Nessel sues over PFAS, Ooze news, Water shutoffs still happening

January 17, 2020 | CO2 2020/2019 412.48 / 409.09 ppm <<

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Nessel launches sweeping PFAS lawsuit

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a lawsuit this week against 3M, DuPont, and other PFAS manufacturers, arguing that they “intentionally hid” the health and environmental risks of the chemicals that are used in products like Scotchguard. The suit would hold the companies liable for all past and future expenses associated with remediation, health assessments, and alternative water supplies. In Michigan, 1.9 million residents are currently drinking water containing some amount of PFAS, according to state data.

Meanwhile, the Guardian put a human face on the issue last week in an article examining the effects PFAS chemicals have had on families including that of Sandy Wynn-Stelt in Belmont, Michigan near Wolverine World Wide. PFAS chemicals used in waterproofing entered Wynn-Stelt’s well. She and her husband likely drank the chemicals for years; her husband died of liver cancer and Wynn-Stelt suffers from thyroid problems and gout. PFAS levels in her bloodstream reached 750 times the national average.

Madison Height’s ooze problem spreads to Sanilac County, Detroit (and don’t miss the Ooze cruise!)

State officials are examining properties in Detroit and Sanilac County owned by Gary Sayers, the man believed responsible for the green ooze containing hexavalent chromium that seeped out onto I-696 from his now-closed business Electro-Plating Services. Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) are examining soil and water samples at the Sanilac county site where a chemical drum was found. At the Detroit site at Commonwealth and Marquette, EGLE found liquid some of which “resembled the green contamination”.

Mr. Sayers—who is currently imprisoned—may not be able to pay for the cleanup. “Is it $2 million? Is it $20 million? I don’t know, but it’s not in the hundreds of thousands. It’s in the millions,” said Tracy Kecskemeti, southeast district coordinator for EGLE.

At a recent meeting of the Michigan House Appropriations Committee, legislators questioned how Sayers could be allowed to continue operating for so long when he was under scrutiny by EGLE (then the Department of Environmental Quality) going back to the 1990s. EGLE issued a cease and desist order to Sayers in late 2016.

Representative Leslie Love of Detroit, may have had the quote-of-the-day at the hearing when she said:

I am really thankful for the ooze. Because that green ooze, the earth oozing that up onto I-696, is like a person who throws up. It's a warning sign of something greater happening.

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently considering a Superfund designation for the site, which could help fund the cleanup (although the backlog of such sites has grown under the Trump administration). Meanwhile, the AWE (Area Wilderness Explorers) Club is hosting an Ooze Cruise on Sunday at 3 pm to tour the site. Participants will then retire to the Max Dugan bar where they may enjoy an “Ooze shot.”

About half of Detroit’s water shutoffs still off

Although the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been shutting off people’s water at a high rate for seven years now, Detroit Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer wants to remind us that this is still a very, very big deal. She writes:

As of Oct. 31, according to its own internal report, the water department had turned off water to more than 25,000 accounts in 2019, and subsequently restored service to 13,721 of those customers. That means 11,297 accounts still lack water service. And 10,145 of those accounts serve properties the department believes are occupied. 

Although some of these doubtless occurred in vacant structures, Kaffer argues that this crisis is worse than ever and a solution needs to be found for a service that “isn’t just a personal amenity; it's a public good”.

NAACP questions energy company payments to minority-led organizations

Darrell Dawsey at Deadline Detroit made the Detroit connection to the New York Times‘ piece about the NAACP’s efforts to keep energy companies from influencing their local chapters with cash donations. As Metro Times reported, Detroit-area groups that serve communities of color, including the Detroit Association of Black Organizations (DABO), The Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development (LA SED) and others have received money from the DTE Energy Foundation and often show up to support the utility’s efforts to build new greenhouse-gas-producing power plants, despite the fact that low-income Detroiters have some of the highest utility burdens in the nation, DTE’s reliability lags, and minority and low-income residents are expected to be hit especially hard by climate change.

This Week in Environmental Justice

A new section we’re adding to round up national and global stories on environmental justice that impact Detroiters …..

Heat islands linked to racist housing policies

Recent research shows that racist housing policies that have denied African Americans homeownership and quality public services have created neighborhoods that are uniquely vulnerable to heatwaves. The study showed that:

94% of studied areas display consistent city-scale patterns of elevated land surface temperatures in formerly redlined areas relative to their non-redlined neighbors by as much as 7 °C.

