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Earth Day at 44…. still crying?

22 Apr 2014

Earth Day brings me right back here

Earth Day brings me right back here

Happy Earth Day 44.  We have come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first Earth Day –  a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; the dead zone in Lake Eriesmog in Los Angeles and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of environmental laws like the Clean AirClean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry which certainly impacts the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are more complex and likely more daunting than those of 44 years ago.  We still have oil spills, but they are from rail cars, pipelines, larger ships and deeper wells.  Lake Erie and many other bodies of water are still challenged by more diffuse and “below the radar” sources of contamination.  While reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead and NOx from our daily lives, and healing the ozone hole, we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, smog impacts from and in China unlike anything LA ever faced, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

Once the “low hanging fruit” of easy cleanups were “picked,” what we were left with was less shocking or engaging than dead fish and burning rivers.  Consequently, there’s much more debate about the best way to address them or whether they need to be addressed at all.  The issues are just as important – maybe more so, but it’s unlikely that our polarized nation would agree on what changes would be best, if any.

Why not a regional water system?

10 Feb 2014

1280px-Detroit_GM_headquartersThere have been a flurry of recent articles about Oakland and Macomb Counties refusing to sign on to Mr. Orr’s plan for a regional water authority.  Mr. Patterson has been quoted as saying no deal is better than a bad deal and how can one disagree with that?  However, a regional authority is clearly the right move and every single one of the players at the table should know it.  It was the right move for the Zoo, Cobo Center, the DIA and now for the water and sewer systems that we all use in southeast Michigan.

What’s infuriating is that we all know this, but it seems less than clear that such a system will be implemented.  The current system needs infrastructure upgrades which are likely to be very expensive.  These costs need to be paid so that wastewater can be treated and safe drinking water provided.  The current DWSD also has legacy costs relating to its employees.  Mr. Orr’s plans (the public hasn’t seen them yet) reportedly have the region paying more for service to fund operations and upgrades and paying to lease the system – as if the system was some sort of corporate asset.  This seems a bit peculiar when you consider that the system is undercapitalized, under siege from newly forming competition and barely able to stay in compliance with its permits and various legal requirements.  If it needs a reported $2-$4 Billion in upgrades, it’s no longer an asset and is going to need every penny it collects just to operate. It will not be a cash source for the City and I am not certain that it should be.  The City’s initial investments are long sunk and its failure to keep the system up for the last 40+ years means that its value as an asset is minimal.

Oakland and Macomb want more information and I can’t blame them; but, given what we know about the recent history of Detroit, I wonder if that information exists.  If the City isn’t providing it, I suspect the Bankruptcy Court would be willing to help shake that information loose if it exists.

As for the legacy employee costs, I wonder if the City can pursue the same strategy that GM used and create a voluntary employees’ beneficiary association (VEBA) of some sort to fund employee benefits.

The time to establish a regional water authority is now. Will it happen?  As I have said before, both the economic and environmental health of this region depend on clean water and our water-rich position (unique to Detroit except for Chicago, Milwaukee and Toronto) make it imperative that we get this right and soon.

WV Spill – could it happen here?

15 Jan 2014

Water trucks traveling into WV

Water trucks traveling into WV – Photo by Marc Goldman

The national press is now focusing (after spending hours and hours on a NJ traffic jam) on a chemical release from an above ground tank into 300,000 people’s drinking water.  When 1/6 of a State loses the use of its water supply – that tends to be a big deal (if a similar proportion of Michigan residents lost their water it would be over 1.5 Million!).

One or more tanks owned or used by Freedom Industries that stored a coal washing chemical, leaked a reported 7,500 gallons (or more) into the river which was the source of local residents’ tap water.

Federal law requires facilities that store oil and meet 3 criteria (non-transportation related facility, have more than a certain storage capacity, and could reasonably discharge to navigable waters or adjoining shorelines) must comply with spill prevention, control and countermeasure (SPCC) regulations. The SPCC regulations require the facility owner/operator to prepare and implement an SPCC plan for their facility. This plan must be well thought out and prepared in accordance with good engineering practices.

The Federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) helps communities plan for hazardous substance emergencies by requiring facilities holding chemicals to provide local and state governments  information on chemicals stored so that the local communities can plan for chemical safety in the event of a fire or spill. Reportedly, Freedom Industries did comply with this law.

There are also OSHA, Transportation and Homeland Security regulations which may conflict regarding hazardous chemical storage. In August, 2013, President Obama issued an Executive Order focused on improving chemical facility safety and improving coordination with owners and operators as well as state and local regulators.  The working group is nowhere near complete and I expect the West Virginia experience will play a part in their deliberations.

In Michigan, we have a broader set of rules which require a pollution incident prevention plan (PIPP) for polluting materials which include salt, oil, any chemical from a lengthy list, and any compound or product that contains 1% or more, by weight, of the listed materials.  The rules:

  • Identify threshold management quantities (TMQs) for both indoor and outdoor use, storage, and other management areas. Exceeding these TMQs will determine if a PIPP has to be prepared, if containment is required, and if other Part 5 rules must be met. The PIPP is to include inspection and maintenance procedures but no minimums are specified.
  • Describe conditions and threshold reporting quantities (TRQs) for polluting materials which, if exceeded, or occur, require spills or releases to be reported.
  • Provide exemptions from some requirements if certain conditions are met or other regulations apply.
  • Within 30 days of completing its PIPP, the facility must send a notice that it is in compliance to the relevant MDEQ district office. It also must notify the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) and local health department that the plan has been completed and is available upon request.
  • Requires each PIPP to be evaluated every three years or after any release that triggers the plan. The plan must be updated when there are changes to personnel, processes, or procedures identified in the plan. The facility must re-notify the MDEQ and local agencies and recertify compliance when the plan is updated.

For above-ground tanks that hold at least 1,100 gallons of flammable or combustible liquids, there are further Michigan requirements (recodified at the end of 2013) for design, installation and site inspections both after installation and every three years.

Despite Michigan’s 20 page list of regulated chemicals – the chemical in this instance, 4-methylcyclohexylmethanol, is not on the list and so a Michigan company would not be obligated to have a PIPP if it stored only that compound.  Could it happen here? Of course it could; tank spills happen all the time – there are reportedly 2,000 a year across the US. Is Michigan better positioned to deal with such a release – it appears yes, but there are gaps in the system that the West Virginia spill may lead Michigan legislators and regulators to conduct a further review.

The Center of the Blue Economy

8 Nov 2013


Astronaut Karen Nyberg tweeted this photo of Michigan and the Great Lakes from aboard the International Space Station on Oct. 13. (Courtesy Photo | Karen L. Nyberg)

The Governor’s office recently requested a White Paper relating to the so-called “blue economy.”  We here in Michigan have always known about our Great Lakes (and yes, I know they don’t belong to Michigan but they define us – if you don’t believe me – see the photo).

The White Paper was released this week and it notes what most of us would think of as the big four uses of water here in Michigan:

  • farming;
  • factories (energy);
  • shipping; and
  • leisure use.

The White Paper recognizes these (noting that water is responsible for nearly a million jobs and $60 billion in the Michigan economy) and also discusses water technology businesses, water research, modeling sustainable water uses and making water a long-term platform for sustainable growth.  The thought that Michigan with its abundance of riches (20% of the world’s fresh water!) is pursuing businesses and policies that will be based on the scarcity of clean fresh water is impressive as it normally seems that places without much water focus on shepherding it.  The focus on innovation, research, manufacturing and entrepreneurship is refreshing (perhaps a tad late, as other states and Canada are also focusing on this).

Also interesting to me is the White Paper’s silence on hydro-power or wind-power driven by the lakes (although that may be the focus of another of the Governor’s initiatives – a point I will discuss in a later blog post).

There is a delicate balance between the various uses of the Great Lakes and concerns regarding lake levels and invasive species that often pits farms and factories against shippers and against leisure users of the lakes.  I commend the Governor on beginning the process and trying to focus businesses and researchers on something that we here in Michigan often take for granted because of the abundance of riches we have.

Gyre Solution?

10 Sep 2013

If ocean currents can carry plastic ducks, why not use them to capture plastic bits?

