michigan department of environmental quality

Environmental groups say a proposal from within state government to weaken Michigan’s toxic air pollutant guidelines would put public health at risk.

Michigan has some of the strictest guidelines in the nation when it comes to toxic air chemicals. It’s one of just nine states to regulate all potentially toxic emissions.

user c braun / flickr

State environmental officials have agreed to update air quality permits for two of the state’s biggest and most polluting industrial facilities.

Dearborn’s Marathon oil refinery and Dearborn’s Severstal steel plants have had trouble complying with their state permits in recent years.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality now agrees with the companies contention that some of the old standards were too strict. The updated permits relax some emissions rules, while strengthening others.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

If you’re a fly fisherman, there are few rivers this side of the Rocky Mountains that compare with Michigan’s Au Sable River. There’s a particular nine-mile stretch east of Grayling known as the Holy Waters.

The water is clean, cold, easy to wade through, and packed with more than 100 pounds of wild trout per acre.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

Two state lawmakers are calling on the US Environmental Protection Agency to step in and help regulate a Dearborn steel mill.

State Representatives Rashida Tlaib and George Darany say the state can no longer be trusted to oversee and enforce environmental laws against the Severstal steel facility.

NWF / screenshot from YouTube video

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Michigan's attorney general and chief environmental regulator have asked the company that owns two oil pipelines stretched beneath an ecologically sensitive area of the Great Lakes for evidence that the 61-year-old lines are properly maintained and in good condition.

Attorney General Bill Schuette and Dan Wyant, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, posed a lengthy series of questions and requested stacks of documentation in a letter sent Tuesday to Enbridge Inc. and made public Wednesday. They said the pipelines, which run beneath the Straits of Mackinac — the waterway linking Lakes Huron and Michigan — pose a unique safety risk.

"Because of where they are, any failure will have exceptional, indeed catastrophic effects," their letter said. "And because the magnitude of the resulting harm is so great, there is no margin for error. It is imperative we pursue a proactive, comprehensive approach to ensure this risk is minimized, and work together to prevent tragedy before it strikes."

Eusko Jaurlaritza / Flickr

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is proposing changes to their rules for oil and gas drilling in the state.

MDEQ leaders say they've had a successful record regulating the practice of hydraulic fracturing in the state for more than five decades, but new practices by the oil and gas industry are leading to the rule changes.

The industry's practice of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, known commonly as "fracking," has allowed companies to extract a lot more oil and gas from the ground.

Gas prices from the past at the shuttered Logan's Gas and Deli near Battle Creek.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Every time you fill up, you pay seven-eighths of a cent per gallon of gas for a “regulatory fee” that was originally set up to help clean up the thousands of old underground storage tanks in Michigan.

Those pennies you pay at the pump add up to a $50 million pot of money each year.

It’s called the Refined Petroleum Fund. The fund worked initially. The money helped remove tens of thousands of old underground storage tanks in Michigan. When those old tanks leak, they can pollute the soil and ruin nearby water sources.

Doc Searls / Creative Commons

An inland lake north of Muskegon that was once one of the most polluted places surrounding the Great Lakes is making big progress. Most of the pollution in White Lake was caused by a chemical company that dumped waste into the water decades ago.

Efforts to clean the leftover chemicals from the environment have been underway since the late 1980s.

A Dearborn steel plant wants the state to let it legally emit more air pollution, a prospect that doesn’t sit well with many of the people who live nearby.

The massive, 350-acre Severstal steel complex sits in a heavily industrial area along the Dearborn-Detroit border. It’s been cited 37 times for violating its current state air quality permit.

But Severstal thinks that permit was too strict. In its new permit application, the company wants the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to raise the emissions cap for a number of pollutants, including lead and carbon monoxide.

That angers many south Dearborn residents, like Norieah Ahmed. Speaking at a packed public hearing on the proposed new rules this week, Ahmed said her community already suffers from too much pollution.

“We cannot allow for an increase in permitted levels simply because Severstal once again can’t meet those standards,” Ahmed said.

Rachel Kramer / Creative Commons

It was a snowy January in Michigan; the snowiest on record for Flint and Detroit, according the the National Weather Service.

“We’ve had our fair share too, that’s for sure,” said Jared Sanders, assistant district supervisor of the Kalamazoo district’s water resources division. The division is a part of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.

