Tag: environmental protection

Government Protects Human Health and the Environment, in West Michigan and Nationwide

From left to right, panelists Alan Steinman, George Heartwell, Skip Pruss and Dave Dempsey. Photo by Liz Kirkwood

FLOW held a community engagement session at the Grand Rapids Public Library on Thursday, December 5, to make the economic case for government’s role in protecting human health and the environment—both nationally and locally.

The event followed a similar listening session in November in Traverse City. It punctuated the publication of a series of “Resetting Expectations” policy briefs by Skip Pruss, former FLOW board chair and former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. Read those policy briefs here.

The Grand Rapids event featured presentations by Pruss, as well as Alan Steinman, who directs Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell, and FLOW senior policy adviser Dave Dempsey. FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood opened the engagement session with introductory remarks and closed it with a panel discussion.

Pruss spoke about his early career in government and highlighted the then-prevailing spirit of public service, and public support for and confidence in government’s high aspirations for implementing change. Examples of that change include building the interstate highway system, reaching the moon, launching the war on poverty, and fostering a nationwide public education system which was at one time the envy of the world. Landmark environmental laws passed approximately 50 years ago demonstrated the value of well-conceived governmental interventions. Since its enactment in 1970. economic health benefits related to the Clean Air Act are estimated at $22 trillion.

Watch a recorded video of Pruss’ presentation.

Paradoxically, despite significant achievements, public confidence in government has declined in recent decades, said Pruss, who argued in his “Resetting Expectations” briefs that government should support the renewable energies of tomorrow rather than the dirty fossil fuels of yesterday.

Without government subsidies, the oil and coal industries are going bankrupt: they no longer make good business sense. Meanwhile, a report by the White House Office of Management and Budget demonstrates that environmental regulations have the best cost-benefit ratio of any federal rules. Those regulations also help to level the playing field, and eliminate free riders who don’t abide by the rules.

Across the political spectrum, economists agree that positive externalities—activities that result in additional benefits for society—should be promoted, and negative externalities, which indicate market failure, should be avoided. Negative externalities impose “spillover” costs on society that are not included in the cost of production.

To emphasize his point, Pruss quoted Sir Nicholas Stern, who said that “Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure that the world has ever seen.”

“It’s not just the release of hazardous substances and soil and groundwater contamination and the impact to health and wildlife, it’s also the irreparable loss of these functions of this landscape,” said Pruss while sharing a searing image of the destruction of the Tar Sands region in Alberta, Canada. “The benefits of this landscape that are now gone for future generations. We can’t afford to do that.”

Government environmental protection and investments pay off at the local level, too, added Dr. Alan Steinman and former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell.

Steinman opened his presentation with an image of a West Michigan sunset over Lake Michigan, which he said shows how economic development and environmental protection go hand in hand. Steinman then contrasted images of Muskegon Lake as an industrial hub and now, as a favorite recreation spot.

Steinman worked 10 years ago on a project to stabilize Muskegon Lake’s shoreline—a project whose funding didn’t originally intend to highlight economic impacts, but whose cascading benefits included “when the insects came back, the fish came back, and when the fish came back, the people came back.”

Ecosystem restoration is generally considered a 3-to-1 return on investment, but the Muskegon Lake restoration yielded a 6-to-1 return.

Watch Steinman’s presentation here.

Former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell started his presentation on an upbeat note: “Let me start with a modest proposition—mayors will save the world!” he boomed. “The work that’s done by cities, by progressive mayors, by visionary and innovative mayors will turn down the thermostat on global temperatures.”

While these superheroes are saving the world, they must also address extreme rain events, flooded sewers and common issues facing cities like Grand Rapids.

Heartwell narrated a Grand Rapids story that evolved from spilling billions of gallons of combined storm water and sewage overflow into the Grand River to separating storm and sanitary sewers and creating storm water treatment systems in neighborhood green spaces that also serve as amenities.

Heartwell shared a litany of steps that Grand Rapids has taken to improve the urban environment and mitigate against the effects of climate change.

“I know it sounds like a very small step toward saving the human species but green infrastructure in every city will at least save us from storm water and flooding damage and buy us the time we need to do other climate change mitigation.”

“If every city did what Grand Rapids is doing, life on our planet would survive, and the seventh generation would look back at us with gratitude.”

Watch Heartwell’s presentation here.

Dave Dempsey stressed the economic value of groundwater to Michigan and the huge costs of failing to protect it from contamination. About 45% of Michigan’s population gets its drinking water from groundwater sources and industry and agriculture also use considerable groundwater for manufacturing and irrigation. Yet a legacy of contamination has cost Michigan taxpayers over $1 billion in cleanup costs, and there are 6,000 more orphan sites—where no private source is available—that may require taxpayer money to clean up. 

