Milliken's legacy, Detroit water shutoffs, PFAS, big erosion on Lake Michigan

October 25, 2019 | CO2 2019/2018 408.64 / 406.80 ppm <<

Milliken State Park

On governor Milliken’s environmental legacy

The world of former Michigan Governor William Milliken, who passed away last week, seems very far away these days. He was moderate Republican—back when that was still a thing—and took a number of unorthodox positions, making allies with seemingly unlikely figures like Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. Later in life, he backed same-sex marriage and endorsed both Democratic and Republican candidates.

In other ways, Milliken’s legacy is extremely relevant to the moment. Among his achievements were the nation’s first bans on cancer-causing PCBs and DDT. He also pushed for Michigan’s bottle deposit law and established the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund in 1988. That fund, which funnels revenue from oil and gas leases on public lands into purchasing land for recreation and funding recreation development, has been instrumental in expanding public access to Michigan’s natural resources.

As recently as 2016, Milliken publicly spoke out against Enbridge’s Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac. “As a matter of principle and public trust law,” he said, “the state must never risk the Great Lakes for the benefit of a private interest, especially if alternative existing pipelines or alternative routes could be used.”

Milliken seemed to understand the importance of Michigan’s biggest city for the state’s success. As Paul Egan points out in the Detroit Free Press, Milliken helped provide funds for a number of Detroit institutions including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Zoo and Detroit Public Library.

However, he also helped assemble the land for the General Motors plant on the Detroit-Hamtramck border. At the time this was seen by many as a win for the city, but it resulted in the destruction of the iconic neighborhood of Poletown for a facility whose future, only a few decades years later, is now uncertain.

Milliken also has his name attached to a famous Supreme Court case, Milliken v. Bradley, that ended efforts to force Metro Detroit schools to address de facto segregation. The role this case played in helping to perpetuate the inequities that have resulted in disparate health outcomes for Michigan citizens of different skin colors and income levels ought to be considered.

However, it’s useful to remember Milliken’s successes around subjects that remain vital today. We may have to forgive his purple prose, but it’s hard to imagine a contemporary politician embodying the idea of a commonwealth the way Milliken did:

“In Michigan,” he said, “our soul is not to be found in steel and concrete, or sprawling new housing developments or strip malls. Rather it is found in the soft petals of a trillium, the gentle whisper of a headwater stream, the vista of a Great Lakes shoreline, and the wonder in children’s eyes upon seeing their first bald eagle. It is that soul that we must preserve.”

The battle over Detroit’s water shutoffs continues

A new initiative by Detroit’s water and health departments and the University of Michigan is looking to help Detroiters at risk of water shutoffs. This limited program would only reach 70 families in the 48234 zip code, providing them with financial counseling and other services. The Detroit News reports that in September of this year, 9,872 customers in the city were notified that they were at risk of having their water shutoff, and 3,888 had their service “interrupted”.

Beulah Walker from the non-profit Hydrate Detroit is skeptical of the move. "In my opinion, they are not going to do anything because they don't want us here," she told the Detroit News, seeming to echo a concern among certain water activists that the shutoffs are part of a displacement strategy.

Some Detroiters are currently receiving help with their water bills through the Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP) and the city’s “10/30/50” program that allows customers to pay increasing percentages of past-due balances and maintain their water service.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently suspended water-shutoffs entirely.

Great Lakes water levels to remain high into 2020, Lake Michigan beaches (and houses, docks) feeling it

A summer of high water across the Great Lakes could turn into a winter of ice floes and jams. According to The Detroit News, places like Algonac and Marine City are expecting floods that could turn into ice that piles up and damages docks and other structures.

Winter ice cover could also affect lake levels next year. If large portions of the lakes freeze over, there will be less evaporation and would contribute to high lake levels in 2020. As it stands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit is predicting higher lake levels for next year. This past year’s historically high levels combined with fall storms are contributing to the dramatic erosion of shorelines on Lake Michigan.

High levels also contributed to flooding in Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood this past spring and summer.

Long term, fluctuations in lake levels are likely to continue as a result of climate change. However, as a recent piece in The Guardian pointed out, increased temperatures could mean that the situation could eventually become “evaporation dominant” (as in, the lakes dry up) if we fail to mitigate carbon emissions.

