Author: FLOW Editor

Accounting for Environmental, Health, and Climate Impacts in the Energy Sector

Report author Skip Pruss

By Skip Pruss

This article is excerpted from the final of four policy briefs by former FLOW board chair, and former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth, Skip Pruss, that make the economic case for government’s role in protecting the environment. The fourth policy brief, “Resetting Expectations: Accounting for Environmental, Health, and Climate Impacts in the Energy Sector” is available here to read or download.

Pruss’ first policy brief in the series, “Resetting Expectations: Government’s Role in Protecting Human Health and the Environment,” is available here in executive summary and in full.

The second policy brief, “Resetting Expectations: The Value of Natural Systems and Government’s Role in Protecting Water,” is available here to read or download as an executive summary or full report.

The third brief, “Resetting Expectations: The Multifaceted Benefits of Regulation for the Economy and Environment,” is available here in executive summary and in full.

FLOW will convene an environmental economics public listening session on Dec. 5 in Grand Rapids. We convened our first listening session on Nov. 13 in Traverse City (click this link to watch a live video feed of the event; blog coverage also available here).


Natural systems provide trillions of dollars of economic value annually but are largely unacknowledged as essential to our economic well-being. Government plays a critical role in protecting natural systems that provide wide-ranging economic benefits to industry, commerce, agriculture, recreation, and tourism, for present and future generations.

At the same time, perverse incentives remain in law and policy that are profoundly disruptive to the environment, the economy, social welfare, and a stable climate. Government subsidies for the development and use of fossil fuels undermine and negate the very protections and safeguards sound environmental regulations aim to preserve. These subsidies, some of which date back a full century, are harmful anachronisms that are contrary to the public interest and sound economic policy.

Environmental standards can also be a strong force for innovation within business and industry by reducing waste and production inefficiencies, inducing technological improvements, lowering costs, and mitigating environmental vulnerabilities. Environmental regulations can level the playing field within business sectors by setting industry-wide standards for protection and safeguards and by fostering competition for improvements among competitors.

This fourth brief—”Resetting Expectations: Toward a Full Accounting of Environmental, Health and Climate Impacts in the Energy Sector”—is the last in a series of policy briefs that examines the economic costs associated with government policies that do the opposite—imposing unnecessary and unaccounted for burdens on the environment, public health and the economy. Obsolete and inefficient government policies and programs impose additional costs on society and taxpayers by directly supporting activities that result in environmental degradation and diminishment of the ecological services provided by healthy and robust natural systems.

Fossil fuel subsidies persist in policy despite being demonstrably inefficient and more costly than clean energy alternatives because they serve powerful, deeply embedded, and influential special interests in global energy markets. The adverse environmental and climate consequences and associated economic costs from the production and use of fossil fuels are “negative externalities” unaccounted for in the price of goods and services. In economic theory, negative externalities are indicators of “market failure.”

An optimal regulatory framework would, consistent with established tenets of economics, assess the full range of costs and impacts of competing energy technologies. A rational regulatory framework would quantify and monetize the environmental, public health and economic costs and impacts from the production and combustion of oil, natural gas, and coal, and compare them against clean energy alternatives.

Full accounting of the direct and indirect economic effects of energy subsidies would enable government to make more rational, evidence-based decisions regarding the impacts of energy policy on the environment, the economy, public health, and the climate. It would also align with the fundamental purposes of the Public Trust Doctrine in advancing the most environmentally beneficial, healthful, and economically efficient policies to safeguard present and future generations.

Environmental protections and safeguards, implemented through government regulations, provide overwhelming economic and health-related benefits for society at large. Maintaining the functionality, vitality, and resilience of natural systems provides cascading economic benefits to industry, commerce, agriculture, recreation, and tourism, helping to assure these benefits for future generations. The environmental protections afforded by government regulations are substantial but are marginalized and, at times, negated by competing policies that cause environmental and economic harm.

Incentives are deeply embedded in economic policies in the form of subsidies provided to business and industry that degrade and diminish natural systems, resulting in substantial and permanent economic loss. Long established, yet function- ally obsolete, energy subsidies produce wide-ranging insidious and harmful effects on the environment, public welfare, and the economy. Despite this, demonstrably inefficient and detrimental subsidies for fossil fuels are pervasive both domestically and globally, and supported by long-standing powerful economic interests that are firmly integrated into our politics and our economy.

Breaking the Cycle of Great Lakes Ruin and Recovery

Above photo: Jane Corwin, US Commissioner/Chair of the International Joint Commission, speaks at a public hearing in Traverse City on July 24, 2019. Photo by Rick Kane.

By Liz Kirkwood

Editor’s note: FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood was recently appointed to be a member of the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board.

Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director

My colleague and mentor, Dave Dempsey, knows almost everything there is to know about the Great Lakes.  He’s encyclopedic, you could say. He’s authored over 10 books, including a classic one entitled Ruin and Recovery (University of Michigan Press, 2001).  

It’s the cycle we here in the Great Lakes are all too familiar with.  

The book tells a story of Michigan’s environmental ruin that began to worsen in the early 1900s, followed by the recovery that began in the 1970s as the public clamored for a clean environment.

