From the Headlines

Democracy and the environment: The Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club made an unconventional choice for their “Environmentalist of the Year” by choosing Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. “…Democracy is essential to environmental protection. Without it, we really can’t have citizen engagement,” said David Holtz, a member of the Sierra Club’s executive committee. Holtz said that Benson and other officials were able to successfully deliver an election “under unimaginable conditions.” In the past year, Benson endured threats, unfounded allegations of election fraud, and protests outside of her home, while administering an election in the midst of a pandemic. (Michigan Radio, WaPo)

The Senate and the climate: With this week’s Senate wins in Georgia, Democrats have gained control of both houses of Congress in addition to the presidency, giving them a chance to take meaningful action on climate change. President-elect Joe Biden could be in a position to pass his $2 trillion climate and infrastructure plan, which aims to invest in public transit, sustainable housing, and clean energy. Rev. Raphael Warnock — who will be the first Black senator from the state of Georgia — said of climate change and environmental justice: “There’s work we need to do.” (Grist, NY Times)

Votes matter: Some of the most indelible images from this past election cycle were the long lines of people waiting to vote or simply drop off ballots in places like Texas and Georgia. Since 2013, when the U. S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, nearly 1,700 polling places in mostly southern states have closed, many in Black and Latinx communities, draining political power from areas where people of color live and making it even harder to fight the environmental threats that disproportionately affect them (like air pollution and global warming). Some are calling on the incoming Democratic Congress to prioritize new voting rights legislation in order to fight voter suppression and efforts to subvert the vote. (NY Times, WBUR, Scientific American, Mother Jones)

A new day for the interior: “I’ll be fierce for all of us, for our planet, and all of our protected lands,” U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland said in her speech accepting the nomination to become Biden’s secretary of the interior. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American to hold a cabinet position. In an interview with The Guardian, Haaland outlined her priorities, which include addressing climate change, increasing tribal consultation and pushing for a green economy. She has previously sponsored legislation for the U.S. to protect 30% of all oceans and land by 2030, a move that could be critical for mitigating climate change. In her new position, Haaland will also play a key role in undoing Trump’s environmental rollbacks (see next section). (Guardian)
Four years ago, short-lived White House strategist Steve Bannon said that his goal for the Trump administration was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” In the last few months, Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other governmental bodies have ratcheted up their attacks on environmental enforcement and rulemaking in an attempt to hobble the incoming Biden administration. Here are some of the big ones:

Regulatory rollbacks: Following more than 100 rollbacks of environmental rules, EPA head Andrew Wheeler announced the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule, which could severely compromise public health regulation. The rule requires the release of raw data from public health studies when considering the effects of things like air pollution and toxic chemicals. Large public health studies often use anonymized results and thus wouldn’t qualify. According to Chris Zarba, a former head of the EPA’s science advisory board, this change could, “force the agency to revoke decades of clean air protections.” (NY Times, Guardian)

Reversing bird protections: The Trump administration delivered a favor to the oil and gas industry — which has long sought to avoid liability for killing birds through spills, toxic waste ponds, and other accidents — by changing how the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act is implemented. The federal government will no longer fine industries that kill birds, so long as their actions are not intentional. This could protect them from liability even for illegal acts like spraying banned pesticides. A member of the Biden transition team referred to the rule change as part of an “unrelenting assault” on the environment. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was previously used to obtain a $100 million settlement from BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed more than one million birds. (NY Times)

Climate report: Planet Detroit never gets tired of linking to the National Climate Assessment, which has helped elucidate the regional effects of climate change in the Midwest like increased precipitation, flooding, and heat. And it appears that U.S. climate scientists have beaten back attempts from the Trump administration to undermine the report by removing key people involved in its production. “Thank God they didn’t know how to run a government,” said Thomas Armstrong, who led the U.S. Global Change Research Program — which produces the assessment — during the Obama administration. “It could have been a lot worse.” (NY Times)