Michigan struggles to respond to PFAS

From dairy cows to deer to food, the so-called forever chemicals known as PFAS continue to make their way into every corner of our environment and our bodies. However, there’s not a heckuva a lot of direction for people looking to deal with this problem. Bridge reports that Michigan has joined just four other states to develop regulations for PFAS.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has proposed separate limits for seven different PFAS chemicals that would apply to all of Michigan’s roughly 2,700 public water systems. Systems that exceed these levels would be required to report this publicly and presumably rectify the situation. However, enforcing compliance could be a challenge. Michigan’s Department of Great Lakes Environment and Energy (EGLE) says in its Regulatory Impact Statement that the proposal “does not stipulate a required strategy or timeline to return to compliance”—words that don’t exactly inspire confidence.

Bridge reports that just 22 community water supplies have tested above these limits.

In other PFAS news, two PFAS chemicals were recently found in Melvindale on property owned by Marathon petroleum and Norfolk Southern Railroad. According to EGLE this “is likely influencing downstream stormwater.”

On a national level, The Intercept has reported that the Environmental Protection Agency allowed manufacturers to produce 40 new PFAS chemicals between 2006 and 2016 in addition to thousands of other compounds that are on a list hidden from public view, which could also contain PFAS chemicals.

Michigan set to record its lowest crop yields since 2004

Michigan’s wettest season on record means that corn harvests are expected to be 9% less and soybean yields 31% less than last year. According to Crain’s Detroit Business, nearly all major crops saw yield reductions this year. Over the summer, several Michigan counties were declared “primary disaster areas” by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue.

The difficult season unfolded at the same time as President Trump’s trade war with China, which caused chaos in agricultural markets. Across the nation, long term changes in weather caused by the climate crisis could create hotter weather and more intense storms that could negatively impact farmers and consumers. The Union of Concerned Scientists has recommended investing in rural infrastructure, improving soils with cover crops and more diverse plantings, developing more resilient crops and livestock breeds and expanding farm conservation programs among other things to help meet this crisis.

Solutions & Bright Spots

The brightest spot we found in the news this week:

Detroiter Antonio Cosme is leading Detroit Public School students on nature excursions through a position with the National Wildlife Federation’s Detroit Leadership and Environmental Education Program #DetLeep. Students from three Detroit High Schools are visiting the woods this fall to learn about nature in places like the Clinton River Trail in Rochester Hills and Hartwick Pines State Park.

Detroiter Antonio Cosme leads a DPS group at Hartwick Pines State Park. Credit: Antonio Cosme via Facebook

  • Cosme writes:

    Through D-LEEP and other efforts in Detroit and beyond, we aim to cultivate the next generation of conservation and environmental leadership, inclusive of urban communities too often excluded in leadership. This is vital because these communities have far too often been on the front line, first-impacted by pollution, climate change and environmental racism.

NWF hopes to expand efforts to all DPS schools through the national Eco-School USA program.

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October 24-26 | Net Impact Conference | Detroit >>>

October 25-27 | Great Lakes Bioneers | Detroit >>>

October 266 | Detroit Incinerator Shutdown Party | Detroit >>>

October 28 | Release Party - Geez 54: Climate Justice | Detroit >>>

October 29 | Your Water, Your Voice: Drinking Water Summit | Grand Rapids >>>

October 30 | Canning at home | Berkley >>>

November 2 | Fall Birding Hike on the Clinton River Trail | Rochester Hills >>>

November 3 | Soulardarity Grassroots Gala | Detroit >>>

November 6 | Seventh Annual Innovation in Conservation Awards Gala | Detroit >>>

November 8 | Michigan Interfaith Power & Light Conference | Detroit >>>

November 12 | Energy and Environment Fireside Chat | Troy >>>

November 13 | Your Water, Your Voice: Great Waters, Great Economy in Detroit | >>>

November 15-17 Grounding: Discovering our sacred gifts in a climate emergency | Guelph, ON >>>

November 20 | Michigan Sustainability Conference | Lansing >>>

November 22 | F**k Authenticity: Detroit chefs on food and identity | Detroit >>>

February 29, 2020 | Quiet Adventures Symposium | Lansing >>>

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