The Earth Day Celebration That Wasn't
What worries NoMi environmentalists as another human crisis has our attention.
By Patrick Sullivan | April 25, 2020
This year’s 50th Earth Day didn’t arrive with the fanfare that long-time environmental activist Ann Rogers had hoped.
After all, it wasn’t just a milestone for Earth Day, it was also the 40th anniversary of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, of which Rogers is co-chair. The nonprofit’s Environmentalist of the Year award celebration scheduled for April 24 in Traverse City had to be canceled.
“That was a big disappointment, not to be able to celebrate that, too,” she said.
Rogers has been celebrating Earth Day since the inaugural one, on April 22, 1970.
“I was teaching back on the first Earth Day, and we did all kinds of things,” she said. “We really went all out on it, as did a bunch of other schools.”
At the school where Rogers taught, Long Lake Elementary, students and teachers organized forums on the environment, tree plantings, and neighborhood clean-ups.
This year, Rogers said she’s planning a solo honoring of the day; she’ll simply plant some trees in her own yard.
“It is kind of dismal. But the earth is such a beautiful place,” Rogers said. “Just going out in my yard and seeing the trees that are here is pretty comforting.”
While the 50th Earth Day celebration came and went, Northern Express talked with activists from across northern Lower Michigan about the environmental concerns that worry them most amid the coronavirus crisis. There is a lot to worry about, they say, but there is also a slight chance that this crisis could fundamentally change things for the better.
“We are not going to go back to a, quote, normal situation. That’s not going to happen,” Rogers said. “I worry about my children and grandchildren having to deal with all of this. We need a total shift in how we treat the earth.”
LINE 5 TUNNELS AHEAD
The concerns raised by northern Michigan environmentalists ranged from global — worry that the distraction of the virus will set back efforts to stem climate change by years to local, like anger over a move to go ahead with the permit application for the Line 5 tunnel while would-be protestors are stuck at home.
In Petoskey, Jennifer McKay, policy director at Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, said there are grave reasons to be concerned right now about Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, a controversial fuel pipeline owned by the Canadian energy company Enbridge.
Following an anchor strike in 2018 that damaged but did not breach the line, Enbridge proposed building a tunnel to safeguard the Straits from a leak, but Line 5 opponents want the 66-year-old pipeline removed. Now, state regulators are processing the application that would enable Enbridge to build the tunnel.
“With COVID-19 and the restrictions that are in place limiting travel and the stay-at-home orders, there are a number of permit applications that have been put out there and they’re not getting the full public review that they would otherwise,” McKay said.
A group of 15 environmental groups and tribal entities have banded together to ask the state to delay making a decision on the permit, McKay said. There is also a petition against the tunnel at the Oil & Water Don’t Mix website.
“It’s not going as well as we would like,” she said. “The state is proceeding to move forward with them. We’re concerned that the voices of Michigan citizens are not going to be heard.”
If the pipeline permit is going to go forward, it should happen at a time when the public can participate in the process, said Emily Magner, director of statewide political outreach at the League of Conservation Voters.
“As Michiganders, we’ve been directed to stay home because we need to curb the spread of coronavirus,” Magner said. “Public input is impossible, so the permit should be delayed. It’s possible to protect our environment and our public health and we must do both.”
Also alarming, McCay said, is a move by the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (a division of the U.S Department of Transportation) on March 20 to roll back oversight of pipelines like Line 5 during the crisis.
McCay said the agency announced that it would no longer enforce pipeline oversight requirements for operator qualifications, control room management, or employee drug testing.
“That lets the guard down significantly when, obviously, pipeline incidents can have catastrophic consequences,” McKay said. “I don’t think we can do anything about this. I don’t know if there are national groups that are looking at this and potentially trying to sue.”
Meanwhile, a move by the Whitmer administration to essentially suspend the state’s Freedom of Information Act during the crisis drastically limits the public’s ability to understand what’s going on.
FOIA requests are a critical tool for citizens’ and the media’s ability to understand proposed projects or the safety record of a pipeline like Line 5.
“It hurts the public’s ability to gain information,” McKay said. “The public’s voice is already going to be limited. Now were going to limit individual’s access to acquire information.”
A STRUGGLING CLIMATE CHANGE FIGHT
One of the few upsides to the crisis, from the perspective of Kate Madigan, director of the Michigan Climate Action Network, is the temporary reduction in emissions because people are not driving or flying while stay-at-home orders are in place. That’s bringing clean air to cities typically blanketed in haze, and it means improved health for the people who live there.
But Madigan doesn’t expect that dip in air pollution will outlast the coronavirus crisis. There were minor air quality improvements during the economic crisis of a decade ago and those vanished once conditions improved.
“We saw after the recession in 2008 that there was a lot of investment in coal and fossil fuels, so that reduction didn’t last as the economy got going again,” she said.
But what’s more troubling for Madigan is that she sees her side losing ground amid coronavirus.