Arctic drilling: The administration’s bid to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to fossil fuel extraction only attracted bids for half its leases this week. All but two of these came from the state of Alaska itself, with no major oil and gas companies seeking rights to drill or explore for oil in the refuge. The move was seen as a way to bring in nearly a billion dollars to the U.S. Treasury but secured less than $15 million. “This lease sale was an epic failure for the Trump administration and the Alaska congressional delegation,” Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement. (NY Times)
Air pollution: Along with water shutoffs, air pollution is one of the biggest environmental justice issues Detroiters face. It looks like Detroit will be getting some relief on water disconnections through 2022, but air pollution from industries like Marathon and AK Steel will likely continue, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) will begin production at their new east side facilities early in the year. FCA has said that it would decrease emissions at a Warren facility and increase them in Detroit, even though the area around the plants already sees some of the highest rates of hospitalization for asthma in the city. (Detroit News, WDET)

Legacy contamination: About a year ago, Planet Detroit was reporting on the collapse of a toxic cleanup site on the Detroit River shoreline as well as the appearance of ‘green ooze’ on I-696 from an industrial facility that had been disposing of chemicals improperly for years. More recently, we reported on the ubiquity of PFAS chemicals in our local soil, groundwater, and sewage sludge being applied to Michigan farm fields. And Detroit’s children face the continued threat of lead poisoning.  Legacy pollution remains a serious threat in Michigan, especially as it combines with rising water and decaying infrastructure. The Free Press reports that there are more than 24,000 contaminated sites in the state, and 14,000 of them have no responsible party who might pay for the cleanup. Of these 14,000 sites, Michigan’s Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy funded cleanup at 450 last year. And even these “cleanups” often mean “risk mitigation,” leaving contaminants in the ground where they could pose a problem in the future. “Not only do we not have the money to clean them up, but we also don’t have the money or necessary staffing to be sure which sites they are,” said Sean Hammond, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council. (Curbed Detroit, Michigan Radio, Planet Detroit Metro Times, Freep)

High water? Water levels on the Great Lakes appear to have begun their seasonal decline, although they are still very high. Will this spring see a return to record highs and flooding? It’s hard to know at this point, but the trend of increased precipitation in the Midwest and polar vortex events — which slow down evaporation — mean that this is a story we will likely be paying attention to for years. Long term, the question may be whether or not climate change creates more high water on the lakes or it becomes a system that is evaporation dominant? (MLive, WDET, Guardian)

Aging infrastructure: Decades of poor regulation and underinvestment created a spectacular failure with the crumbling of the Edenville Dam and the flooding of Midland in 2020. Another 1,600 dams are in poor condition in the state, including a number in Metro Detroit. How this aging infrastructure might interact with the stress of climate change — which has made Michigan a lot wetter — is anyone’s guess. But dams are far from the only problem. In Metro Detroit, the aging water system presents a massive —  and costly — challenge, with officials looking for more cost-effective solutions. (Planet Detroit, Detroit News)

Environmental justice in the Biden administration:  Will the incoming Biden administration make environmental justice a priority? There are a number of actions that Biden could take, including a proposal to create an environmental and climate justice division within the Department of Justice. It’s also worth paying attention to Biden’s cabinet. The selection of Rep. Deb Haaland for the Interior Department and Michael Regan for the Environmental Protection Agency signal some level of seriousness about environmental justice. Progressives pushed for both choices. Whether this will drive action on environmental justice and climate policy remains to be seen. (Union of Concerned Scientists, Scientific American, WaPo)

Climate ambition: This year, those concerned about the climate crisis will be looking for signals from the world’s governments and institutions to see if they’re taking this problem seriously. One interesting development came last month when the U.S. Federal Reserve became a member of the Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System, a move that shows recognition of the economic risk created by climate change. But Alok Sharma–the UK minister charged with leading UN climate talks among world leaders–said in December that current national initiatives were “not enough” to prevent significant warming. A number of countries have declared a climate emergency and the European Union has committed to cutting emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030. However, it’s estimated that global emissions need to be cut in half by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. (NY Times, BBC, Inside Climate)

Line 5: In November, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced her decision to shut down Enbridge Energy’s controversial Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, saying that the structure presented an “unreasonable risk” to the Great Lakes and was a violation of the public trust doctrine. This move–which calls for oil to stop flowing through the pipeline by May–is being challenged by the company and won’t necessarily affect the new pipeline Enbridge wants to build in a tunnel under the Straits. But activists greeted the news as a victory and some have remarked that it may be harder for the company to argue that the new pipeline is an economic necessity after the current pipeline is shut down. (Detroit News, Bridge)


Our reporting 

runs deep.

Get the latest local enviro news in your inbox with Planet Detroit.

Scroll to Top