From the Headlines – May 9-13, 2022

Toxic air: Wayne County received an “F” for ozone and 24-hour particle pollution in the American Lung Association’s (ALA) 2022 “State of the Air” report. The county ranked 24th worst in the nation for ozone pollution, which can aggravate lung problems and trigger asthma attacks. Despite the report and an increase in asthma rates in Detroit, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) asked federal regulators to remove southeast Michigan’s non-attainment status for ozone, a change that could weaken permitting requirements. EGLE says between 2019 and 2021 levels of ozone fell and they believe these changes are permanent. (WDET, PlanetDetroit, Bridge Detroit)

Toxic dust: The state fined the city of Detroit $24,500 over the last eight months after contractors failed to safely remove asbestos from homes they were demolishing as part of the city’s blight removal campaign. Exposure to asbestos can lead to health problems like mesothelioma and lung cancer. The contractors Rickman and SC Environmental are temporarily ineligible for future demolition work. Over 23,000 vacant homes have been demolished as part of the $250 million Proposal N bond initiative, which was passed by voters in 2020. (Detroit News)

Disputed charges: Highland Park will resume payments to the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), following a ruling by Wayne County Circuit Court Judge David Groner. The city and the GLWA have been involved in a $54 million debt dispute, with Highland Park saying they were overcharged and should be paying based on a 1996 consent agreement that preceded their relationship with the GLWA. However, Brian Baker, who represents Macomb County on the GLWA board, says the 1996 rate is no longer feasible 30 years later. Both parties expressed some degree of approval for the judge’s ruling. “We’re gonna pay. But what we’re paying will be based on revenues, not whatever bogus bill they decide to send us,” said Highland Park City Administrator Cathy Square. The case will continue and the GLWA is seeking to recoup the full amount it says it is owed. (Detroit News) 

On and off the island: The Department of Natural Resources is soliciting proposals from contractors for a study of “multimodal transportation, circulation and traffic management” at Belle Isle. That might include transit service, trolleys, and even a water taxi. The DNR says the aim of the study is to prevent traffic backups and reduce the closures that have plagued the island in recent years. Visits to the park increased from an estimated 4 million in 2019 to 5.2 million in 2021. Belle Isle is now one of the most visited state parks in the nation. (Bridge Detroit, Planet Detroit, Detroit News)

Top job: The Biden administration named Dr. Jalonne White-Newsomme, an environmental and racial justice advocate from Detroit, as the nation’s top environmental justice official. White-Newsome will serve as senior director for environmental justice for the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which coordinates federal environmental efforts. Cecilia Martinez, who previously held the post, said she “got dangerously close to burnout” and there were complaints that CEQ was understaffed and not moving quickly enough on environmental justice priorities. The organization has since added several positions, but President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which aims to direct 40% of sustainability initiatives to historically underserved communities, has struggled to identify the communities that are most in need of investment and deliver federal assistance. (Capital B, E&E)

Water beat: A torrent of stories about Michigan’s assorted water problems flowed our way this week, part of a series from the Great Lakes News Collaborative. Highlights from this week include: 

  • Municipal blues: A lack of federal spending has brought many Michigan municipalities to a breaking point where they can no longer make necessary improvements to water infrastructure. The state is also sharing less tax money with towns and cities, leaving them to increase taxes and fees that can drive up rent and disproportionately impact communities of color. (MI Radio)
  • Should water systems merge?: Cities and towns along the St. Clair River, in the Ann Arbor area and elsewhere are considering merging their water departments to eliminate redundancies and lower the overall cost of service. While such mergers have been shown to lower residents’ bills, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad has resisted calls to consolidate his city’s water system with other communities and give local control. (Bridge) 
  • Hurting the poor: In an attempt to fund needed repairs, communities are raising water rates, increases that hit Michigan’s poorest residents the hardest. The issue affects communities across the state from rural areas to cities like Flint and Detroit. Oakland County is developing an affordability plan that would tie water rates to income and could significantly reduce charges for those at or below the poverty line in Pontiac by charging a fixed cost between $30 and $45 for bills that average around $80. (Circle of Blue

New day at the Justice Dept.? In news that could be consequential for cities like Detroit, the Biden administration announced a plan to hold industrial polluters accountable for harm done to low-income and minority communities. The administration is also reinstating a program that was discontinued by the Trump administration, which used fines paid by polluters to fund community initiatives like health clinics and river cleanups. “Although violations of our environmental laws can happen anywhere, communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities often bear the brunt of the harm caused by environmental crime, pollution and climate change,’’ Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference. He said the Justice Department will renew its focus on environmental justice issues. (Detroit News)


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