“The climate crisis itself is not on hold. Overall, we know from the science that we need to cut emissions significantly this decade,” Madigan said. “We really cannot afford to lose a year or two.”
Unfortunately, she said, the shift of U.S. policy away from climate-friendly measures has only accelerated during this crisis.
Since the crisis began, the EPA eliminated Obama-era mercury rules, which reduced mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. The EPA also rolled back auto emission standards at the end of March. Those actions had been expected, but they were taken while people were distracted.
The decision at the EPA to stop enforcing environmental regulations amid the crisis, then, was a real punch in the gut for environmentalists, said Dave Dempsey, senior policy advisor at FLOW, For Love of Water, a Great Lakes advocacy nonprofit in Traverse City.
“In a way, this policy was more troubling than the rules rollbacks, because we knew those were coming,” he said.
While industry doesn’t have to worry about enforcement of environmental laws during the pandemic, in addition, so far, stimulus spending has favored fossil fuel industry and cut out renewable energy companies.
“There’s a whole lot happening here and none of it is really good,” said Skip Pruss, Northport resident, the former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, and clean energy advocate. “The administration is undermining things in a number of ways.”
Through the stimulus package that was meant to save the economy and small businesses amid the crisis the Trump administration has pursued its agenda of propping up fossil fuel companies and punishing renewable energy, he said, even as some of the country’s largest corporations have recognized that clean energy makes economic sense.
“We have a failing fossil fuel industry. The price of oil is falling dramatically and what are we doing? We’re trying to subsidize this failing industry,” Pruss said.
FOCUSING ON A SINGLE WATERSHED
While some are focused on worldwide or regional concerns, Christine Crissman, executive director of the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, has focused her attention on how lax enforcement of environmental law could harm water quality in Grand Traverse Bay.
Crissman said Watershed Center is monitoring water discharge permits in the region because permit holders can now file a waiver with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy that would exempt them from being required to monitor discharges into the watershed to ensure they comply with permit requirements.
“What it basically would mean is, if we want to show that there still an environmental impact if the owner of the site doesn’t have to do their own monitoring, then we might have to do that monitoring for them,” she said.
So far, Crissman said, no permit holders in the watershed have applied for permit waivers.
But even that doesn’t mean that permit holders — anyone who discharges into the bay, directly or indirectly — haven’t gotten lax about meeting their permit requirements because state regulators are not paying attention.
“Folks could still be not complying, even if they haven’t applied for the waiver from the state,” Crissman said. “We had an email from the EGLE person that said that, basically, they have the expectation that permit requirements are being followed — but they’re not going to be doing enforcement.”
Another area of concern for the Watershed Center is the loosening of requirements for shoreline landowners who want to build a break wall or some other barrier to stave off the record high water levels that are expected this summer.
Crissman said the state will see a massive transformation of its shoreline over the next year and there will be little oversight.
“My understanding is pretty much in the first half of this year they will have more permits to harden shoreline than they had all of last year,” she said. “We’ve seen some things that have been installed [on shores] that have already broken up, just from not being installed properly.”
What’s more, Crissman said, is that the already streamlined permitting process for shoreline hardening has gotten even easier since state regulators stopped performing site inspections in the face of the coronavirus.
Another potential impact from all of the shoring up of the shore is that in many cases, the measures only shift beach erosion from one property to a neighbor’s property, making it more likely the neighbor will seek a break wall permit as a result, accelerating the loss of natural shoreline in the state.
Crissman said she believes it’s a shame that all of this is happening because it’s mostly senseless.
“If you’re doing it now because you have erosion, it’s too late,” she said. “It totally changes the landscape. It’s going to change your neighbor’s property.”
KEEPING THE WATER FLOWING
If there could possibly be something good to all of this, Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW, said it’s that some water utilities across Michigan have stopped shutting off people’s water for lack of payment.
“It’s taken a global pandemic health crisis for the state of Michigan to open its eyes and recognize the harsh and inhumane consequences of water shutoff,” Kirkwood said. “I think the silver lining of this terrible public health crisis is that we have an awakening as to the vital role that water plays in our society and the obvious conclusion that water and clean health and access to clean water are inseparable.”
Water shutoffs have been an issue FLOW has fought for years. FLOW advocated for the Public Water Justice Act in 2018 in Michigan, legislation that would have charged 25 cents per gallon to a company like Nestle that currently takes water from Michigan for free.
The money would have been used for things like replacing lead drinking water pipes in places like Flint, contamination cleanup and a fund to ensure that water is affordable for all residents.
The legislation did not become law.
Kirkwood said if it had, it would have been a safeguard for the people in Michigan who today live with bad water or no water at all because their access has been turned off because they could not afford their water bill.
A pandemic, Kirkwood said, is not a good time to worry about access to safe water.
“If you can’t wash your hands, you can’t fight this disease,” she said. “It’s a really powerful way to think about natural resource protection and also water finance, which is just a huge, huge issue.”