I can vouch for it; huge piles of plowed snow are filling up the parking lots of many businesses here in Grand Rapids too.

Craig Ritter

In case you’re new in town, three and a half years ago an Enbridge pipeline broke, causing a huge oil spill near Marshall, Michigan.

The case of the mystery rocks

A couple of years ago, I met Craig Ritter while doing some reporting on the river cleanup.

He’s your typical, passionate, Michigan out-of-doors type.

He says he was out fishing last summer.

“I started noticing these weird formations that I’d never seen before,” Ritter said.

Nathan Sharkey / Creative Commons

Michigan has lost millions of acres of wetlands over the last century. But the state’s still got roughly five million acres left. 

“Wetlands are really, really important to clean water. They’ve been called nature’s nurseries and nature’s kidneys,” said Grenetta Thomassey, who heads Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - About three dozen local health departments and other agencies that usually receive state funding to monitor beach waters for contamination won't get any next year.

The funding comes from the federal government. Michigan will get $152,000 in 2014.

But a provision inserted into a state budget bill orders the Department of Environmental Quality to spend $100,000 of that money on one project in Macomb County.

Eusko Jaurlaritza / Flickr

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality proposed a list of new rules for hydraulic fracturing in the state — commonly known as fracking.

Fracking is a process where developers pump high-pressure streams of water and chemicals into a well to clear a path to hard-to-reach deposits of natural gas.

So just what are these proposed new rules? And what could they mean to the future of fracking in Michigan?

James Clift is the policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council. He joins us to discuss the new regulations.

Listen to the full interview above. 

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Forty years ago a chemical mix-up led to one of Michigan’s worst environmental tragedies, and it’s not over yet.

The mix-up occurred in early 1973 at the former Michigan Chemical Corporation plant (which later became the Velsicol Chemical Corporation) in St. Louis, Mich. The company accidentally shipped flame-retardant chemicals to livestock farms around the state.

Farmers thought they were getting a feed supplement. Instead, they were dosing their animals with the toxic chemical PBB.

The problem wasn’t discovered for another year -- and the chemicals were passed up the food chain to humans.

Enbridge Energy has until July 31st to submit a plan to resolve problems with its new oil pipeline. The line will span much of lower Michigan once completed. It’ll replace the one that burst in 2010, causing the oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality cited a dozen violations of the conditions of a water discharge permit.

MDEQ investigated the site in Livingston County’s Tyrone Township after a video surfaced online of reddish colored hydrostatic test water spewing into North Ore Creek.

MDEQ found Enbridge didn’t have someone on site overseeing the tests on the pipeline. Water sampling and testing wasn’t done as required. There was too much oil and grease discharged, among other issues.

Steven Davis, courtesy of Allegretti Architects

Over 70,000 acres of dunes are recognized as "critical dunes," out of the 275,000 acres of dunes in the state of Michigan.

In 1976, the Michigan Legislature created the Sand Dune Protection and Management Act.

A small book was published this summer by the Michigan Department for Environmental Quality illustrating ways to safely build homes in these critical dune areas.

MDEQ teamed up with an organization called Preserve the Dunes.

Preserve the Dunes is a non-profit that was started in 1997 in Van Buren and Berrien Counties. The group has sponsored two competitions recognizing homes built in critical dune areas. Critical Dunes Residential Design Awards were awarded in 2006 and again in 2012. 

User: Brother O'Mara / Flickr

Childhood poverty rate high in Michigan

This year’s Kids Count report from the Michigan League for Public Policy and the Annie E. Casey Foundation says Michigan ranks 31st nationwide for overall child well-being. Michigan League for Public Policy President Gilda Jacobs told Michigan Radio's Jake Neher that state lawmakers should restore Michigan’s tax credits for low-income families and ease restrictions on welfare cash assistance.

Possible changes in home foreclosure rules

Legislation in Lansing could change home foreclosure rules in Michigan. Currently, after a foreclosure, homeowners get six months after it gets sold at auction to regain the property. Under the proposed changes, a homeowner would lose that redemption period if the house is damaged. The idea is to stop homeowners going through foreclosure from damaging the home.

Neeta Delaney, director of the Michigan Foreclosure Task Force, told Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith she worries the provision would only make the foreclosure process more contentious.