It is amazing to imagine that over one hundred years ago, as lax water pollution standards led to the fouling of the Great Lakes, the US and Canadian governments had the vision and foresight to craft an international treaty to address boundary water management and disputes. Known as the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, this pact established the International Joint Commission (IJC) to serve as the advisor to both governments in preventing, arbitrating, and navigating water conflicts.  Of the nine major water basins shared by the US and Canada, the Great Lakes is the largest and has global significance because it contains 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water.    

In 1972, with increasing international water pollution, the US and Canada entered into the seminal Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA).  The Agreement called for binational action by the governments to reduce phosphorus pollution and meet water quality goals. It also set up the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) to assist the IJC in watchdogging Great Lakes cleanup.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the IJC was considered the moral authority on Great Lakes issues, candidly assessing progress and problems. Thanks in part to the Water Quality Board, the commission made a lasting contribution to Great Lakes cleanup by defining 43 “areas of concern” (AOCs)—bays, harbors, and rivers with severe legacy contamination—that needed sustained commitment to be cleaned up. Over 30 years later, work continues on the AOCs, along with congressional funding of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

The work of the Water Quality Board continues, too. The 28-member board provides advice to the IJC for the benefit of the 40 million people who rely on the lakes for drinking water, sustenance, and way of life.  The IJC recently appointed me to serve on the Board.

The Board represents the crossroads of the Great Lakes, bringing together diverse viewpoints from tribal leaders like Frank Ettawageshik and water affordability advocates like Monica Lewis-Patrick. It is a pleasure to serve with them and to problem solve how we can bring the Great Lakes community together to respond to old and new problems in the Basin. This work depends on developing key priorities and scientific goals to measure progress, coordinating strong and committed implementation among federal, state, and provincial environmental agencies, building stronger and new partnerships and alliances across these lakes, lifting up silenced voices to ensure water justice for all, and educating and empowering all peoples about the vital importance of protecting the health of our common waters.

It’s been almost 50 years since the two nations entered into the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and during this time, we have watched rust-belt contaminated urban cores rebound and polluted ecosystems revived. But we also have witnessed a rollback of major federal environmental regulations and laws, the Flint lead crisis, Detroit water shutoffs, lack of investment and crumbling regional water infrastructure, lack of safe, affordable drinking water, wetland destruction, water privatization, legacy and emerging pollutants like PFAS, and unprecedented climate change impacts.

Our challenge in this new century, then, is to break the constant cycle of ruin and recovery, and replace it with sustained protection and prosperity. This is critical in the context of the climate crisis where we are testing the capacity of our ecosystems to rebound. Instead, we must imagine the future we want, where natural and human ecosystems can thrive and prosper together.

To do this, we must challenge traditional assumptions and ways of thinking. We must draw not only on science but also on traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is a relational process for indigenous peoples that is built through experience and relationships that are difficult to incorporate into non-indigenous information systems and decision frameworks. We must design and enact bold policies that acknowledge the interconnectedness of human health, economic prosperity, and ecosystems.

With public trust doctrine protection, we can steward our waters as a shared public resource from one generation to the next and ensure multigenerational equity. Healthy economies and communities depend on healthy ecosystems. It’s as simple as that. The future of the Great Lakes depends on a vision and plan based on a water-economy that embraces a new water ethic at its center.

I am honored to serve on the Water Quality Board for the IJC and it is my great hope that we can work together to develop recommendations thattranslate into meaningful bi-national actions designed to protect the long-term health of the Great Lakes.

Protecting the Great Lakes is “A Matter of the Heart”

On #GivingTuesday, a FLOW supporter shares loving words on water

By Jerry Beasley

I do not come by my love of water as a result of growing up where there was plenty of it. So I might say that I don’t come by it naturally. But it’s real, and here’s the story of why.

I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. There were no natural lakes to swim in. The Cumberland River was the only nearby body of water, and it was busy with industrial boat traffic—so there were no swimming holes. I do remember playing around in local creeks, scouting for crawdads and little fish. The truth is, I was afraid of the water. When, at the age of nine, I signed up for a class at the YMCA where I would be taught to swim, I panicked and quit.

I did finally learn to swim—badly—as a young teenager, and I remember long, sunburned days at Cascade Plunge, a 45-minute bus ride from my home.

To keep this story short, I’ll leap ahead to the time when I moved to a small farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, overlooking the Sassafras River, one of the several Eastern Shore tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. My daughters were then very young, and because the summers were hot, we spent long afternoons on that river, where the girls learned to swim. Just a few miles upstream, the Sassafras was no more than a trickle, but where we played and swam in it, the river was as wide as the Mississippi, and as majestic. It inspired a kind of awe. I never became a really good swimmer, but being there changed me, for I then first realized that I had a genuine love for the water. My girls loved the water, and I think they taught me to love it too.

Much later, in the early 1990s, my new wife and I began traveling together in the summers from our home in Delaware to Northern Michigan—to her family cottage on Intermediate Lake in Antrim County, part of the Chain of Lakes watershed, not far from Traverse City. The cottage had been in her family since 1918, and she had been spending summers there for much of her life.

A whole new world of joy opened for me. Everyone in her family loved the lake with a great passion. Her father built sailboats and spent hours on the water in them. Everyone swam. Evenings on the dock were a long tradition, and the beauty of the sunsets was wondrous to me. From that point forward, we both felt that we always needed to be near water. We soon bought a small house on the Elk River in Maryland, like the Sassafras, an Eastern Shore tributary of the Chesapeake and, from our beach, equally majestic.

