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Governor Snyder signs legislation amending Michigan’s wetlands protection law

17 Jul 2013

Ealier this month, Governor Rick Snyder signed into law Senate Bill 163 which, in part, makes changes to the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA).  The law amends Parts 13 (Permits), 301 (Inland Lakes and Streams), 303 (Wetlands Protection), and 325 (Great Lakes Submerged Lands) of the NREPA.  The changes, which stem mainly from a 2008 audit by the EPA that cited numerous inconsistencies between Michigan law and federal law, include:

  • revisions to the standards used by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to deny a permit – with an extension to any review upholding the Department’s decision;
  • revisions to a number of exceptions to the requirement for a permit under the parts pertaining to wetlands protection and inland lakes and streams, and revisions to the exemptions from regulation for wetlands protection;
  • the elimination of the October 1, 2015 sunset on provisions regarding wetlands protection preapplication meetings;
  • the addition of a rebuttable presumption with regard to feasible and prudent alternatives to developing wetlands not owned by the applicant, and prescription of the conditions that could be considered in determining alternatives;
  • the prescription of factors the MDEQ would have to consider in imposing wetland mitigation requirements; and
  • revisions in the areas of wetland mitigation banking and blueberry farming and production.

The new law also states that Michigan’s delegated responsibility to regulate waters only applies to “Waters of the United States” and “Navigable Waters” under federal law, court decision, or promulgated rule, and that determining whether additional regulation is necessary to protect Michigan waters beyond the scope of federal law is the responsibility of the Michigan legislature. 

Wetlands play a critical role in the management of Michigan’s water based resources and acre for acre, wetlands produce more wildlife and plants than any other Michigan habitat type.  Proponents of the new law say that it will simplify the permitting process to make it easier for developers and landowners to comply.  Critics believe that it will weaken the protections previously afforded under the law.  Let’s hope for our sake and Michigan’s, the critics are wrong.


AG Opinion Impacts Potential Dredging

13 May 2013

In February, we mentioned that, in an effort to combat the low water levels in Michigan’s smaller harbors, the Michigan House of Representatives had introduced a bill that would amend the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act to include “the dredging of Great Lakes Harbors for use by recreational watercraft” as part of “developing public recreation facilities,” thereby allowing money from the State Natural Resources Trust Fund (the “Trust Fund”) to be diverted to harbor maintenance. 

Unfortunately, it looks like that legislation is dead in the water as Michigan Attorney General, Bill Schuette, recently released an opinion (Opinion No. 7270) that the Trust Fund cannot be used for the maintenance of existing public recreation facilities, such as maintenance dredging of existing harbors.  His conclusion is based on the fact that the Trust Fund was established through an amendment to the Michigan Constitution approved by citizens, and therefore the Legislature cannot substantively change the meaning or scope of the constitutional language adopted by the people.  Because the relevant constitutional language uses the term “development” and there is an absence of any reference to “maintenance”, it was determined that the plain language of the Const 1963, art 9, §35, does not authorize the use of Trust Fund money for the maintenance of existing recreational facilities, including maintenance dredging of Great Lakes harbors for use by recreational watercraft.

The opinion also addressed whether funds from the Waterways Account of the Michigan Conservation and Recreation Legacy Fund could be used for the operating and maintenance of public recreation facilities, including the dredging of existing harbors. The conclusion?  The funds can be used for such a cause but such expenditures must be directed to public, rather than private, recreation facilities and the primary purpose of the dredging must be to enhance access for recreational watercraft.  

The impact of these decisions may be lessened if the weather continues to cooperate.  While the levels of lakes Michigan and Huron are still 22 inches below their long-term average and 6 inches lower than last year, recent precipitation caused both lakes to rise 9 inches during April – a well above average rise for this time of year.

Final proposal from Detroit Water Department Rejected

22 Apr 2013

A couple weeks ago, the state of Michigan approved Flint’s plan to join Genesee and neighboring counties in the Karegnondi Water Authority project.  That approval, however, was subject to a final offer from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD).  The final offer was delivered last week, but it appears that the proposal did not go far enough to lower costs in the Flint area and so Flint plans to join the pipeline project.  This means that Flint will ultimately separate from Detroit’s water system; an action that DWSD officials say will cause the department to lose about $22 million immediately and result in higher rates to residents throughout the region.  According to Genesee County officials, the rising costs and decreased reliability of Detroit’s system promoted the pipeline proposal.   

Once the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline is complete, Flint will get 16 million gallons of water per day from Lake Huron and 2 million from the Flint River.  The water will be treated in Flint at existing plants (after modifications are made) and then sold to city customers. 

For more on the DWSD’s take, here is their press release from earlier this month.

Closed Loop Turns Waste Gas Into Energy

4 Apr 2013

Recently, Arthur discussed how a Coca-Cola machine plant is using methane (landfill gas), piped into the plant to generate almost 100% of its electricity and steam needs.  The Inland Empire Utilities Agency (IEUA), a regional wastewater treatment agency in California is also using methane to provide electricity for its Ontario wastewater treatment plant, but in this case, the IEUA is using an on-site fuel cell plant to turn its self-produced methane into electricity.  Fuel cells are devices that convert fuel into electricity through a clean electro-chemical process rather than dirty combustion.