NEPA rollback could hit minorities and low-income people the hardest

A piece in The Hill argues that the Trump administration’s decision to revamp the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) could hurt poor and minority communities by making it easier for industries to pollute in low-income, highly impacted communities. Among other things, communities could lose their right to comment on new projects under NEPA or be required to pay a bond to the Environmental Protection Agency when filing an injunction to stop a project.


And now for our bright spots…..

Coping with ecological grief

WDET’s Annamarie Sysling spoke with U-M medical student and member of the student group White Coats for Planetary Health to understand how to cope with grief over the climate crisis and other ecological calamities.

Black Rock to disinvest from fossil fuels

Climate activists are cautiously optimistic about Black Rock’s announcement that they will move to divest from companies that “present a high sustainability-related risk”. Black Rock is the world’s largest asset manager.

“The steps BlackRock is taking are baby steps,” author and climate activist Bill McKibben said. “And we will have to watch and push hard for them to begin striding at the pace we need to go. But in some sense, the first step is often the hardest.”

On January 30th, SMSBF is hosting their third annual Sustainable Resolutions event at the Charles H. Wright Museum. Has someone in your network made a difference advancing sustainable, 3BL business strategy and practice? Nominate them for the “Triple Bottom Line Business Leader Award” here.
***Interested in our SPONSORED CONTENT space? Email us with your details at***

Local environmental jobs & volunteer opps

**Want to post a job or volunteer opportunity? Email us with your details at*** 

Connect: Engage with Detroit’s environment

January 18 | The Ooze Cruise | Madison Heights & Hazel Park  >>>

January 18 | Bike the Blizzard | Detroit >>>

January 18 | Pinckney Recreation Area Hike | Pinckney Recreation Area >>>

January 18 | Birding 101 Workshop with Detroit Audubon | Lathrup Village >>>

January 19 | Creating Pollinator Gardens: A Lecture by Alaine Bush | Belle Isle  >>>

January 20 | Martin Luther King Jr. Ride | Detroit >>>

January 23 | Tri-County Environmental Justice Solidarity Rally! | Detroit >>>

January 25 | Winter Stonefly Search | Rochester >>>

January 28 | Seed Swap | Ypsilanti >>>

January 28 | Clinton River Trail Annual Meeting | >>>

January 30 | The State of Transit: Then, Now, and into the Future! | Detroit >>>

January 30 | Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forum Fundraiser | Detroit >>>

February 1 | Shiver on the River Winter Birding | Detroit River >>>

February 1 | ¡Ay Cramba It’s Cold Out! | Shelby Township >>>

February 1 | Young Birders Walk at Palmer Park | Palmer Park >>>

February 1 | Stonefly Search 2020 | Ann Arbor >>>

February 13 | Michigan Environmental Justice Summit 2020 | Ann Arbor >>>

February 15 | Become a Master Rain Gardener | Lathrup Village >>>

February 23 | Bee is for Beneficial: A Lecture by Brian Peterson-Roest | Belle Isle >>>

February 29 | Quiet Adventures Symposium | Lansing >>>

March 7 | Rouge Frog & Toad Survey Training Workshop | Livonia >>>

March 13 | Community Treehouse Gala >>>

March 19 | Architectural Solutions to Reduce Bird Deaths | Ann Arbor >>>

March 21 | Invasive Species Summit | Waterford >>>

April 4 | Trash Fishing Exploration - Testing of the boats | Detroit >>>

June 6 | National Trails Day | >>>


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The ooze report, EGLE 'sweats' over Lake St. Clair cleanup project, more on life in Michigan's most polluted ZIP

January 10, 2020 | CO2 2019/2018 413.56 / 410.73 ppm <<

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In this week’s news ….

Lake St. Clair CSO cleanup project makes EGLE officials ‘sweat’

Rendering of proposed Chapotan Pump Station storage project in Lake St. Clair. Courtesy Macomb County Public Works Office

How clean is too clean for Lake St. Clair?

That question seems to be at the crux of an emerging dispute between the Macomb County Public Works Office and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

A $30 million proposal by the Macomb County Public Works Commissioner’s Office to reduce Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) from the Chapotan Drain in St. Clair Shores into Lake St. Clair is currently under permit review by EGLE. The project would reduce CSO discharges to the lake by an estimated 75 percent.

But Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller told Planet Detroit that an EGLE official said that the project—which would utilize constructed wetlands and extra pipe capacity to store overflow so that it can be sent to a wastewater treatment plant instead of being treated with disinfectant and released into the lake—made him “sweat.”

The Chapotan Pump Station currently meets the requirements of its federal Nonpoint Source Discharge Elimination Program (NPDES) permit, which allows it to discharge treated sewage combined with stormwater into Lake St Clair during periods of heavy rains. The drain released 350 million gallons of treated overflow into Lake St. Clair in 2018.

Miller says her goal in taking office was to clean up Macomb County’s waterways.

“We don't have clean hands here, “ she said. “It is treated, but what you're doing is chlorinating crap.”

While separating the sewers in the Chapotan drainage district would be the ideal solution to the problem, Miller noted, the cost—an estimated $370 million—is prohibitive. So she directed her agency to innovate more cost-effective ideas to improve the status quo. They came up with the Chapotan project that uses green infrastructure and unused capacity to help control CSO discharge volume.

But according to Miller, Phil Argiroff, the Assistant Division Director of EGLE’s Water Resource Division, told her on a call in late December that the project was unlikely to be permitted because the facility was already permitted by the state to release treated sewage into the lake.

“And of course my answer is… just because you've been permitting that for decades, it doesn't make it right. We have to stop doing this,” Miller told Planet Detroit.

If EGLE withholds the permit for the project, which Miller says has cobbled together about $8 million in funding from multiple state and local sources and has the support of the City of St. Clair Shores and Michigan senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, it won’t be built. Miller is also hoping to secure $2 million in State Revolving Fund dollars with loan forgiveness, which also hinges on the permit, and which was put on hold in December pending permit review.

According to Miller, EGLE officials expressed concern that if this project proceeds, it will set an expectation that other communities follow suit. EGLE spokesman Dean Scott told Planet Detroit that the agency plans to meet with Macomb County Officials later this month on the topic.

“Untreated combined sewer overflows do indeed affect water quality.  In this case, the County has already demonstrated that the Chapaton facility is providing adequate combined sewer treatment to protect water quality under its existing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit,” Dean wrote in an email.

But Linda Schweitzer, an associate professor of environmental chemistry at Oakland University, told Planet Detroit that treated combined sewer overflow negatively impacts water quality and can pose a danger to public health.

“Any time you're discharging treated organic loads and then you're chlorinating it for disinfection, you're going to have chloroform and other disinfection byproducts,” she told Planet Detroit. “So you're going to have increased cancer risk and other health risks.”

-Nina Ignaczak

Green ooze raises questions about environmental regulations’ effectiveness

The green ooze flowing out onto Interstate 696 really put an exclamation point on the year as far as environmental news goes. A week into 2020, there are still a number of questions about what exactly is buried at the closed Electro-Plating Services (EPS) in Madison Heights, how far it has spread and what may have been dumped at a second site in Sanilac County. Meanwhile, a nearby Hazel Park bar capitalized on the crisis.

EPS owner Gary Sayers was sentenced to a year in prison in November for illegally storing hazardous materials, but Bridge reports that he has been in trouble with regulators since 1996 and The Detroit News identified him as an “industrial hoarder”. He was also ordered to pay $1.4 million in restitution for a cleanup that took place in 2018, although its unclear if he can actually pay this. The state is considering new charges against Sayers.

Although Sayers seems to be the immediate culprit, the blame is also being cast on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) for failing to identify the extent of this problem after the initial cleanup and endangering Michigan drinking water. Among other issues, the EPA has built up a large backlog of unaddressed Superfund sites under the Trump administration.

Perhaps the only reason this particular story is being discussed is that the chemicals in question are bright green and have been flowing onto a major expressway. “Thank goodness the ooze was green,” state Senator Jeff Irwin told Bridge.

The chemical composition of the spill has been identified as hexavalent chromium, which has been linked to lung cancer, asthma among other issues, and is frequently used in industrial coatings. EGLE says there is no immediate risk to drinking water, but lawmaker Shane Hernandez from Port Huron questioned the agency’s oversight.

Irwin and State Representative Yousef Rabhi introduced House Bill 4212 last year to require polluters to pay for clean up. The bill would also help establish uniform standards for cleanups.

