Proposed bill would prevent creation of rules more strict than federal regulations

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING – Some Republican  lawmakers want to prevent state departments from creating rules that are tougher than federal regulations.

They’re backing a bill that would allow only the Legislature to do that unless there are exceptional circumstances. The bill, introduced by Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, would encompass rules that would regulate sectors as diverse as business, the environment and manufacturing.

“This is a good bill with a good purpose,” said Jason Geer, the director of energy and environmental policy for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “It will help ensure Michigan is not overregulated.”

It’s the third time in six years that the legislation has been pushed. And opponents fear this time there may be enough political will to pass ith.

The Michigan Environmental Council questioned why lawmakers would want to take away the governor’s power and put it in the hands of the federal government.

“Why should we demote the governor and his ability to protect Michigan?” said James Clift, the policy director for the council.

Clift said the bill would give the decision-making power to the Trump administration. He said this would directly impact quality of life in Michigan, especially  considering the federal government’s lowering of its own regulations.

Supporters of the bill say that’s good because it will require state departments to show  there really is a need for a rule that is more strict than federal regulations.

Geer said the bill would prevent state departments from doing whatever they want.

”It’s not an outright ban,” he said. “Anytime they feel the need to exceed federal standards, it just requires them to explain it and demonstrate a need for it.”

But critics fear the bill will force the state to be reactive instead of proactive.

“The level of convincing that will be needed to exceed the federal standards is a very high bar,” said Charlotte Jameson, director of government affairs at the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “That means there will only be rules in times of crisis.”

Geer said many of the rules in Michigan that exceed federal standards relate to environmental laws, and the bill shines a light on that.

He said it would force state departments to prove why they are necessary. That would help businesses because they wouldn’t have to meet standards significantly higher than the federal level, he said.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters says the standards set by the federal government are a minimum requirement all states must be at or above.

“We feel the federal standards are a floor, not a ceiling,” Jameson said. “The rules don’t account for unique states.”

The Michigan Environmental Council agrees, Clift said.

Officials at both environmental groups say their biggest concerns relate to the Great Lakes.

“Michigan is the Great Lakes State,” Clift said. “This would undermine the ‘Pure Michigan’ campaign because we wouldn’t be able to create stricter rules to protect the lakes.”

Stricter rules are needed to protect the lakes, Jameson said.

“The Great Lakes need forward-thinking protection,” she said. “We need flexibility to go beyond federal standards.”

This is not the first time a similar bill has been proposed. Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed one in 2011. And in 2016 one cleared the House but never made it out of the Senate.

Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said he thinks the bill will pass in the Senate this year. He sits on the Oversight Committee that approved he bill, and he supports it.

“It does present some challenges, but the bill has great intentions,” Stamas said. “This is a positive discussion to have.”

One challenge could be protection of wetlands, Stamas said. Michigan is one of only two states that administers the federal wetland program. There is a lot of support for keeping wetlands under state control, he said.

Clift said he is concerned the governor may sign the bill this time because Snyder has not made a statement in opposition to it.

The governor isn’t saying. He’ll evaluate the final version if and when it reaches his desk, said Tanya Baker, the deputry press secretary in the executive office of the governor.

Clean Water Action members and Plainfield Township residents gathered at the Capitol on Oct. 10 to oppose the bill and highlight contaminated drinking water in that Kent County community.

That contamination was caused by Wolverine Worldwide, a footwear manufacturer.

Sean McBrearty, the campaign organizer of Clean Water Action, said the bill threatens public health because the Department of Environmental Quality would be unable to more strictly regulate contamination in drinking water.

Sen. Peter MacGregor, R-Rockford and who represents Plainfield Township, issued a statement saying the bill was not created in response to water contamination there.

“This bill was not introduced or approved by the Senate Committee on Oversight in response to the current situation, nor can it be retroactively applied to the ongoing issue in Plainfield Township,”  MacGregor said.

The bill passed 57-50 in the House in May. It was reported from the Senate Oversight Committee on Oct. 5. It’s unclear when the Senate will take a vote on the bill.

MacGregor has asked the Senate to pause the bill, according to McBrearty. MacGregor could not be reached for comment.

State set to renew groundwater rule for toxic chemical

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s emergency rules on how much of a particular hazardous chemical can be left in groundwater are set to expire Oct. 27, and that could create an environmental problem in the state.

To address the concern, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is proposing  a new rule with a limit of 7.2 parts per billion for 1,4-dioxane, which is responsible for a high-profile groundwater contamination west of Ann Arbor at the site of Gelman Sciences. The company used the chemical to manufacture medical filters.