Dempsey said Michigan needs stronger groundwater protection policies to support Michigan job creation and reduce health risks from chemically contaminated water supplies.

Watch Dempsey’s presentation here.

Following the presentations, an engaged audience asked the panelists how cities and communities can be empowered to better use their master plans to prevent environmental harms.

Watch the panel discussion here.

Resetting Expectations: Government’s Role in Protecting Human Health and the Environment

Report author Skip Pruss

Why Good Regulations are Good for our Great Lakes

This is the first of four reports 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. FLOW will unveil one report each month.

Click here to read the first report in the series.

 


How We Got Here: The Rise of Modern Environmental Protection

Fifty years ago—on June 22, 1969—industrial waste covering the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames. The fire was so intense it badly damaged two railway bridges crossing the river.  It was not the first time the Cuyahoga had caught fire. Described by Time magazine as a river that “oozed rather than flowed,” the Cuyahoga had erupted in flames many times over decades, with the largest fire dating back to 1952. Yet it was the 1969 fire that ignited public concern and helped galvanize political action, culminating in the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

The Cuyahoga emptied its industrial wastes into Lake Erie as did the Detroit, Sandusky, Raisin, and Maumee Rivers. Many other rivers delivered nutrient loadings of nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural watersheds and municipal sewer systems. Untreated wastes and nutrients took their toll, and Lake Erie, an integral part of the largest freshwater system in the world, was declared dead.

The foundational laws and regulations in the modern era aimed at protecting public health and the environment were born in crises.

The last half century has witnessed sweeping changes in the public perception of government and its role in advancing the public interest and improving public welfare. Surveys today show public trust in government is in sharp decline and criticism of government has become a bipartisan social norm. To many, “government regulation” connotes undue interference with markets, competition, and the economy, yet, at the same time, surveys show overwhelming bipartisan support for the protection of air, water, public lands, and natural resources – an essential function of government.

To explain these contradictory outlooks, FLOW is publishing a series of four policy papers that trace the history of environmental regulation, illustrating how it protects individuals, families, and communities while fostering innovation and economic gains. FLOW advocates for greater application of the Public Trust Doctrine, a model for stewarding public resources, addressing the growing challenges of maintaining water quality and confronting the climate crisis, and at the same time, restoring public trust in government’s critical oversight role.

FLOW’s four policy papers—to be published once a month between late June and late September—will articulate the costs and benefits of environmental regulatory systems, explain how environmental regulations prevent harm, narrate how regulations protect people and support our economy, and cover market failures, subsidies, and negative externalities.


Report’s Key Facts

  • Surveys show overwhelming bipartisan support for the protection of our air, water, public lands, and natural resources. But the public lacks confidence in the effectiveness and competency of government to afford such protections.
  • “Deregulation” has become a meme that resonates to many as a desirable goal and a public good, but is rarely contextualized as undoing necessary, appropriate, and successful government interventions.
  • Absent from the public dialogue are informed discussions of the purpose and value of the protections afforded by regulations and the wide array of benefits that regulatory structures provide to the public.
  • Studies show that the quantifiable benefits of environmental regulations greatly exceed the costs imposed on business and the economy.
  • The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), under President Trump, has found that the benefits of major regulations have exceeded costs by hundreds of billions of dollars.
  • OMB also found that the benefits provided by EPA regulations are the most efficient in terms of providing the most benefits at the least cost.
  • Environmental protections afforded by federal law are under siege as the Trump administration aggressively pursues efforts to broadly roll back environmental regulations and expedite fossil fuel development, while expressing open contempt for climate concerns.
  • Government, according to the Michigan Supreme Court, has a “high, solemn and perpetual” fiduciary responsibility as trustee, under the doctrine, to protect and preserve the trust for future generations.
  • The accepted means of determining the economic impact of regulations—cost-benefit analysis—has been subverted under the Trump administration, producing an imbalanced accounting of costs over benefits.
  • The Public Trust Doctrine has the potential to apply as a compelling legal framework to protect the public interest in all commonly held natural resources—our air, our non-navigable waters, wetlands, forests, and public lands.

Executive Summary:

Using the Public Trust Doctrine to fight the war against government 

Environmental regulations are often assailed as unduly interfering with free markets, undermining competitiveness, and adding unnecessary costs to the production of goods and services. At the same time, public surveys and polling show strong and consistent support for efforts to protect natural resources and the environment.

While the public at large displays a strong consensus for measures that protect our air and water, the public has less appreciation for the full array of benefits government regulations provide and lacks confidence in the effectiveness and competency of government to afford such protections. 

The benefits of government regulation are measurable and are overwhelmingly favorable in the realm of environmental protection, where the quantifiable benefits of regulations greatly exceed the costs imposed on business and the economy.