Watch Jerry Beasley read from “A Matter of the Heart”. And please consider supporting FLOW on #GivingTuesday.
But it was during those days in Michigan almost 30 years ago that I fell so deeply in love with water, in a new and completely fulfilling way. I marveled at the fact that Michigan had so many miles of Great Lakes shoreline, that it had more than 11,000 inland lakes. Truly a water wonderland. When my wife and I were ready to retire, we decided to move all the way to Traverse City so that we could be near the family cottage and the water that makes it such a special place for us. And the bonus is that when we’re not at the cottage we have the magnificence of Grand Traverse Bay.

Now, as every reader of this blog post already knows, our water legacy is under grave threat, and there are many people, individually and in organized groups like FLOW, who are working fiercely to save it, producing studies and launching campaigns to inform and engage the public. All of this is essential, and without it, the battle will almost certainly be lost.

But the thing I learned many years ago, as I passed from ignorance and something approaching indifference to passionate love, is this: that what is most fundamental about our relationship with water is a matter of the heart. Love preceded knowledge for me. Without the former, I would never have moved on to the latter.

To put it another way: What I have learned, and what I believe in the most elemental way, is that our first and most basic relationship with water is anchored in love. In the absence of love there is the great risk of indifference and failure to protect this resource that, under the Public Trust Doctrine, belongs to us all and is essential to life. If the heart is not engaged, the waters will not be saved. So, while we marshal facts and organize and encourage activism, let us remember to acknowledge the power of our affections and make them a guiding principle in all that we do.

Minnesota Water Train Proposal Exposes Flaw in Great Lakes Compact

Jim Olson, FLOW Founder

By Jim Olson

A railway company recently proposed extracting 500 million gallons of groundwater per year from Minnesota and shipping it to water-scarce states in the southwestern United States.

Although the water that would be diverted lies outside the Great Lakes Basin, and Minnesota officials said they are not likely to approve the water export proposal, the resulting controversy has renewed analysis of the Great Lakes Compact, which is designed to protect the Lakes from water diversions. And the heightened scrutiny is a good thing because part of Minnesota lies within the Great Lakes Basin.

The Great Lakes Compact has suffered from a primary weakness from the very beginning: it does not address the sale of water or consumption outside the Basin or watershed (with the exception of diversions in counties or communities that immediately adjoin the Basin). To provide for water used or diverted in products, there is a “product” exemption buried in the definition of “diversion” that permits tomatoes grown within the Basin, for example, to be shipped outside the watershed.

But buried in the definition of “product” is “water removed by human or mechanical means and transferred out of the basin” as a result of industrial, manufacturing, agriculture processes or products, and here’s the kicker, “… or intended for intermediate or end-use consumers.” So, the Compact contains a water-as-product export provision—at least to the extent that water is placed in a container. But, here’s another kicker. There is no limit to size, so railroad containers filled with water and “intended for intermediate or end-use consumer” would be exempt from the diversion ban for purchase or use by famers in Colorado, or any place on the planet.

The Compact Sec. 4.10 states in the bottled-water or “Bulk Water Transfer” provision, that water in containers larger than 5.7 gallons “shall be treated… in the same manner as a… Diversion.” What’s wrong with this language? It’s a Band-Aid that covers up the product exemption. The clause “shall be treated in the same manner as Diversion” concedes that water in a container of a certain size is not a diversion, but a product; rather than place an exemption for bottled water directly into the definition of, or as an exemption to, diversion, the negotiators and Compact tacked on a Bulk Water limit on the product exemption. But the problem is, water in any size container, whether in a railroad car or the deck of an ocean barge, is defined as a product.

So, under international trade pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and trade laws, defining water as a “product” is admitting that this is a regulation, not a ban on bulk water diversions. The regulation of water as product lays a heavier burden on the Office of Great Lakes Governors and citizens of the Great Lakes to justify to foreign investors and countries that the export of water in large containers will not harm the environment. Worse, treating water in a container as a “product,” not a diversion, shifts the expectations of investors outside the region, who can demand equal treatment and/or massive sums of money as damages for applying the regulation to prohibit or deny their “right” to export water in containers. Why? 

A regulation to restrict the export of water as a product, as opposed to, say, a diversion, admits that the right to export water as a product exists. As indicated above once it’s a product, the Great Lakes states through the Compact governing body, the Office of Great Lakes Governors, will have to prove the regulation of the water prevents harm. If a bottled water company that has received a permit can ship water in containers less than 5.7 gallons under a permit, because a state has determined there’s no harm to water resources, how can the Great Lakes states argue water in a 10,000-gallon container from the large-volume water well can be “treated as” a diversion, when the amount of water pumped from the same well and put in a large container is no different than the amount shipped in bottles?

So, then the issue becomes factual: Can the export of water in containers be prohibited by the regulation to “treat it as” a diversion if it can be shown to harm or threaten harm to the environment or conservation. Whether water is in large containers is less than 5.7 gallons or more than that amount, if the impacts do not threaten the water, environment, or the conservation of a non-renewable resource, under international trade laws, like NAFTA or the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (“GATT”), its export cannot be stopped.