“Now under Michigan law, what it allows for is that the polluter can just limit human exposure and control the spread of the contamination, but they’re not required to actually clean it,” Rabhi said. “This bill would actually require that cleaning to occur.”

This legislation is one potential tool for addressing the years of pollution created by manufacturing in the state that includes things like PFAS and a spreading dioxane plume in Ann Arbor. However, it’s opposed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and has not been taken up by the Republican-led legislature.

-Brian Allnutt

Life in 48217, Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code

The industry centered within the 48217 ZIP code—which covers parts of River Rouge, Ecorse, and Detroit—has long been associated with asthma, cancer and heart disease resulting from heavy industry and pollution. Detroit Metro Times reporter Steve Neavling tells the stories of some of those affected by air pollution that the University of Michigan researchers say takes the lives on 650 Detroiters a year, over twice the number of residents killed by guns. Residents are also confronted with unsellable real-estate and lower standardized test scores for children.

ICYMI: Planet Detroit published a short film by Lauren Santucci telling the story of Thomasenia Weston, who lives in a house located a few blocks from I-75. Weston raised her daughter and is now raising her two grandchildren in this house. All three generations suffer from severe asthma.

-Brian Allnutt

Detroit set to ramp up recycling

The Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) announced that it and two partners—the national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership and PepsiCo Foundation—awarded the city of Detroit nearly $800,000 dollars to expand its recycling operation with curbside recycling bins and multi-family containers. The grant will also help with the collection of recyclables at public facilities and the implementation of an education campaign to increase participation. "This grant will help us divert even more waste from our landfills,” State Senator Stephanie Chang said in a press release. However, this announcement comes amidst widespread questions over how much recyclable material actually gets recycled, now that countries in Southeast Asia that once handled recyclables have stopped taking it (and have even sent it back).

-Brian Allnutt

Channel cleanup at Zug Island

At least part of the 48217 ZIP code is getting some positive attention with a cleanup of the Old Channel of the Rouge River that has been an important connection for industrial shipping between the Rouge and Detroit rivers. The dredging and removal of toxic sediment around Zug Island is a partnership between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Honeywell Corporation. Among other outcomes, this project could create a better spawning habitat for fish in an area that is important for species like walleye and lake sturgeon. This could also be a small step forward for the cleanup of for estimated 180 million cubic feet of toxic sediment in the Detroit River.

-Brian Allnutt

State holds a first public hearing on PFAS standards in Grand Rapids

State officials held the first of three public hearings on Wednesday in Grand Rapids to address concerns over PFAS and share information about new drinking water standards for some types of chemicals. Lynn McIntosh, who helped discover PFAS contamination from Wolverine Worldwide north of Grand Rapids, and others seemed to be seeking to regulate PFAS as a class of chemicals, not just some specific types of it, according to MLive. Additional meetings will be held on January 14th at Washtenaw Community College’s Towsley Auditorium at 5 PM and on January 16 at the Ralph A. Macmullan Conference Center in Roscommon at 5 PM.

-Brian Allnutt

Ann Arbor wants to build a solar array on top of an old landfill

Ann Arbor is looking to construct a 24-megawatt solar farm in Pittsfield Township in partnership with DTE Energy. The 70-acre site would be on top of an old landfill. This is part of the city’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2030. A proposal to partner with DTE on an engineering analysis and distribution study—at a cost of $90,000 to the city—will go in front of the city council on January 21st.

-Brian Allnutt

Trump administration moves to weaken environmental review

In news that could affect projects like Enbridge’s Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, the Trump administration wants to allow certain large projects like pipelines, roads, and bridges to move forward with less oversight by changing how the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is implemented. In the past, NEPA has been used by environmental groups to challenge Line 5.

-Brian Allnutt


Local environmental jobs & volunteer opps

**Want to post a job or volunteer opportunity? Email us with your details at*** 

Connect: Engage with Detroit’s environment

January 11 | Tree Bark | Tenhave Woods, Royal Oak >>>

January 14 | MSU Extension’s Introduction to Lakes Online Course | >>>

January 16 | Owl Hoot | Tenhave Woods, Royal Oak >>>

January 18 | Bike the Blizzard | Detroit >>>

January 18 | Pinckney Recreation Area Hike | Pinckney Recreation Area >>>

January 18 | Birding 101 Workshop with Detroit Audubon | Lathrup Village >>>

January 19 | Creating Pollinator Gardens: A Lecture by Alaine Bush | Belle Isle >>>

