From the Headlines – October 11-15, 2021

Taking on lead: With Benton Harbor serving as a reminder of Michigan’s ongoing problems with lead, state Democratic lawmakers announced a bipartisan package of bills on Thursday that look to take on lead contamination statewide. “It’s a tragedy that the state with the greatest access to freshwater is also home to one of the greatest water-related disasters of our lifetimes. The Flint water crisis is an ugly stain on our history, one that we swore we would never let happen again,” said state Rep. Rachel Hood, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “And here we are in yet another struggle. And tragically, we haven’t learned from our mistakes or moved quickly enough to advance statewide solutions.” Among other measures, the 10-bill package would require lead paint inspections when houses built before 1978 are sold and mandate lead screenings for children up to 6-years-old who are enrolled in state health insurance or Medicaid. (MLive)

Who loves a swamp? Plans to raze a 44-acre wetland in Van Buren Township for a landfill expansion have raised concerns about the loss of wetlands in southeast Michigan and how this might be contributing to the region’s flooding problems. Wayne County has lost an estimated 98% of its wetlands. “Every time we lose wetlands, we’re just incurring a lot more economic cost on us personally when the water comes into our basement,” said Dr. Connie Boris, Wayne County Conservation District Executive Director. Twelve acres of rare, Wet Mesic Flatwoods are included in the area set to be destroyed for the landfill, an ecosystem that Boris describes as a “super sponge.” When Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) granted the permit to Waste Management to expand the landfill, it required them to restore or build 70 acres of new wetlands and preserve 22 acres of existing wetlands, but this will happen miles away from the site. In the last 20 years, EGLE has approved 97 percent of all permits for developing wetlands. (WXYZ)

Paint fumes: Stellantis says it will make changes to operations at its Jeep assembly plant on Detroit’s east side after receiving an air quality violation notice for paint odors of “moderate to strong intensity.”  The company told regulators they would keep plant doors “closed at all times when not in use” and have installed tarps on de-watering boxes in the paint shop. Beniteau Street resident Robert Shobe, who lives near the plant, says that the metallic odors coming from the paint shop make it unpleasant to be outside. “The quality of life around here is pretty much zero,” he said. EGLE encourages residents who notice odors to call the air pollution hotline at 1-800-292-4706. (Crain’s, Freep)

Bridge dreams: The Moroun family’s dream of building a second span for the Ambassador Bridge lives on, with Detroit City Council considering whether it should hand over 3.8 acres of land to the company near Riverside Park to the west of the current bridge — the last major piece of land needed for the second span. This is the second part of a deal begun in 2015 in which the Moroun-owned Detroit International Bridge Company gave the city $3 million and 4.8 acres to expand Riverside Park. Council Member Raquel Castañeda-López says there has been insufficient public engagement around the project, which could increase air pollution in the area. Others question if the company will obtain the permits they need from U.S. and Canadian authorities. “We’re not going to approve that because of air quality, and the Canadians are not going to approve twinning because it does nothing to improve traffic flow,” said Blair Stanifer, Coast Guard bridge program administrator for the Great Lakes. (Crain’s)

Water news: The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) Finance Committee ok’d millions of dollars worth of contracts for “emergency investigations, cleaning, and repairs to catch basins, manholes, sinkholes, etc. related to the 2021 severe flooding events.” DWSD Director Gary Brown said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sent out $93 million in checks to Detroiters dealing with damage from basement flooding. Meanwhile, the Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP) increased its maximum annual payout for help with water bills from $700 to $1,200. DWSD customers have also received $715,000 from the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program, which helps tenants with pandemic-related rent hardships. (Detroit Documenters)

Battery power: Ford Motor Co. recently announced plans to create 11,000 jobs at new battery plants in Kentucky and Tennessee. Why no love for Michigan? It might have something to do with our state’s private utilities and high electricity costs. The new plants in Kentucky and Tennessee are both served by publicly-owned utilities that can often charge less on account of lower taxes and cheaper bond rates without needing to put money aside for paying shareholders. For example, the publicly-owned Tennessee Valley Authority charges rates to industrial customers roughly 40-60 percent cheaper than DTE Energy and Consumers Energy. (Outlier)

Dead coals: On Wednesday, DTE Energy announced that it will stop burning coal at its Belle River power plant in St. Clair County in 2028, two years earlier than planned. The company says the action will allow it to meet its goal of a 50 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2028 rather than 2030. However, the company has left open the possibility of converting the facility to “natural gas,” which is mostly methane, a significant source of climate-warming emissions. “We are encouraged that DTE sees the writing on the wall for dirty, expensive coal and is moving up retirement of their Belle River plant by two years,” said Mike Berkowitz, Michigan representative for the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. “However, DTE should cease coal operation at this plant even sooner and replace that capacity with true renewable energy and storage instead of fossil gas, a false solution driving significant water and methane pollution.” (Detroit News, Scientific American)

Lines out: On Thursday, Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said the state would replace all Benton Harbor’s lead service lines in the next 18 months. The state has faced intense criticism for its handling of the multi-year water crisis in the city, where corrosion control chemicals have failed to reduce lead levels in the drinking water. “Michigan has the strongest lead in drinking water regulation in the nation, so how did another majority Black city get to three years of elevated lead levels in drinking water without anybody batting an eye?” said Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. An earlier proposal had looked to spend $20 million on removing the service lines over five years. (Detroit News)

Hidden waste: Michigan has around 1.4 million home septic systems, and EGLE estimates that 10 percent of these are failing, discharging pathogens and chemicals into groundwater at the rate of 31 million gallons a day. Septic systems have been connected to increased cases of diarrhea in children, norovirus outbreaks, and higher nutrient loads in lakes and rivers that can lower water quality. Michigan is also the only state without a uniform septic code. “Septic systems are a chronic problem that Michigan has continued to fail to address statewide,” said David Dempsey, a senior adviser for the environmental nonprofit For Love of Water (FLOW). “We don’t know what we want of our groundwater. We want to use it for drinking water, and we want to be able to use it as a waste receptacle as well.” Last October, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed $35 million in funding for low-interest loans to help homeowners and communities replace or eliminate failing septic systems. The Republican-led Michigan Legislature has failed to approve the proposal. (Freep)

New (ab)normal: The White House announced this week that it would revise building standards for areas prone to flooding and deliver tools to make climate information more available to the public. “As our communities and companies grapple with climate risk, we need to arm them with better climate data — empowering decision-makers across our country and economy with information and insights on how to operate in our ‘new normal,’ ” Ali Zaidi, White House deputy national climate adviser, said in a statement. FEMA has also requested information to help with updating the National Flood Insurance Program, the first major change to the program since 1976. It’s estimated that these changes could lower the cost of flood insurance for most Michiganders who are currently paying for it. (WaPo, Oakland Press)

Our header photo this week was taken at Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery, located at 19975 Woodward Ave.


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