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Of polar vortices and Great Lakes

30 Jan

Photo courtesy of Space Science And Engineering Center- University of Wisconsin - Madison

Provided courtesy of Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC), University of Wisconsin-Madison

A recent report tells us that evaporation isn’t well understood and that we may see more of it in the fall and early winter than in the summer.  According to the report, the relative humidity plays a bigger role than the temperature and as we know, it’s awfully dry in the winter. One quote from that report is staggering – “a 1-day loss of 0.5 inches of water from the total surface area of the Great Lakes represents a volumetric flow rate of 820 billion gallons per day – nearly 20 times the flow rate of Niagara Falls.”

The repeated polar vortices we have been experiencing have provided greater ice cover and, thus, there should be a later start to the evaporation season this year.  The Great Lakes are reportedly 62% covered in ice, which already ranks this winter as 17th most coverage in the last 40 years. 1979 had the highest ice cover at 94.7 percent.

Weatherwise, this high ice cover may mean less lake effect snow, colder days, less runoff when the snow melt comes (although it’s been a very snowy January) but again, less evaporation.

It’s certainly better (waterwise) to be here than, say, California, where Governor Brown declared a drought emergency which likely will have significant impacts on farming and the foods eaten across the United States.  This could be good for Michigan farmers.  2014 is already shaping up to be an interesting year for water and the Great Lakes.

Water, water everywhere.

29 Jan

Picture006Did you ever think about where your water comes from and what may be in it?  I have a good friend who never thought about the fact that there was a finite amount of water and that certainly some of what came out of his tap had, at some point, likely passed through someone else’s bladder. What that means is that treatment of wastewater has an impact on drinking water quality and the public health.

We’ve recently learned that the DWSD and the local counties have been trying to work out a deal to “regionalize” the Detroit Water System – thus far – to no avail.  Also, just this week, rumors have surfaced that the DWSD may be cutting 40% of its staff – a reorganizing of the system which, if successful, could lead to lower operating costs, lower borrowing costs and may make a multi-county regional deal more likely. If not, the system could be back in trouble.  There have also been rumors of a possible sale of the system or that the Detroit Emergency Manager might strike some sort of deal without Oakland and Macomb counties – which hold many of DWSD’s customers.

This is a big deal because the DWSD supplies drinking water to 126 communities in southeast Michigan, other than Detroit, serving roughly 40% of the state’s population.  The system is one of the Country’s oldest, dating back to the 1830′s and the infrastructure issues involved are huge, given that the system has five water treatment plants treating water from two intakes in the Detroit River and a third in Lake Huron. As we reported earlier, because the DWSD was able to achieve compliance on the other *ahem* end, it was finally let out of what was then one of the oldest ongoing lawsuits in existence.

However, wastewater treatment plants (which discharge treated sewage) don’t always clean everything out of the water and that failures to catch chemicals like pharmaceuticals, can have impacts downstream.  Sometimes, the chemicals get caught by accident without the operators even knowing it! A draft MDEQ report also tells us that there are problems in Michigan’s rivers (some of which may have been there all along and better testing is just now bringing it to light) with higher levels of pathogens of the sort our sewers and septic systems are supposed to eliminate.  While the City’s drinking water meets federal and State standards, those standards don’t test for everything that winds up in the water.  We’ve come along way from the 1969 fires on the Cuyahoga and Rouge Rivers, but we’ve still got a long long way to go.

As far as drinking water, one hopes that the treatment deals with every possible chemical and pathogen but we know that it does not. With a need for infrastructure upgrading and impending staffing cuts, the time seems right to strike a regional deal that benefits everyone in both the short and long terms. Let’s hope the region can pull this off. Sound water and wastewater systems are important for both our health and our economy.

Insulation update

7 Jan

If you see these, you likely need more insulation

If you see these, you likely need more insulation

Two years ago, we added significant insulation to our attic and the walls of our house. We haven’t seen any icicles since.  I know how much kids like to throw snowballs at them and how pretty they can be. However, they can cause significant damage when melting snow gets trapped behind “ice dams” and they are a signal that heat is escaping to the roof through attic – heat that should be staying in the house.

I know that the investment we made insulating the house hasn’t paid for itself yet, but every little bit helps, and it’s nice to know that the energy I’m buying to heat my home is staying inside as long as possible rather than rushing up through my attic, particularly while we deal with the polar vortex.

Will 2014 be the year that Michigan Brownfields take off?

30 Dec

brownfieldFor the last 20 years, we have seen the innovative and aggressive Michigan brownfield liability and redevelopment laws move redevelopments forward.   While some of these projects have been big, all of them have been what I like to characterize as “low hanging fruit.”   This makes sense because, for all the incentives available, at the end of the day, if you rehab a building that no one wants to occupy, the incentives available won’t make the difference.  While not easy to redevelop, these sites have been redeveloped while other major environmental sites (either very large, very contaminated or in less desireable locations) continued to lay fallow.

