June 15, 2012

Dirty Air + Contaminated Water = Glowing Enviro Endorsements in One Michigan County

by P.D. Lesko

“John Hieftje has the strongest environmental record of any Mayor in the Midwest. He’s championed the city’s Greenbelt, the clean energy initiative, commuter rail, bicycling and our terrific parks system. These programs set Ann Arbor apart. John’s leadership has set the standard for progressive mayors everywhere.”

—Mike Garfield, Environmental Activist

So why has the Michigan Sierra Club, for almost a decade, stubbornly refused to endorse the politico who “sets the standard for progressive mayors everywhere, and has the strongest environmental record of any Mayor in the Midwest?” The spin from Hieftje and his supporters is that the Michigan Sierra Club endorsement is withheld because of petty jealousies between Hieftje and members of the local chapter of the state Sierra Club.

The real reason may this: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data and analysis reveal that the air and water in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw county are dirty. Really dirty. In fact, Washtenaw county and Ann Arbor have some of the dirtiest air and water in the state of Michigan, according to the EPA. Ann Arbor has been singled out by the EPA for its failure to meet federal clean air standards since 2005. Add to this the fact that over the past decade miles driven within Ann Arbor rose by a whopping 47,481,632, and well, suddenly the refusal of the Michigan Sierra Club to endorse Hieftje looks less about a personality conflict and more about the Sierra Club having standards. The EPA data also raise questions about the Michigan enviro groups who have given Hieftje and his local, county and state political cronies awards and endorsements over the past decade.

Michael Garfield is the Executive director of the Ecology Center (which in turn controls Recycle Ann Arbor). Lisa Wozniak is the Executive Director of the tiny Michigan League of Conservation Voters. Former Ann Arbor City Council member and state politico Chris Kolb heads the Michigan Environmental Council, a statewide coalition of 70 environmental, public health and faith-based nonprofit groups. Laura Rubin leads the Huron River Watershed Council.

Each of them is involved in a tangled web of campaign donations, political appointments, public money and endorsements. The voting public is led to believe that Michigan enviro-endorsements doled out locally reflect progressive politics and environmentalism. If the EPA data are any indication, enviro-endorsements by the Huron River Watershed Council, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the Michigan Environmental Council, as well as the Ecology Center, have little to do with the actual health of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw county’s air and water.

According to officials in the Washtenaw County Department of Environmental Health, the county has no comprehensive surface water monitoring program. There’s no money to do it, county officials claim. Yet, in 2009 the county received part of a $1.7 million dollar grant from the EPA to the state to be used for water management programs. The Huron River Watershed Council received over $185,000 of the total $1.7 million dollar grant from the EPA. In bordering Wayne County, the Water Quality Management Group provides water resource management to that county’s municipalities. In Oakland County, the Health Division regularly monitors surface water.

The lack of a comprehensive and strategic program greatly inhibits the overall assessment of water quality in Washtenaw County.

According to data compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the county’s water sources contain over twice the number of contaminants found in water sources state-wide, starting with a 1,4 dioxane plume that is creeping toward the Huron River. According to the city of Ann Arbor web site, “Laboratory studies show that exposure to 1,4 dioxane over a lifetime causes cancer in animals. 1,4 dioxane may likewise cause cancer in humans. Laboratory studies show that repeat exposure to large amounts of 1,4 dioxane in drinking water, in air, or on the skin causes liver and kidney damage in animals.” Data gathered by the state and the EPA reveal that Washtenaw County, including Ann Arbor, has one of the most impaired watersheds in Michigan, with 15.3 percent of the total surface water not meeting Clean Water Act standards. In Wayne County, one of the dirtiest counties in the country according to the EPA, 17.22 percent of all surface water fails to meet Clean Water Act standards.

Washtenaw county’s lack of a comprehensive and strategic surface water monitoring program makes it much easier for the Michigan environmental groups referred to above to be used as environmental shills, providing political endorsements to a tight-knit group of local, county, state and national politicos even while Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County’s air and water quality standards, as documented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, failed to meet national standards year after year over the past decade.

Between 2005-2012, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County have been on the EPA’s list of state areas defined as “nonattainment” with respect to air quality standards tracked and measured by the organization. In fact, Washtenaw county’s air pollution is so pervasive it has been identified by the EPA for contributing to the poor air and water quality in neighboring Wayne County.

In May 2011, a piece in Forbes by writer Kai Petainen, a local who pens a column for the mag., addressed the green elephant in the living room:

After losing the local paper newspaper, environmental issues in Ann Arbor get very little press, and are sometimes narrowed down to a paragraph or two.  Stereotypes about a city can be rather misleading.  Ann Arbor is supposedly known for environmentalism, but it doesn’t take long to find a town that is not known for its environmentalism, doing much more with alternative energy than Ann Arbor.  When one drives to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, a first impression of the city can be one of steel plants and paper mills.  Drive outside and around the city, and one finds a number of alternative energy sources.  It doesn’t take long to notice that the Soo is becoming a hot place for clean energy, as it has large-scale wind and solar power facilities, a hydro plant and progress on biomass power.

Petainen then goes on to write about the green elephant in the aquifer:

Does Ann Arbor have any other pollution issues?  Yes. Although I focused in on a smaller unsolved spill, Ann Arbor has a much larger ‘spill.’  There is a 1,4 dioxane plume that has entered the groundwater and residents are clearly upset with the cleanup effort.

So guess who wouldn’t talk to Petainen about the 1,4 dioxane plume? “I was unable to get a comment from Pall Corporation, or the Huron River Watershed Council (a “Coalition of governments, businesses, and volunteers dedicated to protecting, sustaining, and rehabilitating the Huron River system.)”

In 2006, 2008 and 2010, while the Ecology Center’s Michael Garfield trumpted Hieftje as having “the strongest environmental record of any Mayor in the Midwest,” the city completely failed to meet national PM-2.5 air quality standards. According to the EPA:

Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. Particles can be suspended in the air for long periods of time. