Environmental cuts could hobble Pure Michigan

Torch Lake

TORCH LAKE: Contamination along part of Torch Lake, on the Keweenaw Peninsula, has declined with federal funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Continued cleanup is endangered because funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was eliminated in a budget proposed by President Donald Trump. (Photo by H.G. Judd, via Wikimedia Commons).

Office of the Great Lakes report cover

OFFICE OF THE GREAT LAKES: Half of the employees of the office that serves as the primary state-run policy and strategy shop for the Great Lakes could be laid off. An estimated 10 of the department’s 20 staffers are funded by a federal program proposed for elimination.

Kalamazoo River

KALAMAZOO RIVER: Work on the Kalamazoo River, listed as an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site since 1990, is set to continue if federal funds are still available. Work along the river is funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, proposed to be eliminated, and federal Superfund dollars, slated for significant cuts. (Photo by Terry Johnston via Wikimedia Commons)

Cisco fish

CISCO RESTORATION IN LAKE MICHIGAN: Cisco were once the primary prey fish in the Great Lakes. A research project to restore the fish to Lake Michigan is underway as part of the Michigan Sea Grant program, which funds research, education and outreach through Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.

Rock Tenn Paper Mill

OTSEGO: The site of the former Rock-Tenn paper mill in Ostego is one of about 7,000 polluted sites around the state identified by the Department of Environmental Quality. Cleanup has been funded in part by the Clean Michigan Initiative, but that fund is now depleted. (Photo from MLive)

Rouge River

ROUGE RIVER: A $6.5 million project to restore habitat and reconnect tributaries near the Henry Ford Estate Dam would likely be put on hold if the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is zeroed out of the federal budget, as it is in the current budget proposal made by President Trump.

Port of Monroe

PORT OF MONROE: A dredging project at the Port of Monroe will allow larger cargo ships to use the port. Money to dispose properly of the dredged material came in part from the Clean Michigan Initiative, a state fund that ends this year without legislators replacing the $15 million the fund dispersed annually.

Environmental projects from the Lake Erie shores of Monroe to the Manistique River in the Upper Peninsula are threatened by proposed state and federal budget cuts.

The federal budget proposed by President Donald Trump eliminates funding for Great Lakes restoration work, while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality could lose as much as $40 million between cuts in state and federal funds in 2018 compared to 2017 – cuts that could curb inspection and cleanup of toxic sites.

If the proposed cuts at the state and federal level are approved, “it means that a lot of programs geared toward protecting public health and the environment will not be funded,” said Charlotte Jameson, government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “We will see a decrease in enforcement of current standards and an even more ineffective Department of Environmental Quality, which is problematic.”

More coverage: Message in a bottle: A Flint video story

The current proposed state budget for fiscal year 2018, which emerged from a Senate and House conference committee and was passed by the House Tuesday, cuts $9.5 million from the Department of Environmental Quality’s current $516 million budget. That’s about a 2 percent cut.

Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Allegan, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the DEQ budget, said the DEQ budget is “flat,” and that the Legislature is being responsible with taxpayer’s money. “We’re doing our best,” Whiteford said. “My job is just to make sure that work is being done and taxpayer money is being spent effectively for those purposes.”

A 2-percent cut in funding sounds minor. The real decrease, however, is likely to be much larger. The DEQ budget includes millions of federal dollars funneled through the state to be used for oversight of various federal environmental regulations.

In the 2018 budget, Michigan lawmakers assumed the federal government would pump another $31 million into the state’s DEQ in 2018 than it did in 2017. That’s unlikely considering that Trump’s proposed federal budget calls for a 45 percent decrease in federal money given to states for various environmental programs.

Take away that rosy assumption, and the DEQ budget suddenly drops by not $9.5 million, but closer to $40 million.

Polling conducted in 2016 by The Center for Michigan, the parent organization of Bridge Magazine, found that 90 percent of those polled considered protection of the environment to be crucial or important, but 55 percent had little confidence in the state’s ability to do that. Those concerns cut across every age group, race and income level.

More than 30 percent of the MDEQ budget comes from federal funding. The MDEQ receives 80 to100 federal grants each year with a majority of the federal funding going directly to local communities for water infrastructure and environmental protection activities, according to Melody Kindraka, public information officer for the department. Federal funding also pays the salaries of 200 employees responsible for implementing air, land, and water quality efforts.