So, it is logical that downtown Detroit and areas of Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids and Lansing have seen major brownfield redevelopment pushes and that smaller projects in outer ring suburbs with sound economies have also benefited from the State’s brownfield programs.

But now, we have some major projects that are not “low hanging fruit.”  The Packard Plant is paid for and soon will be owned by a Brazilian developer with big plans. He calls it the “best opportunity in the world” and he sounds serious.  Work on the long-stalled Uniroyal site is reportedly moving forward.  DTE recently sold its Marysville Michigan Plant to a St. Louis developer with experience in Brownfields.  There has been talk for years about Detroit looking at Turin Italy as a model for post-industrial redevelopment and the TV show, Morning Joe recently came to Detroit to tout its urban revival.  I saw this article about the creative redevelopment of a Spanish cement plant, and now I wonder whether we will see this sort of investment and creativity in Detroit and southeast Michigan brownfields which are not the easiest of sites to redevelop.  If so, it will be a very exciting time in Michigan.  Michigan clearly has the supply; now it is time to see if there is sufficient demand.

Lake Erie – loaded with plastics?

20 Dec

t1_11246_1533_LakeErie_143_250mPoor Lake Erie – as it is downstream from farms and wastewater treatment plants in Ohio and Michigan, it’s an algae magnet;  with its shallow and warm waters it is a good habitat for Asian Carp and now comes word of one more problem heaped on poor Erie’s shoulders.  As I blogged about this summer, there is a serious concern regarding “microbeads” from consumer products are winding up in the Great Lakes.  As Lake Erie is downstream of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario, that concern all flows toward Erie.  A new report from SUNY indicates that there is more plastic in Lake Erie per square foot than even the Pacific Plastic Gyre.    How does one know if the products (which can include toothpaste!) you buy have these microbeads?  Look at the label – if you see  Polyethylene, Polypropylene, Polyethylene Terephthalate, Polymethyl methacrylate or Nylon – the product may have an issue.  There’s an App - that scans the UPC bar codes and looks for microbead ingredients to warn you. I am trying it out but, thus far, it hasn’t recognized many products.

Go to jail; go directly to jail. Do not defraud the EPA.

18 Dec

jailWell, this is hard to believe.  John Beale, a high ranking EPA official was sentenced to 32 months in prison Wednesday for defrauding the US government.  This story seems like something out of Seinfeld – this guy reportedly took premium travel for personal reasons and charged the government. He also took months off (he claimed he was in the CIA) and continued to collect his pay!  Over almost 13 years (which is why this won’t be painted as tied to any particular administration), he bilked the government out of more than $1 Million (much of which he has already repaid).  Beale, who was a former Senior Policy Advisor at the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation (OAR), reportedly admitted his guilt when confronted.

What’s really amazing is that he was only caught after Gina McCarthy, (now the EPA administrator) his former boss, noted that he was still drawing a salary after he had retired!  One report I read quoted the EPA Assistant Inspector General as saying that “There’s a certain culture here at the EPA where the mission is the most important thing,” and “They don’t think like criminal investigators. They tend to be very trusting and accepting.”  Again, I have this image of George Constanza sleeping under his custom made desk and no one noticing!

How many things are wrong with this?  Well, the lack of internal controls is disturbing to me as a tax payer and as someone whose clients are cited often for lacking controls (glass houses, anyone?).  Certainly, the statement that the EPA doesn’t think like a criminal investigator is intriguing as the EPA is charged with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws – and often seeks both civil and criminal sanctions!  And then there’s the biggest one – the undercutting of the agency’s positions on climate change and a host of other issues.  There is a legal doctrine that agency interpretations of laws and rules are entitled to significant deference.  This has rankled me and many in the regulated community for years as it seems that the EPA gets too much deference.  Now, when agency personnel stake out a position – will the Courts defer or will they wonder (as humans are often so inclined) “why should I trust this agency representative, if they can’t police their own house, why should they be policing anyone else’s?”  This is yet another kick in the teeth for an agency charged with ensuring our air and water are safe.

Watch where you plug in your car

5 Dec

A recent story about a man charging his electric car at his kid’s school in Georgia caught my attention.  On a Saturday, while watching his kid’s tennis practice, the man plugged his car into an outlet outside the school.  The following week, he found himself arrested and charged with a crime for the theft of 5 cents worth of electricity.

Could that happen here?  It is certainly possible.  Michigan has passed a number of laws in the last 5 years relating to the theft of electricity, or sale of electricity stolen, from a utility.  That crime could be a felony punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment and/or a $5,000 fine. There can also be misdemeanor charges for someone who takes electricity from a utility by avoiding a meter.

While this story has gotten a lot of press, it is not clear what crime the man has been charged with.  In Michigan, it might be larceny or conversion. In all likelihood, if a crime, it would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500.00. That’s a big hit for 5 cents worth of electricity!

Given that electric cars are relatively new, the dynamics associated with charging them are clearly still developing.  In short, ask before you plug in or risk serious consequences.