This is a serious problem. It was there in 2005, when the eight Great Lakes states signed the agreement that became the Compact; those close to the ink before it dried knew it, but nothing was done about it. The proposed water train from Minneapolis to Colorado may never be permitted, and it shouldn’t be. But it is a warning: the “product” exemption or loop-hole is a door that needs to be shut.

FLOW is developing a report and comment on weaknesses and future questions for states in the Compact. Clarifying the “product” exemption in the Compact is one of the critical measures that needs to be rectified. It could be done by the Compact Council through an interpretative guideline of the definition of “product.” It could be done by the legislature of each state, because the Compact allows states to impose more stringent measures than the Compact. Essentially, the fix would remove the “intended for intermediate or end-use consumers” clause in the “product” definition, and then declare that “water in any sized container” is not a product.

In the meantime, and this is critical, the best thing the Great Lakes Compact Council can do is expressly interpret and declare under Sec. 1.3 that, “The waters of the Basin” are held in, and subject to, a public trust in the waters of the Basin,” and that any consumptive use, exemption, or other exception managed or reviewed or decided by the Council is subject to the duties and overlying principles of the Public Trust Doctrine that protects the waters and citizens, quality of life, and sustainable economy in the Great Lakes region.

Fortunately, the International Joint Commission adopted a recommendation in a 2016 report that each state adopt a public trust framework, using the public trust principles as a “backstop” to future threats to the Great Lakes. The water train proposal is just such a threat and should be the impetus for the Council and states to fully implement the public trust principles that apply to the Great Lakes and their tributary waters. If not, the waters of the Great Lakes Basin could very well lose in disputes between foreign interests abroad or those in other states.

It is time for all of us who understand the essential life-giving importance of water in the Basin where it falls and flows to join with Minnesotans to stop the water train notion in its tracks, and to implement the straight-forward amendments of our water laws in each state to shut the door before the excessive demand for water in a worsening world water crisis pushes it wide open.

Kalkaska County Bid to End Point-of-Sale Septic Inspection Program Fails

Septic ordinance stands, as local Health Board delivers a victory for septic and groundwater protections

Seth Phillips seated in the middle of a panel at FLOW’s November 6 Septic Summit. Photo by Rick Kane

By Seth Phillips

Residents and wastewater users in Kalkaska County can rest easier at night. A bid to weaken septic and groundwater protections has failed.

The November 22 meeting of the District 10 Health Board yielded what appears to be the final chapter of the year-long effort to prevent Kalkaska County from ending the point-of-sale septic inspection program contained in the District 10 Health Department Sanitary Code. Ending the program would have required the approval of the Boards of Commissioners of all 10 counties in the health district. On October 22, the Manistee County Board of Commissioners (also part of District 10) voted not to allow Kalkaska County to end this program, which means the program continues as it was enacted.

In an angry response, the Kalkaska County Board of Commissioners subsequently rescinded its prior vote to approve program improvements that Manistee County was seeking to add to its point-of-sale program. At the November 22 health board meeting, the health department’s legal council announced it had determined that Kalkaska’s vote to change its earlier decision approving Manistee’s changes was valid. Hence, the point-of-sale program continues in both counties as it was originally enacted. Any further effort to change the program requires starting the entire amendment process all over again.

Todays’ Traverse City Record-Eagle reports that a year’s worth of public hearings, debate and government action resulted in no changes for Kalkaska and Manistee Counties.

Could Kalkaska County leave District 10? 

At the November 22 health board meeting, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) explained the requirements for a county to leave a district health department under the state Public Health Code. Kalkaska County has discussed this possibility in light of the results of the voting on the septic program.  However, two formal opinions from the state Attorney General prohibit a county from unilaterally leaving a district health department without the approval of all other counties in the district.  Furthermore, the District 10 bylaws require any county wishing to leave to give a two-year notice before doing so. 

The MDHHS also presented a detailed list of all the mandatory programs the new county health department would be required to undertake. The county would have to obtain state approval of a plan to implement all these services before leaving. Kalkaska County would be required to hire a health director, a medical director and fund a broad array of services for which it currently has no budgeted funding.

Given all this information, it would appear—absent litigation—that the Kalkaska County point of sale septic inspection program has been preserved … for now.

Manistee Lake Association member Seth Phillips spoke in favor of local septic ordinances at FLOW’s Septic Summit on November 6.

Resetting Expectations in Traverse City and Grand Rapids

FLOW hosts community engagement sessions on government’s role in protecting human health and the environment

Photo by Rick Kane

By Diane Dupuis

Do environmental regulations hinder or help the economy?

That question framed FLOW’s community engagement session on November 13 in Traverse City examining the role of government in protecting human health and the environment. Presenters included Cherry Republic founder and environmental steward Bob Sutherland and former FLOW board chair Skip Pruss, who has authored three “Resetting Expectations” reports for FLOW that make the case for government regulations to protect the environment.

Surgical pathologist and climate activist Lisa Del Buono, FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood, and Senior Policy Advisor Dave Dempsey also presented on the importance of governmental protections. (Click here to see slides from the presenters and here to watch a recording of the event).

FLOW will hold a second Resetting Expectations community engagement session on December 5 in Grand Rapids. Click here to RSVP; the event is free, but seating is limited.

