Northern Michigan Environmental Watchlist
April 19, 2015
Area Organizations Weigh in on the Biggest Environmental Threats to our Region
We asked environmental organizations across northern Lower Michigan to share what they believe are the most serious environmental dangers in our region.
Every organization listed the 62-year-old oil pipeline at the Straits of Mackinac as a concern, and all but one said it was the most serious environmental threat the region faces today.
Certain issues like sedimentation pollution in the bay and phosphorus-related algae in the Great Lakes have been worrisome for years, while a discovery like plastic microbeads in our water is a fairly new concern.
The overarching issue of climate change manifests throughout the list, whether regarding drought in California or the increasing number of severe rain events.
Here are the unscientific results of our informal survey.
Threat No. 5
Microplastics The Pacific Ocean boasts a garbage patch the size of Texas floating on its surface. Lake Michigan doesn’t; its trash threat is more insidious. Lake Michigan’s water is filled with microscopic bits of broken-down plastic.
"One of the hurdles we face with the lakes, particularly in our region, is the beauty of them," Inland Seas Educational Association Executive Director Fred Sitkins said. "Because there’s not a large floating garbage patch out there, it’s not there in a lot of people’s eyes."
Tiny bits of plastic from soaps, toothpaste and face creams are washing down our drains, moving through our water treatment plants and into our Great Lakes. While it’s not yet certain what this means for our environment, now that the non-biodegradable substance appears to have made its way into our food chain, people are concerned.
"They are found all over the Great Lakes and they are small enough so that they are being consumed by fish and they are working their way into the food chain," said Kate Madigan, energy policy specialist at the Michigan Environmental Council. "We don’t want plastics in the Great Lakes, and we don’t want them in our fish, and we don’t want that accumulating in our bodies either."
A bill has been introduced to prohibit microbeads in products sold in Michigan. Illinois has already passed a similar law that will take effect over several years.
"There are alternate materials that can serve the same purpose," said Sitkins. "To me it’s a no-brainer, and we certainly support that legislation that’s being looked at."
Jeanie Williams, lead scientist at Inland Seas, said researchers have just begun to study the issue. It isn’t yet known what microplastics mean for the ecosystem, but the plastics are likely collecting and storing other harmful pollutants, she said.
One thing that people can do about microplastics, in addition to not littering, is to think about the kind of products they use around the lakes.
"Ultimately, what we want to do is not use plastic at all, so that littering doesn’t happen," Williams said.
Threat No. 4
Sedimentation Runoff When heavy rain hits, whatever is loose on the ground is swept up in the torrent and flows downhill. If it winds up in Lake Michigan, it’s trouble for everything else that lives there.
Sedimentation and runoff are the biggest threats to the bay’s water quality, said T.J. Andrews, attorney for the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay.
A massive runoff event occurred last fall during the early stages of construction for the Meijer store and the Grand Traverse Town Center in Acme.
Andrews explained that the runoff event was related to several factors: officials being unprepared for such a large project, exposed clay sloping toward the bay once topsoil was removed at the construction site, and several severe rain storms occurring one after another.
"They underestimated what they were up against," Andrews said. "They cleared it and they let it sit there. There was no question, when it rained, what was going to happen."
Andrews believes officials should have intervened after the first rain and shut down the project until a plan for mitigation was prepared. If a strong county drain commissioner was in place, that person would have likely taken such action, but the county board of commissioners dismantled the drain commissioner position in 2011.
Grand Traverse County Commissioner Dan Lathrop said that by October, when the runoff occurred, the site should have had grass growing to prevent erosion.
"We have a good policy, it just wasn’t enforced," he said. "I think that it was very poorly managed by our soil erosion department. I don’t blame the contractor so much as I blame them."
Lathrop said the county is in the process of updating the soil erosion ordinance and reconsidering who should be responsible for enforcing it.
In the Little Traverse region, there is less concern about runoff from construction than runoff from areas that are already developed, said Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council Executive Director Gail Gruenwald.
Gruenwald explained that municipalities are evaluating how to best improve infrastructure to better handle runoff from stormwater. This means that Tip of the Mitt is busy checking for illegal wastewater hookups, studying how to improve drainage, updating maps that illustrate what’s draining where in the watershed, and educating pet owners to pick up after dogs properly.
Threat No. 3
Thirst for the Great Lakes Great Lakes protectors have long considered that demand for water elsewhere could someday make the lakes an irresistible target.
This year’s Californian drought underscores this point. When it comes to water, residents of the Great Lakes region are the "haves" and the rest of the world are the "have nots."
Attorney Jim Olson has spent his career working to protect the Great Lakes from diversion. He believes the 2008 Great Lakes Compact was a start at preventing future large-scale diversions, but that the agreement is fatally flawed.
"We have some protection. The Great Lakes Compact has a diversion ban," Olson said. "The ban has exceptions, and one of the exceptions is buried in the definition of diversion."
Olson explained that a loophole allows for the diversion of water that is considered a "product." In other words, the compact allows the diversion of any amount of water for sale to a wholesale or resale market.