Michigan beachgoers lost 755 days of water access

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's annual beach quality report says Michigan beachgoers lost 755 days of water access in 2012 because of pollution. The most common cause for beach closings was the presence of bacteria from human or animal feces. Altogether, 166 beaches were closed for a total of 755 days in 2012. That's down from 913 days  in 2011.

IRONWOOD, Mich. (AP) - The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has tentatively approved the last major permit needed for construction of a copper and silver mine in the western Upper Peninsula.

The permit deals with protection of wetlands, inland lakes and streams. It will become final after being signed by Orvana Minerals Corp. and state officials.

In 2007, Logan's Gas and Deli lost 8,000 gallons of gas underground. The owners walked away, and the state is still cleaning up the mess.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

There are around 4,800 gas stations in Michigan, but at one time, there were a lot more. It seemed like just about every corner had a gas station on it.

Many of those gas stations are closed now, but taxpayers are often on the hook for what’s been left behind.

I visited one of these polluted sites recently with representatives from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). The heavy traffic along State Route 89 near Battle Creek makes it a perfect place for a gas station.

And for a long time, things were going well for Logan’s Gas and Deli.

Jim Wallace / flickr.com

The owners of the Ambassador Bridge are trying to renew an environmental permit for a proposed twin span.

The twin span idea has been rejected by both Governor Snyder and Canadian officials. They’ve already signed a deal to build a new bridge, the so-called New International Trade Crossing, further downriver.

Shawn Allee / The Environment Report

After years of back-and-forth between residents, regulators and Dow Chemical, a massive clean-up of contaminated soil in Midland is getting under way.

The state approved the cleanup plan today. It calls for soil testing on 1,400 properties. Officials are looking for dioxins. Those are byproducts of chemical manufacturing. The toxins have been linked to health problems, including cancer.

"After all the meetings I've attended over the years and everything, and being asked why's this taking so long and everything, it's nice to be able to tell somebody the actual clean-up is really being done," said Jim Sygo, deputy director of the Department of Environmental Quality.

The plan calls for removing and replacing soil contaminated with dioxin at levels above 250 parts per trillion.

Sygo says that's a level that studies have determined poses an unacceptable cancer risk.

Environmental groups say they think the number should be lower, and take into account health risks other than cancer.

Still, some are celebrating the milestone.

“If you know the history of the city of Midland, and how political this has been, and how much push-back there has been from city fathers, from the business community, from the Chamber of Commerce, from Dow Chemical, over decades, I think only then can you truly appreciate…this is significant progress for that community,” said Michelle Hurd Riddick of the Lone Tree Council.

Dow Chemical Co.'s plan to clean up sites with dioxin contamination near its Midland facility has been approved by Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality.

Back in February, Dow also offered a land purchase and relocation program to about 50 landowners living near the company's Michigan Operations manufacturing plant.

From a Dow press release:

Dow is offering this incentivized property purchase program to give property owners in the immediate area north and east of Michigan Operations...the option to move out of an industrial/commercial area to a residential area, if they so choose. The program will also offer relocation support for those who rent their homes, if the property owner participates in the program.

As the Environment Report's Rebecca Williams has reported, dioxins are a class of toxic chemicals that appear "in the environment as by-products of many industrial processes and some natural sources." The Environmental Protection Agency says dioxins are likely to cause cancer in humans.

-John Klein Wilson contributed to this report

Michigan DEQ

The cleanup of one of Michigan's environmental "Areas of Concern" (AOC)  is now a step closer to being finished.

White Lake in Muskegon County is one of 43 sites around the Great Lakes region (14 are in Michigan) that have been designated for special cleanup because of heavy pollution that impairs their use.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says White Lake has a history of contamination "with industrial discharges from leather processing and chemical companies."

World Resources Institute

Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – is a method of drilling for natural gas.  Drillers use fracking to get to the gas that’s trapped in tight shale rock formations below the water table.  Fracking pumps a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a well under high pressure to force open the rock and extract the gas. (You can check out this in-depth series by Michigan Watch's Lester Graham)

In Michigan, drillers have used the fracking method for more than 50 years and the state regulates the industry.  But they’ve been drilling vertical wells.

There’s been more interest lately in horizontal fracking – that’s where companies drill horizontally along the shale rock up to a mile or more.  That makes the well site much more productive.  It has lead to a boom in gas drilling and production and more jobs in some parts of the country.

But horizontal fracking also uses much more water. 

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regulates fracking.

I spoke with Brad Wurfel, the Communications Director for the DEQ.  You can listen to the interview above.