The discontinuity between the need for regulatory interventions to protect human health and the environment and the distrust of government’s regulatory mandate is attributable, at least in part, to a strong line of critical commentary from conservative “think tanks” and right-of-center media animating suspicion and distrust in government’s effort to advance the public interest.

Environmental protections afforded by federal law are under siege as the Trump administration aggressively pursues efforts to broadly roll back environmental regulations and expedite fossil fuel development, while expressing open contempt for climate concerns. Meanwhile, former Governor Rick Snyder in late 2018 signed into law a bill that limits new regulations in Michigan to the weakened regulatory standards defined by federal law.

The field of government regulatory activities is vast. This paper provides a historical perspective on environmental regulations, illustrating the many ways government regulatory systems provide cost-effective interventions that protect human health and the environment. The effect of regulations can and should be measured and monetized as a means of ensuring sound government policies that minimize harm to the public and avoid imprudent and costly impacts.

Environmental regulations are intended to protect every citizen’s common interest in this wondrous natural resource heritage and to prevent further harm so that future generations can continue to enjoy and derive the same benefits we have today. We have charged government with this awesome responsibility and the corresponding “duty to protect” and safeguard our common natural resources is deeply embedded in Michigan’s jurisprudence.

The Public Trust Doctrine is the legal framework to protect shared natural resources also referred to as “the commons.” The Doctrine holds that the Great Lakes and their tributary waters, and by extension, all water-dependent natural resources, are held in trust for the benefit of the people. Government, according to the Michigan Supreme Court, has a “high, solemn and perpetual” fiduciary responsibility as trustee, under the doctrine, to protect and preserve the trust for future generations. In so doing, public trust in government can be enhanced as well.

Michigan lies at the heart of the Great Lakes—the most magnificent freshwater system on the planet.  The good news is that there exists a broad public consensus to protect this extraordinary natural resource endowment, as well as the availability of a long-standing set of legal principles that, if better appreciated and activated, can empower our citizens and leaders to hold government accountable for protecting our commonly held natural resource heritage.

The paper offers the long-recognized Public Trust Doctrine as a legal framework to address the challenges of protecting and enhancing our natural resources and combatting climate change while rebuilding public confidence in the role of government.

The Green Governor

One governor of Michigan is remembered in large part because of his environmental ethic and accomplishments. William G. Milliken of Traverse City, who turns 97 on Tuesday, March 26, supported and signed into law most of Michigan’s modern environmental laws while he was the state’s chief executive from 1969-1982.

Governor Milliken said his environmental commitment was forged growing up in the water-rich environment of Traverse City. And water cleanup is a key feature of his record, including a ban on high-phosphate detergents that led to a sharp reduction in algae blooms.

Measures signed into law by Governor Milliken include the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the Inland Lakes and Streams Act, Wetland Protection Act, Sand Dune Protection and Management Act, and many more.

FLOW has wished the Governor a happy birthday beforeand we do so again. His is an environmental legacy that remains evergreen.


Can One Person Make a Difference? This Sixth Grader Already Has

Hope is in the air, and the water.

On a recent trip to Chicago to attend the Patagonia Action Works conference, FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood met an extraordinary young advocate, Marcella Carter.  Spurred into action by her concern about the oil and gas pipelines threatening the Straits of Mackinac, Marcella organized friends and classmates and raised $1,000 to support FLOW’s work to shut down the lines.

We wanted to know more about Marcella and her work.  A sixth-grader at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, just blocks from her home in Hyde Park, Marcella is 12.

“Every morning I enjoy getting to walk to school with my older brother (Gabriel) who is a freshman in high school and my mom, who works at the University of Chicago Cancer Center as a Regulatory Affairs Manager,” Marcella says. “There are some good and bad things about walking to school, one of the great things being that we are not polluting the earth with gasoline every morning.”  

We e-mailed her some questions about what led to her leadership on Line 5.


Where does your interest in the environment and water come from?

Throughout my childhood I have grown up around nature and learning to love it. My family and I go camping often. When we lived in Georgia, we had a spot that we found one year after hiking for 10 miles and it was perfect for us, with the raging river right there, little sandy coves, and secret trails. So, every year after that we hiked the full 10 miles and set up camp in our spot. We have many stories and had great adventures camping, many including my dog CastaLuna, a spanish greyhound.

Another thing that I grew up around was my parents’ cloth diaper business, Better for Babies. They started making and selling reusable cotton diapers to help decrease the amount of disposable diapers going into landfills and then they had the idea to sell an even wider variety of sustainable items, so they started Better for Grownups as well. They started selling reusable tissues, makeup rounds, etc.