January 20 | Martin Luther King Jr. Ride | Detroit >>>

January 25 | Winter Stonefly Search | Rochester >>>

January 28 | Seed Swap | Ypsilanti >>>

January 28 | Clinton River Trail Annual Meeting | >>>

January 30 | The State of Transit: Then, Now, and into the Future! | Detroit >>>

January 30 | Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forum Fundraiser | Detroit >>>

February 1 | Shiver on the River Winter Birding | Detroit River >>>

February 1 | ¡Ay Cramba It’s Cold Out! | Shelby Township >>>

February 1 | Young Birders Walk at palmer Park | Palmer Park >>>

February 1 | Stonefly Search 2020 | Ann Arbor >>>

February 13 | Michigan Environmental Justice Summit 2020 | Ann Arbor >>>

February 15 | Become a Master Rain Gardener | Lathrup Village >>>

February 23 | Bee is for Beneficial: A Lecture by Brian Peterson-Roest | Belle Isle >>>

February 29 | Quiet Adventures Symposium | Lansing >>>

March 7 | Rouge Frog & Toad Survey Training Workshop | Livonia >>>

March 13 | Community Treehouse Gala >>>

March 19 | Architectural Solutions to Reduce Bird Deaths | Ann Arbor >>>

March 21 | Invasive Species Summit | Waterford >>>

April 4 | Trash Fishing Exploration - Testing of the boats | Detroit >>>

June 6 | National Trails Day | >>>

***Interested in our SPONSORED CONTENT space? Email us with your details at***


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Planet Detroit's top 5 Michigan environmental stories for 2019

December 30. 2019

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Planet Detroit had such a great response to our top 10 local environmental stories of 2019, we thought we ought to do the same for stories across Michigan .

So, without further ado…

1. The Michigan DNR, lawmakers made up stories about killer wolves (so they could have them shot)

Perhaps the most shocking statewide reporting this year came from an ex-M Live reporter John Barnes for Bridge Magazine. Barnes obtained internal emails that showed how wildlife officials fabricated a story about an Upper Peninsula wolf pack threatening humans in order to justify shooting it. In fact, the only thing the wolves were threatening were high-priced cattle. The investigative piece caught Attorney General Dana Nessel’s attention; we’ll be following what comes of her inquiries.

2. Michigan grapples with PFAS

The story of how PFAS got into Michigan's drinking water exploded this year. In early December, Wolverine Worldwide and the state of Michigan and two west Michigan townships announced a tentative $69.5 million settlement that would require the company to pay for mitigation and municipal water hookups for more than 1.000 homes. Also in late December, the State of Michigan announced draft PFAS standards for drinking water; public hearings are set for January to review the standards.

To better understand the story, check out Bridge Magazine’s multi-part report on the history of contamination policy in Michigan, and watch Great Lakes Now’s show on the issue (above).

3. High water levels eroded Lake Michigan beaches and sand dunes

Michigan’s west coast got a taste of climate change as high Great Lakes water levels, combined with fall storms, eroded beaches and dunes and threatened and destroyed parks and private property. Lawmakers called for Governor Whitmer to issue a state of emergency for the entire Lake Michigan shoreline while the state expedited permits to fight erosion permits for homeowners. Some homeowners even called for reversals of flows into the Great Lakes coming from Canada. The impact of such a measure would likely be too small to be noticed.

4. Enbridge Line 5 remained on track

Enbridge won its case in the Michigan Court of Claims in late October. The court ruled that the legislation created under the Snyder administration to enable the energy company to build a natural gas pipeline tunnel through bedrock beneath the Straits of Mackinac was constitutional. Attorney General Dana Nessel vowed to appeal, and in November pointed to a study by the American Risk Management Resources Network showing that Michigan taxpayers could be on the hook for cleanup costs in the event of a catastrophic spill. Meanwhile, Enbridge left debris on the lakebed floor during bedrock sampling and waited two months to notify the state of its violation. The debris will not be cleaned up until spring.

5. Nestle’s access to groundwater for bottled water sales ruled ‘not essential ’

A Michigan appellate court upheld Osceola Township’s decision to refuse zoning approval for a booster pump that Nestle would use to help transport its Ice Mountain brand of bottled water. The decision reversed a lower court decision that affirmed Nestle’s arguments that it’s bottled water amounted to an essential public service. In December, a package of bills introduced by a group of Democratic state representatives would restrict the shipment of Great Lakes water out of the basin, potentially hampering Nestle’s ability to bottle and sell Michigan groundwater.