"That’s called an export," Olson said. "We have a water diversion ban, but they excepted exports without telling anybody."
Olson founded the nonprofit Great Lakes advocacy group FLOW – For the Love of Water – out of concern about that loophole.
"People have to understand that the Great Lakes, under the "˜public trust doctrine,’ are off-limits except for one thing, and that’s for a public purpose on a temporary basis that wouldn’t cause any harm," Olson said. "So, you could have a humanitarian transfer of water, let’s say on trains, on trucks or on ships, for one single purpose, but that doesn’t answer the California situation."
Droughts are one recent manifestation of severe weather due to climate change, and we should expect more, Madigan said. "As water resources become more scarce, we just have to think more long term about how we’re going to protect the Great Lakes," he said.
It may currently be too expensive to transfer water to California, Madigan explained. Water demand in Great Plains states might be more urgent.
"Because of the Rocky Mountains, logistically it would be challenging to get Great Lakes water there, so I don’t know if that’s an immediate threat," Madigan said.
Threat No. 2
Phosphorus and Algae Blooms Last August, Toledo, Ohio residents were told that the water from their taps was unsafe to drink. Algae blooms caused by nutrient runoff from fertilizer and animal waste had spawned toxic algae that rendered the city’s drinking water supply unsafe. While a major problem in Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, elevated phosphorus levels are causing increasing problems in the upper Great Lakes too. While northern Lake Michigan communities have not seen drinking water supplies shut off, we have seen our beaches littered with dead birds and fish, a consequence of the pollution, said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW.
"We have a problem in Green Bay," Olson said. "Some of what we see off Sleeping Bear comes from northern Lake Michigan on the Wisconsin side."
The problem is aggravated by climate change; more rainfall from sudden severe storms causes more runoff, and warmer temperatures also hasten the growth of algae blooms.
"If we do nothing, then climate change is going to make it so bad it will compound what we’re seeing in Lake Erie and expand it into other lakes," Olson said.
Olson believes FLOW has a solution.
States and provinces must approach nutrient runoff as a systemic problem. He said each government’s responsibility to preserve the health of the Great Lakes binds them to put limits on phosphorus runoff from farms and municipalities.
"If the states don’t do it under their duty, and agriculture doesn’t voluntarily cooperate to get there, there’s always the rights of citizens to go to court to demand that they do it," Olson said.
"Is it going to happen overnight? No, absolutely not. Is it going to require political clout?
Absolutely," Kirkwood said. "But it’s a point in the right direction and I think it’s important to think about frameworks to bring people together to demand that accountability."
Threat No. 1
The Mackinac Straits Pipeline A billion dollar oil spill from a pipeline near Kalamazoo five years ago was a wakeup call for environmentalists who believe failure of a pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac would be an environmental catastrophe.
"It literally at least would devastate the upper Great Lakes, from Alpena up around the Straits down to Beaver Island and maybe Little Traverse Bay, maybe the Manitous," Olson said.
The majority of a 20-member environmental coalition called Oil & Water Don’t Mix want to see the pipeline closed, said Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council Chairman Greg Reisig.
"They are all asking that the line be removed and shut down," Reisig said.
Reisig explained that five Native American tribes also want the pipeline removed because it threatens fishing rights guaranteed by treaties.
"These are 62-year-old pipelines resting on state-owned bottomlands and we have a state trustee that has never ever conducted an analysis, never reviewed and looked to see what the magnitude of harm from this private use would be, what kind of risk it would impose on the public waters," Kirkwood said.
The pipe is known as Line No. 5 and it’s owned and operated by Enbridge, the same company responsible for the 2010 oil spill in Kalamazoo.
Olson said the state should demand Enbridge file an application under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act, which would require a modern permitting process for the pipeline and would likely begin decommissioning it over several years.
Gruenwald said she would like to see responders better prepared in the event of a spill. She said a drill staged last year by the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency proved that responders need more resources and training.
DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel explained that the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force – created to ensure the safety of pipelines in the state – will release a report in May.
"I think everybody shares a concern for protecting Michigan’s fresh water," Wurfel said.
The group has listened to concerns from environmental organizations and has collected information on Enbridge’s pipeline maintenance, as well as studied what the pipeline’s lifespan should be, explained Wurfel. He said he could not predict what the task force conclusion will be, but he noted that the pipeline has never leaked and that it may be preferable to other ways of transporting petroleum, such as by rail or on lake freighters.
"There’s never been a pipeline built like this," Wurfel said. "It makes sense when you look through all that data, which will be daylighted when the report is released, that this pipeline has never leaked."
Green Awards Friday
Environmentalists from across the region will gather this Friday, April 24, to celebrate their own.
The Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council’s annual awards and celebration takes place at the Park Place Dome in Traverse City at 7pm.
This year’s speaker is Stanley "Skip" Pruss, principal and co-founder of 5 Lakes Energy LLC. Pruss was the director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth and Michigan’s Chief Energy Officer under Gov. Jennifer Granholm, where he was responsible for designing and implementing Michigan’s clean energy economy diversification efforts.