If a new rule is not approved before the expiration, the limit will revert to 85 parts per billion, the level it was before the emergency rules went into effect in 2016, said Mitch Adelman, section manager for the remediation and redevelopment division of the DEQ.

The department is working with those responsible for the contamination to assure that human health and the environment are protected using the new, lower limit for contamination, Adelman said.

But Gelman Sciences isn’t the only site where the chemical has led to groundwater  contamination. The West KL Avenue Landfill in Oshtemo Township and the Metamora Landfill in Metamora Township have been contaminated by 1,4-dioxane as well, Adelman said, resulting in groundwater contamination.

The proposed new rules would continue the emergency rules that are set to expire and are before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, chair of that committee, said they will likely be approved.

“They’ll go into place about a week before the other ones expire,” he said.

The Michigan Environmental Council agrees with the proposed limits.

“It’s needed a lower number for years,” said James Clift, the policy director for the council.

The 1,4-dioxane rule is being considered separately so that standards do not revert to 2002 values that were in place before the 2016 emergency rules were implemented.

The 1,4-dioxane solvent is a clear liquid chemical that easily dissolves in water, and is considered likely carcinogenic to people, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Long-term exposure can also cause kidney and liver damage, according to the DEQ.  

It’s used mainly when making other chemicals and can be found in paint strippers, glues and pesticides.

Although it can also be found in some makeup, lotions, detergents, bath products and shampoos, the amount found in these products is not likely to be harmful, even if used every day, according to the DEQ.

The DEQ’s proposed change on 1,4-dioxane may be the first of a series of revisions to clean up criteria for up to hundreds of other chemicals.  

The DEQ has been updating the toxicological, physical and chemical data for over 300 hazardous substances to help set new cleanup criteria, Adelman said.

He said there are more than 9,000 contaminated sites across Michigan.

That more extensive overhaul has met with various levels of opposition.

Although the Michigan Environmental Council supports an update, Clift said he believes the proposed rules fail to provide for new science as it emerges.

“We want the cleanup processes to use the best available science,” Clift said. “Unfortunately, this doesn’t provide a way to adjust the rules with the development of new science.”

That is a safety concern, he said.

“They’re supposed to regulate any substance that could cause injury,” Clift said. “The inability to update the rules without going through the time-consuming rulemaking process every time leaves them powerless to regulate new chemicals.”

The Michigan Petroleum Association said it worries the rules are too strict and will become a bigger hindrance than a help.

The association’s members have cleaned up more than 2,000 underground sites, said Mark Griffin, the industry group’s president. “All of that is in jeopardy of coming to a standstill.”

He said contaminated sites are currently cleaned to a level that won’t harm anyone; he believes the new criteria require a level for cleanup of contaminated sites that is unreachable.

“Our concern with the new rules is getting sites cleaned up and closed,” Griffin said. “We’d hate to lose all that progress.”

The Michigan Environmental Council said it’s been too long since the rules were revised.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce said its members acknowledge the rules for cleaning up contaminated sites need to be updated.

“It’s improved from where it started, and it’s a step in the right direction,” said Jason Geer, the chamber’s director of energy and environmental policy. “Our members all recognize that it needed to be fixed.”

Michigan farmers encouraged to help fight water pollution

BY STEVEN MAIER
Capital News Service

LANSING — Federal officials are launching a two-year study to determine the best ways to convince farmers, including those in Michigan, to fight water pollution in the Great Lakes region.

The pollution has created conditions ripe for excessive algal blooms that perennially appear in Lake Erie and other lakes and bays and threaten water quality. The culprit: nutrient-laden runoff, much of which comes from farmland.

The runoff has forced national, regional and local agencies, organizations and universities to collaborate on a solution. Their goal: convince more farmers across the Great Lakes region to implement sustainable farming practices.

That’s not always easy, said Great Lakes Commission Program Director Victoria Pebbles.

“It’s very, very difficult because farmers are proud, they’re private and they feel like the finger’s being pointed at them,” she said. “And most of these people are honest people and hardworking people who are just trying to do their best.”

Interest from farmers is substantial, said Brian Buehler, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service public affairs specialist for Michigan. But they often need help bearing the financial burden.

“Producers have been doing this for a long time, and they’re tried and true practices, so getting anyone to change is, it’s a challenge,” Buehler said. “They need to see it makes economic sense for them, because you know, it is a business.”

Among the programs that will be assessed to determine best methods at reducing agricultural runoff is the Saginaw River watershed.

“I think the farmers realize that they can have a big impact,” said Ben Thelen, a district conservationist with the Saginaw Conservation District. “And you know, a lot of them want to do the right thing.”