“While the current proposed federal budget could mean staffing and programmatic cuts, it is far too early in the process to speculate on specific impacts,” Kindraka said.

Environmental advocates, though, aren’t shy about warning of the impact of impending cuts. The Michigan Environmental Council and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters released a report last week detailing potential cuts.

Environmental efforts that these groups say could face cutbacks include:

Waterway restoration

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative provides federal funding for projects that protect and improve the Great Lakes and inland lakes and rivers. It’s a big deal. To get an idea how important the program has been for Michigan, take a look at this map:

Great Lakes Restoration Map

You can see a list of individual projects here.

The presidential administration’s budget eliminates the program, which has provided $2.2 billion in funding for environmental projects in Great Lakes states since 2010. A dozen Michigan projects were set to begin or continue GLRI-funded restoration. Some examples: reconnecting the Rouge River to tributaries; continued PCB cleanup in the sediment along the Kalamazoo River; and removal of toxic sediment from old industrial sites along the Manistique River in the Upper Peninsula.

“The DEQ has told me they are not backfilling jobs because they don’t know if programs are going to be here next year,” said Jameson, of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “Even in areas where we need more staff, it’s not happening.”

Great Lakes research

The proposed federal budget also eliminates the Sea Grant program, which funds research on the Great Lakes at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. One example of Sea Grant research: an attempt to repopulate Cisco, also known as Lake Herring, once the Great Lakes’ primary prey fish, into Lake Michigan.

The federal program has funded research in Michigan for almost 50 years.

Toxic cleanup

The Clean Michigan Initiative  provided money for inspection and cleanup of potentially polluted land such as abandoned factories, gas stations and dry cleaners. James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, said there are about 7,000 sites across the state identified as potentially hazardous.

One example ‒ the former Rock-Tenn paper mill in Otsego, in Allegan County, where Clean Michigan Initiative funding has helped pay for cleanup.  Only about 1,000 of the 7,000 sites have been examined in recent years, Clift said, and about 10 percent of those were found to pose immediate risk.

The remaining 6,000 “have been ignored for 10 to 20 years,” Clift said.  “If the numbers hold true, there are hundreds of those sites that pose a significant risk to public health.”

The inspection program, already “reactive to complaints rather than proactively looking to see if they’re posing a risk,” has run out of money. The Clean Michigan Initiative was created in 1998 and was funded through a $675 million bond issue in 1998. That bond money has dried up, and the 2018 budget contains no replacement money. Gov. Rick Snyder had asked that $15 million be transferred from another fund, but the Legislature disagreed.

Funding will remain for inspections and cleanup of old petroleum tanks. But non-petroleum sites, such as old industrial plants and dry cleaning facilities, will likely drop off the state’s radar.

“We have no money for non-tank sites,” Clift said. “There’s a gap with no plan to fill it. Basically, they’ve decided this is not an emergency.”

Whiteford, the chair of the House subcommittee overseeing the DEQ budget, disagrees.

“I think the department is doing a good job with contamination as they find it,” she said.

But will they be able to find contamination with less money and fewer employees, wonders Julie Metty Bennett, senior vice president at Public Sector Consultants, who helped prepare the environmental program budget analysis released recently by environmental groups (Disclosure: The Center for Michigan is a PSC client). “There’s a major infrastructure problem in the state screaming for investment, and a lot of it is water-related,” Bennett said. “It’s surprising the Legislature would be talking about cuts.”

Cutting environmental protection efforts, on the heels of the Flint water crisis, isn’t being responsive to the public, argues Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, who serves on the subcommittee chaired by Whiteford. “We’re the Great Lakes State,” Rabhi said. “We care about our environment. It’s in our blood. We need to make sure the government is reflecting our values in its priorities.”

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Thu, 06/22/2017 - 10:16am

The pie is only so big. At the federal level, we have to borrow 40% of every dollar we spend. Just look at the shape Illinois is in to understand that our current trajectory is not sustainable (Illinois does not have enough money to pay their lottery winners and will soon cease lottery operations).