As you may expect, the plant produces a lot of waste solids.  Some of that waste is consumed by an anaerobic digester on site at the plant,  but the bacteria in the digester produces another kind of waste – methane (which, as Arthur pointed out in his post,  is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2).  So IEUA installed a fuel cell power plant that uses the methane to make electricity – enough to meet 60% of the plant’s electricity needs.  The byproducts?  Water and heat, and the heat is fed back into the digester to keep the sewage eating bacteria nice and warm – a win-win situation.

Fuel cells have been around for a long time and many companies have been, and still are, trying to make them a viable solution to our everyday energy and environmental needs.  Fuel cells can provide cheap, reliable energy with reduced emissions and fuel cell plants are smaller than other alternative energy technologies such as wind farms and solar panels. 

This 60 minutes piece, which aired in 2010, featured a story on Bloom Energy and shows that fuel cell technology is not without its cautiously optimistic skeptics.  Bloom produces power generators using its patented solid oxide fuel cell technology and  boasts a customer list that includes Walmart, ebay, Google, Staples, Owens Corning and AT&T. 

IEUA received its fuel cell power plant from Canada’s Anaergia Inc., using fuel cells supplied by Fuel Cell Energy Corp. of Connecticut.  Anaergia Inc. provided the plant to IEUA for free and will get its money back over time by selling the electricity the power plant generates to the IEUA.

Happy Birthday To Us!

22 Mar 2013

Heather pointed out to me that we had just celebrated our third year blogging on environmental issues of interest to Michigan. I guess I was so busy with my NCAA bracket that I missed it.  After about 1,100 days, over 300 posts and 11,000 people checking us out, it’s been a pretty good and certainly interesting run.

The best present you can give us is to keep reading, subscribe, keep commenting and, if you’re so inclined, pass the blog onto your friends and colleagues!

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Board Announced

21 Mar 2013

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the first advisory board to support implementation of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.  A list of the advisory board members, which includes scientists, business leaders, public servants and representatives of non-profit organizations, can be found here.

As you may remember, in 2009, President Obama proposed, and Congress approved, $475 million for a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.  The initial funding allowed the EPA, which leads the initiative on behalf of 16 federal agencies, to take steps toward implementing the FY2010 – FY2014 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan.   So far, the initiative has funded hundreds of projects and Congress has approved Obama’s requests totaling more than $1 billion for the program.

The EPA established five focus areas for the first round of projects under the Great Lakes Restorative Initiative.  The projects are funded through grants to both federal programs and projects implemented by states, tribes, municipalities, universities and other organizations.  The five major focus areas are:

  • toxic substances and “areas of concern”;
  • Invasive species;
  • Nearshore health and nonpoint source pollution;
  • Habitat and wildlife protection and restoration; and
  • Accountability, education, monitoring, evaluation, communication and partnerships.

There are currently 29 EPA designated “areas of concern” within the U.S where conditions have deteriorated enough that authorities have restricted fish and wildlife consumption, dredging activities and water consumption.  14 of those areas are located in Michigan.  One of the goals outlined in the Action Plan is to delist 5 “areas of concern” by 2014.  The first area to be delisted since 2006, the Presque Isle Bay, was delisted just last month

Obama has pledged to fund the initiative at least through 2014.   For the sake of the Great Lakes and the entire country (the lakes make up 95% of the nation’s surface freshwater and supply more than 30 million people with drinking water), let’s hope he doesn’t stop there.

State Looks to Dredging As Great Lakes Hit Record Low

6 Feb 2013

Earlier this week, Arthur blogged about the low lake levels in Michigan and mentioned that the Great Lakes have been at a lower than average level for the past 12 years.  Continuing the trend, the water levels of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron just set another record low.  According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the monthly mean water level was at 576.02 feet on January 31, 2013 – .03 feet lower than the previous record set in March 1964. 

The drop in lake levels significantly impacts harbors both big and small which, as Arthur pointed out, means commercial shipping and pleasure boaters suffer.  According to this article, Michigan has 56 harbors and channels that the federal government is responsible to maintain, but U.S. Army Corps of Engineers only plans to dredge only 6 of them this year and will focus on the large and medium-sized ports used by commercial vessels.

So what about the smaller harbors?  Well, next week, Governor Snyder is expected to call for spending $11 million this year to dredge Michigan harbors in danger of losing their connections to open water because of low Great Lakes levels.  In addition, the Michigan House of Representatives recently introduced a bill that would amend the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act to include “the dredging of Great Lakes harbors for use by recreational watercraft” as part of “developing public recreation facilities,” thereby allowing money from the State Natural Resources Trust Fund to be diverted to harbor maintenance.

It will be interesting to see how these efforts pan out and while it is clear that something needs to be done in the short-term, dredging is still just a temporary fix to combat the effects of a much larger, long-term problem.