Community members who attended the Traverse City session were able to interact throughout the series of presentations by responding via text or web app to questions projected intermittently. Residents of Northwest Michigan are well versed in matters affecting the Great Lakes Basin, yet the session presented familiar concepts in new ways, as well as altogether new perspectives.

Kicking off the presentations, Cherry Republic’s Bob Sutherland noted that in December his cherry-themed retail-and-catalog operation will give away $250,000 in profits, mostly to environmental organizations. “My giving comes from my trust in society, in people’s ability to make the world better,” Sutherland said.

“I trust in my neighbor,” he continued, but “it’s just a trickle in the bucket. We need to get the trust back in our government to establish better rules and regulations. As a businessman, I wish that my competitors were operating with the same principles that drive me to continuous improvement in how we treat the environment.”

“Wouldn’t it be great,” Sutherland mused, “if every company was working on clean water and protecting our land? That’s where government regulations come in. We have a future in building trust here. Let’s start a movement in getting a fair and continuously improving level playing field for business.”

Skip Pruss, former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth, cited a United Nations study that estimated the value of nature-based services at $60 trillion globally and $18 trillion in North America. As an example, wetlands are among the most biologically productive areas on Earth, Pruss noted, yet Michigan has lost more than 4 million acres of wetlands to development and drainage, worth billions of dollars in lost functions such as water filtration, flood and erosion control, wildlife habitat, human recreation, and food supply.

In terms of cost-benefit analysis, the Clean Air Act generated economic benefits valued at $2 trillion, while the compliance costs to business were $65 billion; benefits exceeded costs by a factor of 43-to-1, Pruss explained.

Of all the water on Earth, only 3% is fresh water. Of that 3%, only 0.30% is surface water. So only .09% of the entire world’s water is fresh surface water. The Great Lakes contain more than 1/5 of this extremely scarce resource.

Dave Dempsey, senior policy advisor at FLOW, focused his presentation on Michigan’s groundwater, depended upon for drinking water by 45% of Michigan residents. Dempsey identified multiple threats to Michigan’s groundwater, including failing septic systems, nitrates from agricultural practices, and contamination from both closed and ongoing sites. Over the last 24 years, Dempsey revealed, Michigan’s taxpayers have been burdened with more than $1 billion in costs to remedy “orphan” contamination sites (sites where the polluter is not picking up the bill).

Regarding the contaminant PFAS, Dempsey noted that Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has proposed one of the most health-protective PFAS drinking water standards in the country. However, a new state committee controlled by business interests may delay the proposed state drinking water standard for PFAS. Meanwhile this group of chemicals, called “forever chemicals” because they can remain in the human body for years, is linked to a raft of adverse effects on human health, Dempsey said.

Presenting next, Lisa Del Buono, MD, discussed public health and the environment. Del Buono revealed that, according to the American Lung Association, the Clean Air Act has saved $22 trillion by avoiding hospital admissions, emergency room visits, premature deaths, and other adverse effects of air pollution. In 2012 alone, Del Buono noted, 10 climate-sensitive events analyzed by GeoHealth caused an estimated $10 billion in health-related costs. With most economists agreeing that carbon-pricing is the quickest way to reduce the costs and health risks of carbon pollution, Del Buono concluded, a bipartisan climate solution has been introduced as legislation in Congress as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, HR763.

Next, Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director of FLOW, praised the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal program that has funded 3,500 restoration projects around the basin, with an economic output of $3.35 for every dollar invested. Kirkwood then outlined a new FLOW initiative, “OUR20 Communities,” in which the relevance of water as a finite resource fundamental to life is recognized in every aspect of community decision-making. Collaborative solutions in the OUR20 model are developed by the communities themselves, and address multiple threats to water while building champions and coalitions involving stakeholders in transportation, food production, energy, recreation, housing, and more.

Kirkwood outlined the legal framework—The Public Trust Doctrine—that underpins the OUR20 Communities model, and described a sustainable “blue economy” in which the environment, the economy, resilience, and social equity are intertwined. She noted that the future is in the hands of millennials, 81% of whom view business success as tied to meaningful social impact. And more businesses, she said, are choosing to be seen as a force for good by emphasizing people and planet as well as profit.

As an example of a nature-based solution to support infrastructure, Kirkwood pointed to the Kids Creek Restoration Project in Traverse City, coordinated by the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay. Looking at the potential of adopting the OUR20 Community model in Traverse City, Kirkwood proposed future action plan ideas for the Grand Traverse Bay watershed, including a plastics pollution awareness campaign, septic system stewardship and local ordinances, stormwater funding options, and more.

Kirkwood explained that every community in the Great Lakes can become an OUR20 Community.  The framework, she said, puts more tools in the toolbox — tools that allow for flexible thinking as each community defines how we move forward together with solutions that keep water in the forefront of conversations and action steps. “These are opportunities to engage,” she concluded, on something we all agree about: the vital importance of water in our communities.

FLOW will hold a second community engagement and listening session on December 5 in Grand Rapids. Click here to RSVP.

Diane Dupuis is FLOW’s Development Director.