So the choices become either bigly increase revenue, or bigly decrease spending, or some combination of both. Everyone screams when their ox is gored. Politicians can not stand a screaming electorate. What would you do given that we must do more to make revenues closer to expenses or vice-versa. (Hint: Don't say tax the rich or tax the 1%. You could tax them at 100% and it would not make a dent in the gap between expenses and revenues)

J Hendricks
Thu, 06/22/2017 - 11:24am

Prioritize. Clean up toxics and invasive species. The rest are a lot of expendable bureaucracy. Simple economics will take care of wetlands.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 06/22/2017 - 2:15pm

There is one important question that deserves to be asked of Mr. French, no make that any writer here on The Bridge in the future, who makes the suggestion that the government write a blank check for the author's favorite wish list item: Does the government ACTUALLY have the authority to spend any money in that particular area?

I'm not sure if people have forgotten their basic American Civics from either Jr. High or High School, or if they have been taken in by the constant hype (from "both" parties actually), that the government is some endless source of money just waiting to be doled out by the next politician looking to crank out another press release, attend another media grip-and-grin event or both.

I would challenge those very same people looking for their cause(s) benefactor to cite the relevant portion of either the American or Michigan Constitution as part of their argument.

Not wanting to get too far of topic, there is authority for this story in one of them. I'll challenge readers of this comment (will that be you, Mr. French?) to not only select the correct one, but cite exactly where it is located.

Several years ago, I remember asking my non-representing representatives who tried to pass themselves of as my elected representatives to do just that; cite the relevant portion to support their latest mailing within their district.

The answer that I always received if I asked had the opportunity to speak to them directly was that their office would get back to me. More often than not, I didn't have that opportunity, and their staff would just take down my inquiry and "promised" me that they would respond. For the record, none of them ever did.

At the very least, this would greatly bolster the authors argument whenever they make their plea for more money for fill-in-the-blank.

After all, if you're going to try to convince people why the government should be giving your cause some money, they absolute least you can do is to see if it is something the government actually can do.

Jim tomlinson
Sun, 06/25/2017 - 3:40pm

Another eltist angry neo con. Taxing the wealthy at ike levels would generate the dollars. The constitution does say provide for the general welfare thAt includes man made poison. Weary of anti govt rebels. I happen to love/care for American govt. neo conservatism threatens all of our 270 yeAr old institutions many have died for. Man post then you can commence with weak anti govt lectures

Michigan Observer
Thu, 06/22/2017 - 3:19pm

Mr. French says that Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor argues that "Cutting environmental protection efforts, on the heels of the Flint water crisis, isn’t being responsive to the public, " and quotes him as saying, " “We’re the Great Lakes State, We care about our environment. It’s in our blood. We need to make sure the government is reflecting our values in its priorities.” Does the Representative have any evidence to support that?

British economist Paul Ormerod recently contrasted the results of surveys showing support for nationalizing rail with the preferences of British commuters for private ownership. He says, "The fact is that for a number of years there has been strong and consistent support in surveys for taking industries such as rail into public ownership." But he goes on to say that commuters actual behavior during periods of public and private ownership demonstrates their preference for private ownership. He goes on to say, "Economists are pretty dismissive of the results of surveys about hypothetical situations or choices. A key foundation of economic theory is the concept of revealed preference, to use the jargon phrase. Individuals are assumed to have reasonably stable tastes and preferences. These preferences are revealed not through answers to hypothetical questions, but through how they actually respond to changes in the set of incentives which they face." In other words, talk is extremely inexpensive. As he says, "Rather like a good Party member in George Orwell’s book 1984, the electorate seems capable of believing two contradictory things at the same time. " That says troubling things about the value of the Center for Michigan's polls and listening tours.

There is no doubt that the environment is extremely important. But, then, so is infrastructure and education. It is extremely unlikely that Michigan taxpayers are going to make the necessary investment in infrastructure, let alone all three. But perhaps the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and the Michigan Environmental Council can mobilize their members to support raising the taxes required to protect the environment. After all, "90 percent of those polled considered protection of the environment to be crucial or important, but 55 percent had little confidence in the state’s ability to do that. " Let's not forget that, ultimately, the citizens are the state; if enough of them want something badly enough, they can accomplish it. But perhaps they don't want it that badly. Perhaps they only want a clean, pure environment if the rest of the country picks up three-quarters of the tab through the federal government.