Planet Detroit's top 10 local environmental stories for 2019

December 27, 2019 | CO2 2019/2018 411.99 / 409.56 ppm <<

1. Water shutoffs in Detroit continue

With activists sometimes alleging a “media blackout” on the subject, water was still being turned off for some of Detroit’s most vulnerable residents. This topic did receive some attention, although often it was strangely upbeat. Towards the beginning of the year, The Detroit News wrote that there was a “dramatic decline” in customers being targeted for shutoffs. But as the year went on, Bridge Magazine reported on shutoffs in thousands of homes, even in the heat of summer. Wayne State communication professor Rahul Mitra called the shutoffs “dystopian” and could “point to a deepening water crisis”, especially as it was a continuation of the mass shutoffs that began in 2014. Meanwhile, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot opted to discontinue water shutoffs in that city, saying “Water is a basic human right.”

2. Oil and gas leaks at the Marathon refinery

At the beginning of February, a gas leak at the Marathon refinery in southwest Detroit raised alarm in Detroit, Dearborn, and other neighboring communities. This was followed by an oil vapor leak in September, which lead to protests from residents and environmental groups. Air monitoring samples taken in the 48217 zip code near refineries and other industrial polluters document elevated cancer- and asthma-causing pollutants. Many zip codes in Detroit, including 48217, show higher rates of asthma than the rest of the state. The nearby Marathon oil refinery received 13 violation notices from the state since 2013, turning the facility into a symbol of environmental injustice. The area was visited by Democratic presidential contenders Jay Inslee and Elizabeth Warren.m with the latter releasing a video of her visit with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Meanwhile, activists push for change to air pollution regulations that account for cumulative exposure, instead of the chemical-by-chemical approach that is now used.

3. High waters kept Michigan on edge

The Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair experienced their highest recorded water levels this year, causing damage from Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood to Lake Michigan. Things aren’t likely to improve next year, with levels for many lakes still high going into winter. There’s a clear connection between the climate crisis and lake levels. “When you’re in wet periods, you start to get persistent, basin-wide extreme precipitation,” University of Michigan professor Richard B Rood told The Guardian. How long this particular wet period will last is unclear, but Michigan might need a dry year to return things to normal.

4. The Detroit incinerator closes

After years of a concerted effort from Detroit activists like Breathe Free Detroit, the incinerator at the I-75/I-94 interchange finally closed down. Since the 1980s, the facility had burned trash—much of it from the suburbs—in the middle of the city. In addition to its smell, the incinerator was also believed to contribute to high rates of asthma in the predominantly low-income, African American area where it stood. The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center was planning on suing the facility for violations of the Clean Air Act at the time the decision was made to shut it down.

5. DTE’s Integrated Resource Plan meets with widespread criticism

DTE Energy faced withering criticism all year for its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) with the Natural Resources Defense Council comparing it negatively to Consumers Energy’s IRP—which was strong on renewables where DTE’s was not—and Joseph Daniel from the Union of Concerned Scientists asking if itwas the “worst ever”, saying:

In all my years of reviewing IRPs the DTE IRP might be the worst. The only thing preventing me from using more definitive language is that I’m not entirely certain it qualifies as an IRP.

The IRP—which needs approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to move forward—faced another setback this month with an administrative judge pointing out flaws in the plan during an advisory ruling. This all comes on top of criticism of DTE’s response to recent power outages, arguments for public utilities, and questions about the charitable donations made by its foundation. The coming year is likely to be an interesting one for the company.

6. In battle on California on auto emissions, GM and FCA side with Trump

This year, Trump waged war against California’s right to enforce its own auto emissions standards, and some automakers, including Ford and Honda, sided with the state. Along with the administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and support for coal, this move has contributed to Trump being labeled a “carbonist” or someone who wants to deliberately slow the transition to clean energy. A number of states have sided with California to fight Trump’s rollback of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that were tightened under Obama. Michigan is among these states, but GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles came out on Trump’s side. Whether or not states will be able to set their own emissions standards is still very much up in the air, but some speculate that electric vehicles could soon “render this fight moot”.