FLOW Cites New Evidence of Enbridge Operating Illegally, Calls for Orderly Shutdown of ‘Line 5’ Oil Pipelines in Straits of Mackinac

enbridges-line-5-under-the-straits-of-mackinac

Formal comments filed today to assist State of Michigan’s Line 5 review, citing new and ongoing legal violations by Enbridge, rising risk to the Great Lakes, jobs, and drinking water

FLOW today called on the State of Michigan to increase and strictly enforce the requirement for comprehensive oil spill insurance and terminate the 1953 easement that conditionally allows Line 5 to occupy the Straits of Mackinac, triggering the orderly shut down of the dual oil pipelines as soon as practicable after securing alternative sources for residential propane.

FLOW’s request came in formal comments to the state following recent revelations that Enbridge and its subsidiaries lack adequate liability insurance for a potentially catastrophic oil spill from the Canadian company’s decaying dual pipelines snaking across the public bottomlands, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. The new evidence further supports FLOW’s long-standing contention that Enbridge is operating Line 5 illegally while the risk rises to the Great Lakes, jobs, and the drinking water supply for half of Michiganders. 

FLOW’s comments are directed to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”) and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (“EGLE”), and intended specifically to aid in the DNR’s “comprehensive review of Enbridge’s compliance with the 1953 easement and other factors affecting its validity,” as ordered by Governor Gretchen Whitmer on June 27.

“It’s time for the State of Michigan to restore the rule of law on Line 5. We call on the Whitmer administration to commence the shutdown of the dual oil pipelines and direct Enbridge, if it wishes to continue operating its 66-year-old pipelines in the Straits, to apply for permission under public trust law and the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “Enbridge must prove that its use and operation, including the substantial change in design with hundreds of elevated spans and significant other matters, complies with and is entitled to authorization.”

Until the shutdown is complete, FLOW urges the state to impose immediate emergency measures that reduce the flow of oil in Line 5 to its original limit, a reduction of 40% from current flow. State officials also should implement more stringent requirements for a mandatory emergency shutdown, including a wave height of 3.3 feet or more in the Straits or winds in excess of 18 miles per hour, conditions that render oil spill response equipment ineffective. Based on the level of risk from Line 5 to public waters, the state also should require Enbridge and its subsidiaries to secure adequate insurance, bond, surety and/or secured assets in the total amount of $5 billion.

FLOW’s comprehensive review of eight violations of the state-granted easement — related to design, operation, and maintenance — demonstrates convincingly that Enbridge has committed, and continues to commit through its conduct, omissions, and breaches of the 1953 easement that are beyond correction. It is also clear that there are major “other factors affecting the validity” of the 1953 easement and Enbridge’s continued use and operation of the cracked-and-dented Line 5 dual oil pipelines in the open waters and on the bottomlands of the Great Lakes in the Straits of Mackinac, including the failure of Enbridge to obtain from previous directors of the DNR (and its predecessor Department of Conservation) the authorizations required by the common law of public trust and/or the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (“GLSLA”).  

Enbridge’s ongoing violations related to anchors and pipeline design threaten the very safety and health of the Great Lakes, and thus trigger the state’s duty to enforce its conditional occupancy agreement with Enbridge. The State continues to have substantial legal and factual cause to terminate the agreement with Enbridge to stop the oil flow.

In support of these comments, FLOW also submitted the multiple reports and comments that FLOW and others have previously submitted to the DNR, DEQ (now “EGLE”), the Attorney General’s office, and Governor’s office over the past six years. It is clear that the Director of the DNR and executive team, as trustees of the Great Lakes and soils beneath them, have the authority and duty to invalidate, direct compliance with, terminate, and/or revoke the 1953 Easement.

The 200-plus anchor supports (constituting 3 miles of elevated pipelines in the water column) represent a substantial change in design from the dual pipelines designed and built pursuant to the specifications of the 1953 easement. Although DEQ (now “EGLE”) approved anchor supports of the elevated lines over the past 18 years, the anchors have been issued only as permits to “place other materials on bottomlands,” and not as a conveyance or agreement for occupancy or use of the bottomlands and waters for the substantial change in the dual pipelines themselves. The Affidavit of Dr. Edwin Timm filed in the consolidated contested cases against the State of Michigan demonstrates seriously increased risks, a total lack of review of applicable risk standards for elevated multiple-span pipelines, and new or substantially changed pipeline that has not been assessed by the state.

“The only real solution now is to apply the law and shut down the 66-year-old Line 5 pipelines permanently to protect the Straits, and nearly 400 other water crossings in Michigan, from the next Enbridge oil spill,” said Kirkwood. “The Canadian oil, which Enbridge does not own, can be sent through other pipelines operated by Enbridge and its competitors. Michigan has no obligation to guarantee Enbridge a shortcut to Ontario oil refineries and the overseas export market.”

Where Does Michigan Go from Here on Leaking Septic Systems?

FLOW’s Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey facilitates the Michigan Septic Summit’s closing panel discussing, Where Do We Go from Here? Photo by Rick Kane

FLOW and partners look to grow awareness, pass statewide code

By Dave Dempsey

Can Michigan’s governance system succeed in solving one of our state’s worst water pollution problems?

That’s the key question in the wake of FLOW’s Michigan Septic Summit in Traverse City on November 6. Attended by more than 150 people representing diverse points of view, the summit demonstrated that there is widespread interest in addressing a problem that is putting our waters and human health at risk.