Farmers in the Saginaw River watershed used to compete for conservation grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Thelen said. A waiting list formed.

Farmers still compete for funds, but the Saginaw River watershed’s priority designation narrowed the competitive pool and allowed more farmers to make changes, he said.

The Great Lakes Commission begins a two-year study in November, looking to channel federal sustainable practices subsidy dollars more efficiently into the hands of county officials and the pockets of farmers. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has put more than $100 million into those pockets over the past six years, according to the Great Lakes Commission.

In addition to the Saginaw River watershed, the commission will assess programs in three other watersheds: Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River; New York’s Genesee River; and the Maumee River, which winds through Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. The practices of many farmers in all four watersheds have been the subject of prior studies, and the commission also has access to data submitted annually by each initiative-funded project.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in September to continue funding the restoration initiative, despite President Donald Trump’s proposal to zero out a its $300 million allocation from the federal budget. Deliberation over the possible budget cut continues in the U.S. Senate.

The commission’s Pebbles said battling algal blooms and its resulting poor water quality has been a main focus for the initiative since it launched in 2012, funding more than 90 programs to reduce farm runoff. Problems created by the blooms are serious: In 2014, algae blooms tainted tap water in Toledo, Ohio, causing shutoffs for 500,000 residents.

The bulk of the work comes from local governments like the Outagamie County Land Conservation Department, in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s part of the Lower Fox River watershed and is just outside of Green Bay. Like much of the Great Lakes, the bay is plagued by algal blooms — killing fish, forcing beach closings and damaging the local economy.

Runoff reduction won’t happen without large-scale buy-in from the farmers, said Greg Baneck, a county conservationist with 14 years under his belt in Outagamie.

“Basically, we are the local delivery method for getting the conservation on the ground,” Baneck said. “That’s the only way we’re getting down to the water quality standards, is if we have the funding for the boots on the ground.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has helped immensely on that front, he said. It allows the county to employ 12 full-time conservation staffers, up from seven. That makes it easier to meet directly with farmers.

Initiative funding has also made it cheaper for farmers to implement watershed-friendly practices, Baneck said. The county shares the cost of things like seeds for cover crops that keep the soil packed after harvest when fields would otherwise be brown and bare. It has also bought expensive conservation-friendly equipment that is loaned to farmers.

Outagamie County loans out its crimper roller, a machine that crushes and kills cover crops, clearing the way for planting and creating a protective bed over the seed. The decomposing stalks then fertilize the seed.  

Farmers can also cost-share installment of drainage tiles, which help regulate the amounts of runoff.

Baneck said there’s been a mindset change.

“Most farmers want to do the right thing,” he said. “If we can show them the financial benefit of it, that’s huge.

“Bottom line, everyone wants to still make a profit and help the environment, and that’s what we’re showing them.”

As more farmers see their neighbors adopt new practices, the momentum builds, Baneck said.

Collaboration and federal funding has also aided county officials in the Genesee River watershed in New York.

Water quality-related problems have persisted there for years, said Molly Cassatt, district manager of the Genesee County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Her district has partnered with 11 others to form the Genesee River Watershed Coalition of Conservation Districts. The coalition crosses state lines, with one county located in Pennsylvania.

“We’re going to work together so that these projects aren’t small and scattered, but really address the worst areas of the watershed,” Cassatt said.

And with programs “saturated with money” from federal sources, she said, adoption of conservation practices has hastened as farmers no longer have to wait long periods until they’re able to sign up for cost-sharing programs.

That increased buy-in from farmers is what the Great Lakes Commission is seeking.

Pebbles said, “What we want to know is, what’s changing behavior in the long term? If the money went away tomorrow, would they continue to implement these conservation practices?”

The study’s core team is composed of officials from the commission, Michigan State University and Ohio State University. The commission will also assemble an advisory team composed of county officials from those watersheds.

Steven Maier is a reporter for Great Lakes Echo.

Private well water quality unregulated after installation

By LAURA BOHANNON
Capital News Service

LANSING — Even though Michigan has the most private wells in the nation, no state regulations control how often that water should be tested.

A quarter of Michigan’s residents rely on well water, according to Michigan’s 21st Century Infrastructure Committee’s most recent report. But the state has set no standard for monitoring the quality of water from private wells, Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) source water unit supervisor Matt Gamble said.

“Private wells get tested when they’re installed and they may never be sampled again,” Gamble said. “There is no requirement — at least no statewide requirement — for a homeowner to have their well sampled on any schedule.”