7. Radiation scare on the Detroit River

The collapse of a dock and riverbank this December at the Detroit Bulk Storage facility highlighted Detroit’s history of industrial pollution and an inadequate emergency response system. Formerly the home of Revere Copper, this site handled uranium for use in the Manhattan Project. Concerns about radiation from the site or toxic sediment from the riverbed getting into a Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) intake downstream raised ire among residents. So far, water tests from the river and intake haven’t shown elevated contamination or radiation, but the whole event has Detroiters asking questions about what’s being stored on the riverfront, what’s being done about pollution on the riverbed, and what persistent high water levels may mean for future risk. City officials have announced a plan to inspect riverfront facilities, while EGLE spokeswoman Tracy Kecskemti said the agency will look at “inundation maps” to predict future risks as high water levels continue.

8. Detroit launches its Sustainability Action Agenda

Over the summer, the City of Detroit came out with a 106-page document to address problems that Detroiters face from pollution, storms and flooding, energy, and a warming planet. One of the challenges the planners faced was the challenge of making the concept of “sustainability” relevant for people with immediate concerns around safety or the cost of living, which it did by addressing these problems head-on and integrating them into broader environmental concerns like climate change. Among other things, the plan informed the city’s Greenhouse Gas Ordinance which looks to reduce emissions from city operations to zero by 2050. In a strong mayor political system like Detroit, how much the agenda steers the conversation is ultimately up to future mayors and their voters.

9. Fiat Chrysler expansion on the East Side threatens air quality, presents ‘textbook environmental racism’

If the Sustainability Action Agenda represented a step forward for Detroit, the rushed deal to expand the Fiat Chrysler facilities at Mack and Conner—complete with opaque land deals and generous tax breaks — was business-as-usual. Activists were quick to point out how the expanded facility could make the already bad air on the East Side worse. Especially alarming was the FCA plan to comply with the Clean Air Act by reducing emissions at a plant in predominantly-white Warren and increase them in predominantly-black Detroit, which community activist Gregg Newsom referred to as “textbook environmental racism”.

10. Just in time for Christmas: Green ooze

If you thought you could escape 2019 without chartreuse-colored toxic fluid spilling out onto one of the busiest areas highways, then bless your heart. The hexavalent chromium-laden effluent (Yes, the one from Erin Brokovich) emerged from the embankment of I-696 on December 20th, having traveled from the shuttered Electro-Plating Services in Madison Heights. The owner of this business was recently imprisoned for pollution violations. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency claimed to have cleaned up this site in 2017 and 2018. Going into 2020, the green ooze is an absurd reminder of the work that needs to be done not just to clean up the environment in Southeast Michigan, but to even understand the damage that has already been done. The story was picked up by the New York Times, CNN, and NPR, among others.


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Detroit's history of environmental racism, Lake level forecast for 2020, PFAS in rainwater


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In this week’s news ….

Racism and the ‘environmental justice nightmare’ of Detroit

Racial disparities driving environmental threats in Detroit were thrown into relief in an essay by Drew Costley in the online journal OneZero. Without even getting into the recent events, Costley covers the air pollution, lead problems and ongoing water shutoffs that have plagued Detroiters.

Costley profiles Vince Martin, a Cuban immigrant and environmental activist who grew up near the Marathon refinery in the 48217 zip code that has become synonymous with pollution.

At his 30-year high school reunion, it seemed to Martin that more people in his class were dead than living. He knew many had died from cancer. As a child, Martin’s younger brother David developed asthma and juvenile diabetes, both of which have been linked with air pollution.

The piece also covers a history of grassroots environmental activism in the city, including the work of Donele Wilkins—a former city worker—who lobbied with others for decades to shut down the Detroit Incinerator that was importing garbage from the suburbs.

But despite that win, other problems are not improving or getting worse. Lyke Thompson Wilkins, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, said:

“The fact is that we live in the shadows of countless brownfield sites and lead smelters... that used to crush and incinerate batteries from the auto industry that contain lead.”

Other headlines from this week show that the crisis isn’t limited to Michigan. Indeed, the United States now has the dishonor of being among the top 10 countries for pollution-related deaths. The United States is the wealthiest country in the top 10 with air toxins—especially particulate matter (PM):

The US ranks seventh for overall deaths, sandwiched between Bangladesh and Russia, and is the “wealthiest” nation to feature in the top 10 with almost 197,000 American lives lost in 2017.