I have posted before about the oceanic plastic gyres and about the Great Lakes plastic slicks as well.

Now, a young man proposes a system he says is more efficient, and therefore profitable, to collect (and then recycle) the plastics by using the ocean’s currents to funnel the floating plastic into a large collector system.

See his website here and watch his Ted talk here. I suspect it is not as simple as he makes it out to be as the plastics recycling market is not particularly efficient and the plastics are old, mixed and “weathered.”  But using an anchored collection system to take advantage of currents seems like it could be a game changer.

Invasive Species and Unintended Consequences

12 Jul 2013

One action begets a reaction and another and another

Before I took off for vacation, I decided to finish reading 1493 which may be the most thought provoking book on invasive species I’ve ever read.  Author Thomas Mann takes a look at the last 500+ years of world history, economics, anthropology and environment and explains using interesting vignettes how the world we live in is not anything like the world of 1491.

He discusses topics like:

  • malaria and its relationship to the US slave trade;
  • sugar, silver and trade with the far east;
  • how South American potatoes and fertilizer revolutionized Europe and;
  • once the “eggs were all in the basket,” how European farming practices made almost inevitable the potato blight that virtually depopulated Ireland in the mid 1800’s.

He raises many interesting questions, some of which are still being asked today, as in this article regarding the popularity of the “superfood” quinoa as “gentrifying” or changing the South American farmers who used to eat it as a subsistance food.

A fascinating book which raises almost as many questions as it answers and shows how human actions – sometimes on purpose and sometimes not, have resulted in ecosystems (as well as economic systems) which are entirely foreign to the lands they occupy today.  We’ve blogged about Asian Carp and many of us are aware of invasive species like kudzu and purple loosestrife. But I never thought of wheat, onions, earthworms, potatoes, sugar, bananas and horses as invasive species.  I highly recommend this book.

Ballast Rule Changes Make for Strange Bedfellows

19 Sep 2012

Last Thursday the Michigan Senate Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes met to discuss, among other things, Senate Bill 1212.  The bill would amend Part 31 (Water Resources Protection) of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act to require the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to issue a permit to oceangoing vessels engaging in port operations in Michigan if the vessel flushed its ballast tanks completely while at sea.

Ballast water is water carried by a cargo ship in its hulls when empty to keep the vessel balanced.  A large ship can carry millions of gallons of ballast water.  As a ship takes on cargo, the ballast water, which was taken in wherever the ship last unloaded its cargo, is discharged.  According to the National Wildlife Federation, ballast water from ships is the primary channel for unintentionally introducing invasive aquatic organisms into U.S. waters and most of the 185 invasive species found in the Great Lakes were introduced through ballast water discharge.

Michigan’s current law has been in effect since 2005 and is one of the most stringent ballast laws in the country.  The law requires all oceangoing vessels engaging in port operations in Michigan to obtain a permit from the DEQ.  The Department must issue a permit if the applicant can demonstrate that the vessel will not discharge aquatic nuisance species; or, if the vessel discharges ballast water or other waste, that the operator will use environmentally sound technology and methods, as determined by the DEQ, to prevent the discharge of aquatic nuisance species.

The bill proposes to identify one specific treatment method – deep water exchange – that could satisfy the permit requirements.  In essence, the DEQ would be required to issue a permit if the applicant could demonstrate that the vessel conducted a complete flushing of all ballast tanks with sea water at a location at least 200 nautical miles from shore at a depth of more than 2,000 meters, or another location approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.

At the meeting last Thursday, representatives from the DEQ, the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and the National Wildlife Federation testified against the bill.  Their main argument is that weaker ballast rules would invite more invasive species into the Great Lakes, thereby further jeopardizing the Great Lakes and its related fishing and tourism industries.  Representatives from the Detroit Regional Chamber, Nicholson Terminal & Dock Company and the International Association of Machinists testified in support of the bill, arguing that Michigan is driving away potential business because ships choose to go to ports in states with looser ballast laws.

For a copy of the bill visit here.

To view the Detroit Free Press guest commentary article on Senate Bill 1212 written by Dan Wyant, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality visit here.