Q: So – let’s start with water use.  With the more traditional, vertical, fracking we’re talking about tens of thousands of gallons of water – horizontal fracking uses millions of gallons.  This is water that’s contaminated and cannot be used again. What kinds of studies are being done to ensure water supplies are adequate for horizontal fracking in Michigan?

Brad Wurfel: With horizontal fracturing, they’re tens of thousands of feet down under the ground. So it does require more water, but it also requires fewer wells. Every user who uses a lot of water has to register that use as part of their permitting process.  And if it looks like the water withdrawal proposal is going to harm the environment, that permit gets denied.  Or the company gets sent back to the drawing board to find a new way.

Q: What happens to the contaminated fracking fluid when it comes back out of the well?

A: It’s handled very carefully because in other states where the regulation hasn’t been as good, that’s been one of the key problems with hydraulic fracturing.  The amount of chemical that’s in that water is really small – it’s one half of one percent.  We require that operators use steel tanks to contain it and that it’s sent to a deep injection well for disposal.

Q: A recent article in the Battle Creek Enquirer quoted MDEQ geologist Michael Shelton, who said that 6.7 million gallons of water can be used in a single fracking well.  So – one half of one percent of 6 million gallons is still 30,000 gallons of chemicals.

A: Well, when you figure the dilution, it’s not an eminent threat to the environment. That said, when you combine it with the saline that comes back up, it does make it something that we want to handle very carefully, and we do.

Q: A 2011 Congressional report found these chemicals can range from things considered harmless like salt and citric acid to chemicals that can pose serious health risks.  Things like benzene, formaldehyde and lead.   But that report also found that many of the chemicals or the chemical mixes were listed as trade secrets. What does the DEQ require companies to disclose about the chemicals they use? 

A: We get Material Safety Data Sheets, and in the event there was ever a problem with a hydraulic fracture in the state of Michigan, every component used and its percentage would be disclosed immediately to emergency responders.  We haven’t ever had a situation where we’ve needed to use it.  That said, most of what’s in hydraulic fractures is under trade secret for the mix, not the actual chemicals.

Q: But companies can still protect the mixes of chemicals they consider trade secret, right?

A: That’s correct.

Q: So, if you suspect there’s water contamination at a well site, how will you know what chemicals to look for?

A: Well, those chemicals would be... present in the environment.  And we could obviously look at what was used there and see if it was evident in say, a water supply.  That’s a pretty big hypothetical.  We’ve been hearing a lot from folks who’ve got fears about what might happen.  And I can’t speak to what might happen.  I can speak to the fact that in 50 years and 12,000 wells around the state, we’ve never had to respond to an environmental emergency with hydraulic fracturing. It’s been done safely.

Orvana Minerals Corp.

IRONWOOD, Mich. (AP) - Michigan environmental regulators say they've approved plans for a copper and silver mine in the far western Upper Peninsula.

The Department of Environmental Quality said Monday it had determined that Orvana Resources U.S. Corp.'s application for a mining permit meets state mining standards.

The department in March gave tentative approval. The DEQ says it's still reviewing other related permits for the project including air emissions and water discharges.

Orvana is targeting 798 million pounds of copper and 3.5 million ounces of silver in an underground deposit near Ironwood.

Environmentalists have raised concerns about the company's plans to withdraw large volumes of Lake Superior water and discharge treated wastewater into a creek that feeds the lake. Company officials say a buffer zone will provide adequate protection.

(We are having problems with the "audio processing" file above. Please use the second link.)

In his second State of the State address, Governor Rick Snyder did not spend a lot of time talking about the environment. But he did say that agriculture, tourism, mining and the timber industry are key to the state’s future.

He also talked about his push to overhaul the state’s regulatory system.

“So far we’ve rescinded nearly 400 obsolete, confusing and burdensome regulations.”

Now... those 400 regulations are not all environmental. But Governor Snyder did call out one set of rules that was on the books.

“The Department of Environmental Quality has 28 separate requirements for outhouses, including a requirement that the seat not be left up.”

The governor got big laughs - it was the best punch line of the evening. But of course, there’s a serious undertone to the Governor’s plans for overhauling the way the state regulates businesses.