Wayne County sells off a chunk of Hines park to artist

Earlier this month, Wayne County approved the sale of four acres of Hines Park in Plymouth, which includes the historic Wilcox Mill, to Plymouth-based artist Tony Roko. Roko plans to restore the Albert Kahn-designed mill and turn the area into a publicly-accessible art park, including a sculpture garden, community programming space, artists-in-residence, and gallery space, and access to the Rouge River.

The group Save Hines Park unsuccessfully campaigned to block the sale, collecting more than 17,000 signatures in opposition. Activist Bill Craig pointed out to WDET that the county renewed a nearly $10 million parks millage in 2016, money he says should go toward maintaining the park, not dismantling it. The group would have preferred that the county maintain ownership of the property and lease it to private developers.

However, county officials say they do not have the resources to maintain and restore the several historic mills it has owned for decades. The sale is part of a larger placemaking plan to divest from the structures and turn them into community assets through private ownership. In addition to Wilcox Mill, the county sold Phoenix Mill last year, and also approved the sale of Newburgh Mill in Livonia, also along Hines Drive, earlier this month.

Michigan set to see another year of high lake levels

From Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood to Lake Michigan, the state has dealt with historically high water levels this year and will continue to do so next according to the Army Corps of Engineers and others.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Part of the problem is that winter declines in lake levels are less likely. According to ACOE engineers, beginning-of-the-year levels in 2020 will be 15 inches higher than in 2019. Ultimately, long-term precipitation trends will determine lake levels, but immediate improvements are unlikely.

All this has some property owners seeking drastic solutions that include reversing the course of Canadian rivers and allowing more water to move out of Lake Michigan through the Chicago River. The folks have petitioned the International Joint Commission (IJC) that coordinates action around Great Lakes issues between the U.S. and Canada, but the IJC says they don’t have the authority to make such changes, which could have their own negative consequences, impacting power generation and Canada’s First Nations.

Peter Annin, the author of the book “Great Lakes Water Wars,” said:

“I think the solution, as frustrating as it is, is adaptation. I don’t think it’s going to be realistic to try and wrap our big arms around this entire globally significant system that has 20 percent of the earth's fresh surface water and think we can wrestle it to the ground and control it.” 

High levels of PFAS found in rainwater

As if we needed another reason to be worried about PFAS, a new report shows rainwater in some parts of the United States contains high enough levels of these chemicals to affect human health.

This data means that PFAS could be transported long distances. The chemicals have shown up in the Arctic and among native peoples in Alaska. So very bad news.

UN climate talks a ‘disaster”

The yearly United Nations climate conference, which took place last week in Madrid, broke down in what some have called an “indisputable mess”. Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said:

“I’ve been attending these climate negotiations since they first started in 1991, but never have I seen the almost total disconnection we’ve seen here… in Madrid between what the science requires and the people of the world demand, and what the climate negotiators are delivering,”

Wealthy nations including the United States were blamed for creating gridlock in negotiations. Australia was also called out for trying to use an “accounting loophole” to meet its emissions reduction goals. This comes as the country declares a state of emergency due to wildfires.

All this means we’re facing a higher “emissions gap” between current levels of carbon pollution and the reductions that will be needed, especially in the next decade.


Solutions & Bright Spots


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Connect: Engage with Detroit’s environment

January 4 | Detroit Garden Center Annual Meeting | Belle Isle Nature Center >>>

January 14 | MSU Extension’s Introduction to Lakes Online Course | >>>

January 18 | Bike the Blizzard | Detroit >>>

January 20 | Martin Luther King Jr. Ride | Detroit >>>

January 28 | Seed Swap | Ypsilanti >>>

January 28 | Clinton River Trail Annual Meeting | >>>

January 30 | The State of Transit: Then, Now, and into the Future! | Detroit >>>

January 30 | Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forum Fundraiser | Detroit >>>

February 1 | ¡Ay Cramba It’s Cold Out! | Shelby Township >>>

February 13 | Michigan Environmental Justice Summit 2020 | Ann Arbor >>>

February 29 | Quiet Adventures Symposium | Lansing >>>

March 13 | Community Treehouse Gala >>>

March 21 | Invasive Species Summit | Waterford >>>

April 4 | Trash Fishing Exploration - Testing of the boats | Detroit >>>

June 6 | National Trails Day | >>>


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