Michigan to account for its handling of Benton Harbor would have been missing.
When praising a group action, it's risky to single out individuals, but I'll go out on the limb.
Nick Leonard from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center who was on point for the legal process needed to file the emergency petition.
Cyndi Roper, the Natural Resources Defense Council's Michigan policy advocate, for her expertise and for bringing NRDC's national clout to the issue as it did in Flint in 2015.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and drinking water engineer Elin Betanzo, again both Flint veterans, for lending their credibility to the cause and for signing the petition and speaking publicly on the need for it.
And for groups like For Love of Water from far away Traverse City, who could have stayed on the sidelines, but didn't.
They're not heroes, but they do care and were willing to take action when they didn't have to.
Still to come, Michigan, Line 5 and Canada
Chicago-based environmental journalist