Gamble said the DEQ frequently learns of contaminated well water. When it hears of new cases, the department responds through a program that funds projects to replace contaminated wells and connect residents to municipal water.

And some local communities require well inspections when a house changes hands, similar to a lead paint inspection, Gamble said. Continue reading

Deadline for state money to test beaches approaching

By CHAO YAN

Capital News Service

LANSING —The state is offering $200,000 to help local agencies monitor water quality in inland lakes this summer.

Localities and nonprofit groups have until Feb. 28 to apply for Department of Environmental Quality grants to measure levels of E.coli — a bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea, severe anemia or kidney failure — off inland beaches, according to Shannon Briggs, a program director in DEQ’s Water Resources Division.

Michigan is currently keeping watch on about 380 inland lakes, about half of the state’s total. Water quality data helps officials determine if a lake is safe for swimming. It is reported to the website Michigan Beach Guard, part of the DEQ site, and compiled in a statewide report.

State law gives the authority for monitoring and testing public beaches to local health departments and their partners, Briggs said. Continue reading

Water quality a problem for rural areas, too

By LAURA BOHANNON

Capital News Service

LANSING — The state of water quality in Flint has been of high interest around Michigan and throughout the nation, but rural areas around the state are also struggling to provide safe drinking water.

According to Michigan’s chapter of the Sierra Club, rural areas have been underinvesting in their water treatment needs at a higher rate than cities are.

Mike Berkowitz, the legislative and political director for the Sierra Club, said ensuring that people in Michigan have safe drinking water and treatment facilities that operate the right way should be a top priority.

“I think the fundamental solution, first of all, is fixing our state budget and making it more sustainable,” Berkowitz said. “We need to be making sure that we’re able to replace lead pipelines and other deleterious infrastructure in local communities throughout the state. We need to be able to replace that with more sustainable infrastructures.”

Continue reading

Wash, rinse, pollute, repeat

 

Photo: US Department of Energy

Photo: US Department of Energy

By CHLOE KIPLE

Capital News Service

LANSING — A new study shows that while we clean our clothes we dirty waterways like the Great Lakes.

Every load of laundry produces microfibers, or tiny pieces of clothing that shed during washing. Wastewater treatment plants can’t break them down, so they end up in lakes, rivers and other bodies of water.

Once they’re in the water, aquatic animals can mistake the fibers for food. And that’s not a good thing. Continue reading

Small coastal communities spiff up their resumes

By KAREN HOPPER USHER

Capital News Service

LANSING — Small coastal communities are laying the groundwork to bring cash to their waterfronts.

Community members, researchers, designers, engineers and others are helping six small harbor communities plan for the future. And the effort, coordinated by Michigan Sea Grant, could have a statewide impact by modeling development strategies for other coastal communities, creating safe harbors for recreational boaters and spurring tourism.

Four communities last year participated in a program that helps to develop five-year  plans for their waterfronts: Ontonagon, Pentwater, Au Gres and New Baltimore. Two more – St. Ignace and Rogers City – will go through the process in October.

More than 80 communities with small public harbors will benefit from the program because the planning materials it develops will be available free through Sea Grant. Continue reading

Experts from Israel, Great Lakes compare big water

By MORGAN LINN

Capital News Service

wbigwaterphoto4

Lake Kinneret. Image: NASA Earth Observatory

LANSING — While Lake Michigan protectors are fighting a threatened carp invasion, managers in Israel are dumping them into the Sea of Galilee.

That’s just one of the differences in managing two of the world’s largest lakes that emerged during a recent conference between lake managers from Israel and the Great Lakes region.

The Sea of Galilee – or Lake Kinneret – and Lake Michigan differ greatly in size, but experts from both areas shared common experiences and found ways of learning from each other at the Michigan State University conference

Lake Kinneret, in northeast Israel, is only about 13 miles long by 8 miles wide but is the largest freshwater lake in Israel. Continue reading

A “lab-in-a-can” could pioneer protection network for Great Lakes water

By HANNAH BRENNER

Capital News Service

LANSING — A water-testing device making its freshwater debut in Lake Erie this month could lead to a network able to issue warnings of toxic algal blooms.

labinacan-photo-1

The sealed Environmental Sample Processor is lowered into a lake. Image: NOAA.

It’s called the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), a 2.5-foot long cylinder nicknamed “lab-in-a-can.” The instrument is anchored underwater where it samples water, concentrates algae and particulates onto a filter, analyzes them and sends the results electronically through a buoy to a lab.

In Lake Erie’s case, the device will search for bacteria and for potential toxins called microcystins that are produced by freshwater cyanobacteria. Continue reading