I remember walking down the block from Miss Marni’s Preschool with my dad by my side in his electric wheelchair towards the building where all Better for Babies and Better for Grownup things happened. As I opened the door and walked in, I was greeted with the sound of sewing machines and the seamstresses’ voices shouting my name in welcome. I spent my afternoons there, climbing the wooden structure that held the huge rolls of soft cotton fabric and sitting there watching. These things have made me very passionate in helping to protect the amazing environment that we all live in.

What inspired you specifically about raising money to protect the Great Lakes from Line 5?  What do you hope the result will be?

I learned about the problem with Line 5 one day when my dad got an email from Patagonia alerting people and asking for help to get Line 5 shut down. The email included a link to the movie Great Lakes, Bad Lines. My dad and I read the email and were shocked! We started the movie and I immediately wanted to do something to help.  

I love Lake Michigan, it is a part of my life. I see it almost every day and it makes me smile. When I moved to Chicago and saw Lake Michigan for the first time in person, I was in awe. I had never seen a lake look like that. At that time my definition of a lake was the lake that my house was next to in Georgia, Lake Carroll.  I have memories of going out on the lake in my grandfather’s boat in the summer but it just doesn’t compare to Lake Michigan. Lake Carroll is small and filled with dirt because of a construction accident when all of the dirt that they were digging up tumbled down the hill and blew into Lake Carroll. Because of that you can’t see the bottom of the very shallow murky water, and when it rains the dirt will all come up to the surface and you can easily get an ear infection if you swim in it.

Lake Michigan is special, with the way that one day when the sun is out it can look like the ocean next to a Hawaiian beach, the next day it’s so clear that you can see everything beneath it, then on a rainy day its waves are raging and it’s a dark mysterious grey. It looks like Lake Michigan has many different feelings or emotions and expresses them through colors and texture of the water. I don’t think that anyone wants one of those new colors to be black oil.

I don’t just want to protect The Great Lakes from Line 5 because of its beauty or my memories of reading on the warm rocks while my dad, who used to be in a wheelchair for 10 years, is swimming, but also because Lake Michigan is a very important source of freshwater. If Line 5 broke and spilled oil then we would lose so much water. We may still have lots of bottled water, but bottled water is not good for the environment and many people can’t afford it, so tap water is a great solution. But, if Line 5 doesn’t get shut down, there goes a ton of our tap water. I hope the result will be Lake Michigan still being what it is and not ruined by oil.

Do you see yourself working on environmental issues in the future?

Yes, I definitely do! I hope to continue what I am doing now, helping issues by raising awareness or money, working with the sustainability club to make our school more green, and going to events to learn more. As for when I am older, it has always been my dream to become a fashion designer. As I learned more about the problems with fast fashion, child labor, poor work environments, and factory pollution, I brainstormed ways I would make my fashion brand more environmentally friendly but also sell clothes and collections that are fashionable and that make women feel confident. I am going to keep researching and working on my sewing and design skills so hopefully my dream can come true.

What advice do you have for other young people who care about protecting our environment?

First of all, that’s great! We need more young people who care about protecting our environment because we are the next generation and can make a big impact. I would say know that you can make a difference and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t or you’re “too young”. I would also say that some of the best ways to start protecting our environment is first with your own lifestyle. Make sure you are recycling, ask your parents if you can start composting, and when your parents go to the grocery offer to tag along and bring reusable bags. When you are at the grocery, help your parents make more sustainable choices. For example: If you are buying applesauce, instead of buying a box of individually wrapped squeezes, ask your parents if they could get you the big glass jar of applesauce — without being bossy (Ms. Williams gave the Sustainability club that tip!).

Then, help your school by starting a club if there isn’t already one. You and your club can find non-environmentally friendly things about your school and figure out ways to fix them. You can also talk to local restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, etc. about ways they can reduce waste. For example, research compostable straws and find a brand that looks reliable and share it with the store, asking them to use that instead of plastic ones, and make sure to tell them that even if they don’t have a compost, the compostable straws are still better than plastic ones because they will decompose in 3 to 6 months even in a landfill, but plastic straws take up to 200 years! If the store doesn’t want to change their products you can also just set a good example for others by bringing your own reusable straw with you and use that instead of reaching for a single use plastic straw.

Others may ask you about your reusable straw and that can give you a good chance to teach others. Sometimes all they need is some information and shocking facts to think twice about grabbing that straw and maybe they will even go online and buy a reusable one! If you want to learn more about environmental problems and how to help, ask your parents to take you to some events, then bring back the information you learned to your club and see what you can do.


Thank you!

FLOW is grateful to the University of Chicago Lab School’s Sustainability Club, Marcella and her family for their commitment to environmental stewardship.  The future will be brighter because of them.