That problem—actually a challenge that has faced Michigan for decades—is the lack of a uniform state sanitary code to protect our rivers, lakes, and groundwater from pollution from failing septic systems. An estimated 10%, or 130,000, of Michigan’s septic systems are failing. Except for a handful or so of counties, townships, and villages that have passed their own ordinances, there are no standard requirements for inspection and proper maintenance of septic systems. Michigan is the only state that lacks statewide requirements. It is a glaring and unacceptable gap in Michigan’s water-protection laws.

The Septic Summit’s presentations, panel discussions, and audience questions addressed much of the detail that must be resolved in order to enact such a statewide code.  Should inspections be required when property is sold or on a routine basis, perhaps every five or 10 years? How should a “failing” system be defined? What should be required if a system is found to be failing? What government agencies should be charged with enforcing a code, and how will they be funded? How can property owners be assisted in paying for expensive system repair or replacement? These are just a few of the knotty problems.

State political attention to the absence of a Michigan uniform sanitary code is nothing new. In 2004, as part of a special message on water issues she transmitted to the Legislature, former Governor Jennifer Granholm called for such a code. The then-Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was asked to provide leadership in developing a code and to assemble a task force to formulate potential legislation.

Twenty-six organizations representing a variety of interests involving the septic waste problem were invited to name a representative to serve on the task force. But the work group ultimately could not agree on a solution. Legislators have proposed laws to cure the problem since then, but none has gained traction—again because of lack of consensus on how to act, if at all.

It’s a tricky governance problem. A large number of interests are concerned about both the problem and how a solution would affect them. In addition to private property owners who rely on septic systems, environmental groups, several state agencies, local health departments and environmental health administrators, local government officials, homebuilders, realtors, scientists, septic system waste haulers, and others all need to come to the table.

Doing so is an imperative. Presenters at last week’s Septic Summit underscored how failing systems are contaminating groundwater and surface water with microorganisms that sicken those who drink from or swim in the affected waters.  Because households with septic systems use the same household hazardous materials that other households do, toxic contaminants are also entering waters from failing systems.

There is hope, however. The summit underscored a growing resolve in the state to do something meaningful about septic system pollution. Historically, when Michigan’s various interests have come together in good faith to solve an environmental problem, they have succeeded. FLOW will be following up with Septic Summit attendees to share information, support educational efforts elsewhere in Michigan, and work with allies to craft a state legislative solution.

It will no doubt take time to reach consensus on what needs to be done, but there is no doubt something needs to be done. For Michigan’s environment and human health, we cannot afford further inaction on a statewide uniform sanitary code.

Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy adviser.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

FLOW Welcomes Development Director Diane Dupuis and New Board Members Brett Fessell and Douglas Jester

FLOW (For Love of Water), the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City, is excited to announce the growth of our staff and board of directors.

Diane Dupuis has joined FLOW’s team as our new Development Director. Diane is working to connect FLOW with supporters and resources that propel our work to safeguard the Great Lakes for all of us.

“Like many lifelong Michiganders, as well as those who embrace Michigan later in life, I feel a fundamental connection to our waters, and, along with that, believe we all share a responsibility to protect and preserve this precious asset,” Diane said. “FLOW is the right place for me to roll up my sleeves and live my values, inspired every day amidst a landscape defined by water.”

Diane’s work in the nonprofit sector has included 10 years serving Interlochen Center for the Arts in communications and fund development roles, fundraising for two land conservancies in Michigan, and serving as campaign director for the Ann Arbor Art Center. Her past volunteer affiliations include Pathfinder School, Parallel 45 Theatre, Michigan Writers, and Washtenaw Literacy; she now serves as Vice Chair of Michigan Audubon.

“We are absolutely thrilled to welcome Diane to the FLOW team,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. “Diane brings a wealth of professional knowledge and a deep commitment and connection to the Great Lakes, and is a pure joy. She is already growing our connections to others who are passionate about protecting our fresh water.”

A fun fact about Diane is that, to mark certain sentimental milestones, her family makes a point of swimming together in all five Great Lakes in deliberate succession.

FLOW also is pleased to welcome Brett Fessell and Douglas Jester to our Board of Directors.

Brett Fessell is the River Restoration Ecologist at the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. With degrees in fisheries, his work over decades has ranged from negotiating tribal treaty rights to watershed restoration. Although forged in formal Western science-based education and technical training, his career was truly honed and tempered through immersion within the intricate Indigenous perspectives of the natural world.

Douglas Jester is a partner at 5 Lakes Energy and specializes in utility regulation and energy policy, research, and modeling. Prior to joining 5 Lakes Energy, Doug served as senior energy policy advisor at the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth, where he applied scientific, engineering, and economic principles to the formation and adoption of energy policies for the state of Michigan.

“By tapping Brett Fessell’s expertise in freshwater ecology and river restoration and Douglas Jester’s facility for systems thinking and sparking clean-energy solutions,” said Kirkwood, “FLOW’s Board of Directors is well positioned to guide us through 2020 and the critical period ahead as climate change influences the quality and quantity of freshwater in the Great Lakes Basin and beyond and threatens our economy and very way of life.”

Michigan Septic Summit Draws Packed Crowd to Traverse City

Above: Nature Change’s Joe VanderMeulen and FLOW’s Liz Kirkwood welcome attendees to the Michigan Septic Summit on Nov. 6, 2019, at Northwestern Michigan College’s Hagerty Center in Traverse City. All photos by Rick Kane.