As the year winds down, we’re spending some time this week on The Environment Report taking a look at the state of our environment. On Thursday, we’ll hear from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters on just how well they think Governor Snyder has been protecting Michigan’s natural resources. But, first, today, we speak with the man whose job it is to keep your environment healthy. That would be Dan Wyant, Director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Cutting the DEQ’s Budget

I first asked Wyant about his department’s budget. It’s been cut and cut over the past decade; just this year alone it saw a 15 percent cut. The cuts do have an impact, says Wyant, but, “it’s forced [the department] to prioritize… think about what we want to accomplish. So, we’re focused around air quality and water quality and public health… and I think we can say, with some confidence, that we are seeing more environmental stewardship, not less.”

Economic Development

Governor Snyder has said one of the goals for the DEQ is for the department to be a part of Michigan’s economic development. Both Snyder and Wyant believe the DEQ has a role in the state’s recovery. “We know that it’s our role to ensure good environmental stewardship – that’s why we were created and that’s our job,” notes Wyant. But, he also says he thinks there are certain things the department can do to help businesses grow in the state. “We want to be recognizing permit timing so that businesses can get timely decisions and… we’re looking at old and antiquated, duplicates of regulation... and we want to address culture. We want to be a department of problem solvers. It doesn’t mean that we don’t wear the black hats and that we don’t have to tell people they can’t do things… but we really want to be a full partner with those that do business,” Wyant says.

Working with Lawmakers

Director Wyant was appointed by Republican Governor Snyder but he, also, works closely with the state legislature.  The GOP majorities in both the state House and Senate sometimes disagree with both Wyant and Snyder about certain environmental issues.  One such issue is wetlands protection. Wyant says he and the Governor will continue to push the legislature to keep the wetlands program. “The Snyder Administration and myself have been advocating very strongly to keep the program… We think the resource is really important for water quality, it’s very important for habitat and natural resources." And, he notes, he thinks he and the governor now have a majority of lawmakers believing that the program should be saved.

Looking to 2012

Wyant says the goal for 2012 will be focusing on one of the Governor’s favorite phrases, “Relentless Positive Action.” “We do that”, Wyant says, by, “encouraging more environmental stewardship – not less. We want to see Michigan’s economy recover – we think that’s good for the environment. And, lastly, the governor is very focused on customer service – our customers are the citizens of Michigan.”

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

 The EPA this week gave approval to Enbridge Energy’s plans for continuing its cleanup of an oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.    The plan suggests major cleanup operations may change next year.  

More than 840 thousand gallons of crude oil spewed from a broken pipeline near Marshall in July, 2010.   The exact amount remains in dispute.     

Hundreds of workers have spent the past 17 months removing the oil from the river.    

Democrats at the state capital are calling for a two-year moratorium on a procedure used to extract hard-to-reach oil and gas deposits.

They are taking aim at a process called hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – where water, sand, and chemicals are sent down a well to loosen stubborn pockets of gas and oil.

Here's a demo of how it works from Chesapeake Energy:

Critics say it has caused pollution and dried-up water wells in other states.

State Representative Jeff Irwin thinks the procedure needs to be more tightly regulated as it becomes more common in Michigan.

He said more study is needed on the potential effects of deep-rock fracking on the world’s largest supply of fresh water.

“We have a tremendous amount to protect here in Michigan with our surface waters and our Great Lakes,” Irwin said. “When you think about what makes Michigan a special place to be, it’s really our water. It’s the one thing that we have that makes us unique over and above anyplace in the world. We have the best water resources in the world.”

Irwin said new rules should include limits on groundwater withdrawals and full disclosure of all chemicals used.

Brad Wurfel with the state Department of Environmental Quality said Michigan has some of the strictest fracking regulations in the country, and that the process has been safely used in the state's shallow rock for decades.

“If you look around the state, you’ll see where oil and gas producers over the past 60 years have fracked probably on the order of around 12,000 wells,” said Wurfel.

Wurfel said the state updated its drilling regulations in May to address hydro-fracking deeper into the rock.

EPA website

Two of Michigan's "Areas of Concern," heavily polluted sites around the Great Lakes region, have seen recent progress in terms of cleanup. This according to state environmental regulators.

The Associated Press reports:

The U.S. and Canada designated 43 toxic hot spots in the region in the late 1980s. Among them are Muskegon Lake and the Upper Peninsula's Deer Lake.

Among the problems that put Deer Lake on the list were deformities or reproductive problems for wildlife. Another was excessive algae.

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