From the Headlines – Week of March 1, 2021

Uncharted waters: Detroit’s Charter Commission proposed changes to the city charter that would affect government accountability, housing, water, and transportation. Among other measures, the commission is recommending a new water rate system and low-income fare plan for buses. “Every human being deserves true quality of life, and your historic efforts will enshrine these rights in the city’s constitution,” activist Tawana Petty said of the plan. However, Detroit’s deputy finance chief Tany Stoudemire said in a memo that the charter revisions could cause an “imminent fiscal crisis,” increasing city spending by over $800 million per year. The charter commission hopes to put the changes before voters in the August 3 primary election. (Detroit News)

Lead out: Michigan Senators Curt VanderWall and Jim Ananich introduced two bills this week to ensure that schools have lead-free drinking water. Among other things, the so-called “Filter First” bills would establish a state fund to help schools and daycares in low-income areas install and maintain water filters. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer included $55 million in her recent funding request for this initiative. (ABC 12)

Damage control: Following the historic failure of dams near Midland, Michigan, last May, a task force said that the state’s dams need “comprehensive and immediate attention.” The group issued 86 recommendations at a cost of $420 million. Measures they’re recommending include:Surveillance and monitoring for high and significant hazard dams.A revolving loan fund and grant program for dam repair and removal.An emergency fund to fix hazardous dams if the owner is unable to pay.A requirement that dam-owners prove they can afford to operate, maintain or remove dams, and have insurance to cover a catastrophic failure.Increased inspections for hazardous dams.Modifications to state law to meet federal engineering standards for “design floods”–or ability to withstand hypothetical flood events–and giving the state more authority to address safety issues. (Belt, Bridge)Payouts:Whitmer faces criticism for several confidentiality agreements with state employees that some say amount to ‘hush money,’ including $155,000 for Robert Gordon, former director of the Michigan health department. Gordon had signed several controversial public health orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in September of 2019, denied a petition to make water more affordable and accessible. At the time, he said that the health department had “not identified data that suggest a causal association between water shutoffs and water-borne disease.” Although confidentiality agreements like this are standard in the private sector, John Pelissero, from Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said they are “not the norm” for the government. (Freep, Bridge)

Transition dollars: Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia introduced legislation to help factories retool to make clean energy products. The proposed $8 billion in tax credits would help communities that have relied on auto manufacturing and coal mining to transition into making things like batteries or wind turbines. “Transitioning to a clean energy economy creates significant opportunities for Michigan to put people to work in good-paying jobs,” Stabenow said. (Freep)

Neutron dance: Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is looking to stop Entergy Co. from transferring the license for a southwest Michigan nuclear plant and fuel storage site to Florida-based Holtec International. “My concern is that by seriously underestimating the cost of decommissioning, site restoration, and nuclear fuel management, coupled with a lack of appropriate financial assurances, Holtec endangers our environment and health, and potentially leaves our residents to bear the costs of proper clean-up,” Nessel said. The facilities in question, the Palisades Nuclear Plant and Big Rock Point Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation, are close to Lake Michigan. (DNews)

Septic fail: Thirty-five percent of Michiganders rely on home septic systems; there are about 1.4 million systems across the state. There is currently no statewide code to regulate them, although leaking septic systems can pollute waterways and create hazards in the home. Legislation from State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud and Rep. James Lower looks to establish state standards for septic systems and require regular inspections with results reported to Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. However, so far, concern over private property rights and program administration has kept the bills from moving forward. (Bridge)

Hunting cranes? Resolutions in the Michigan House and Senate call on the Michigan Natural Resources Commission to open up hunting for moose, wolves, and sandhill cranes. Cranes can damage corn and wheat crops, and farmers can get permits to kill the birds if they become a nuisance, although they cannot eat them. But a proposed hunt wouldn’t be limited to farmers. Amy Trotter, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, expressed support for the resolution because it would allow “hunters to be part of management efforts.” So far, state officials have no plans to introduce hunting for sandhill cranes or wolves. And the National Park Service in charge of Isle Royale’s moose population–which some say has become problematically large–intends to manage it by re-introducing more wolves. (Bridge)

Shifting priorities: Journalist Gary Wilson notes that the Alliance for the Great Lakes made environmental justice and improved drinking water infrastructure–including stopping water shutoffs–its top two priorities for the Great Lakes this year. “It wasn’t that many years ago that neither EJ nor shut-offs would have made the list,” he writes. Meanwhile, the popular Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) moved into third place. Wilson applauds the focus on environmental justice but adds that it may be time to revamp the GLRI if it’s going to maintain its relevance. The program includes hundreds of millions of dollars for thousands of projects, including money to restore polluted sites known as Areas of Concern. And yet, according to Wilson, these efforts to clean up legacy pollution often move at a “snail’s pace.” (Great Lakes Notebook)

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