We really didn’t know what the level of public interest would be when FLOW started working with Joe VanderMeulen of Nature Change—as well as a variety of expert presenters, co-sponsors, and community partners—to develop a day-long summit devoted to Michigan’s septic dilemma.

Would people show up for a whole day to talk about old and failing septic systems? And sit still through an intestinal-bacteria presentation during lunch? Was our estimate of 150 registrants realistic?

Those questions were answered with a resounding “yes” on Wednesday, at our first-ever Michigan Septic Summit, which overflowed with more than 160 attendees and interest in:

  • Exploring the latest septic system research on the human health and environmental risks,
  • Learning about local and regional programs and regulations adopted in response to surface water and groundwater quality threats, and
  • Fostering dialogue toward more effective and geographically extensive efforts to reduce risks from septic system waste.

More than 160 people from around Michigan turned out and tuned in to presentations, panel discussions, and peer-to-peer conversations around regulating Michigan’s septic waste.

 

On the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case that delved into septic tanks, Michiganders demonstrated we care about public health and water that’s safe for drinking, bathing, swimming, fishing, boating, and beachcombing. We care about finding equitable solutions to one of humankind’s oldest problems in communal living—disposing of human waste safely in Michigan, the only state that lacks a uniform sanitary code requiring periodic inspection and maintenance of septic systems—even though 30% of Michiganders rely on such systems.

The results of unregulated septic waste are devastating to Michigan surface water and groundwater. An estimated 130,000 septic systems in the state are failing, releasing 5.2 billion gallons of sewage annually into Michigan waters. Numerous Michigan rivers and lakes have detectable levels of fecal bacteria. Groundwater, too, is contaminated by septic wastes. And conventional household waste isn’t the only thing polluting our waters. Emerging contaminants like pharmaceutical residues and endocrine disruptors are also found in household wastes. Little monitoring is done to identify these substances in groundwater.

Some of the many highlights of the Michigan Septic Summit, which was streamed live by Traverse Area Community Media and available to watch now on Facebook, include:

Scott Kendzierski,  Director of Environmental Health Services at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, in his presentation on “Construction and Maintenance of Septic Systems,” identified an emerging issue in septic management: the seasonal rental scenario, in which a three-bedroom home with a septic system designed and permitted in the 1970s for perhaps six occupants is now accommodating more than three times that many people as vacationers, overtaxing an aging or possibly failed system.

Scott Kendzierski presents at the Michigan Septic Summit on construction and maintenance of old and new septic systems in Michigan.

A slide from the presentation by Scott Kendzierski at the Michigan Septic Summit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Mark Borchardt, a research microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Marshfield, Wisconsin, detailed a fascinating story of forensic detection in the case of disease outbreak in a Wisconsin restaurant with a new septic system that failed and contaminated the restaurant’s well and customers.

An audience member asked Borchardt about how high water levels affect septic-system effectiveness in deterring the spread of pathogens. He responded that ideally a system would put maximum distance between a septic drainfield and groundwater level; the higher the water table, the shorter the distance for microbes to travel from wastewater to drinking and surface water.

Jon Beard of Public Sector Consultants, a non-partisan public policy firm in Lansing, revealed perhaps the worst canine job in the world: Source-tracking bacterial contamination. He also shared a startling mid-Michigan survey result: 30% of residents with a septic system did not know they had one. And even more alarmingly, later presenters judged this figure to be too low.

A Michigan Septic Summit participant ponders suggestions from attendees regarding potential solutions for Michigan’s poorly regulated, old and failing septic systems.

Afternoon panels increased our understanding of the complexities facing local communities, all of which are united in the desire to protect groundwater from contamination. Rob Karner, watershed biologist at the Glen Lakes Association in Leelanau County, offered, “I have yet to find anybody who says, ‘I want to pollute the water. I want to drink contaminated water.’ It all comes down to this: Loving the water.”

FLOW’s Executive Director Liz Kirkwood echoed, “We’re having these conversations because we love the Great Lakes. Michigan is the Great Lakes State, and despite our infrastructure crisis, Michiganders really care about clean water. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, we’re here because we love these waters.”

In reflecting on the success of the Septic Summit, FLOW’s founder and famed environmental attorney Jim Olson, summed up the summit this way: “The need to come together never ends. A conference on an important matter concerning our water and the common good goes beyond the adoption of a particular septic system law or code.”

“It brings together a wide spectrum of people, diverse speakers with diverse backgrounds and something to say, and demonstrates the value of education, bringing people together—people who not only care about groundwater and the tens of thousands of failing septic systems, but also about the world and the water, environment, and quality of life in which they live,” Olson said. “I drove home in wonder over the conference and the inspiring feeling from being in a room of people who authentically care, share, and listen at a critical time for our communities and the world.”

FLOW’s Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey facilitates the Michigan Septic Summit’s closing panel discussing, Where Do We Go from Here?

 

What’s next in the wake of the Septic Summit? Stay tuned as FLOW and allies from around the state, including Michigan Clean Water Action, Michigan Environmental Council, and many others, intend to support more local and regional education and build backing for legislative action to develop and pass a statewide septic code.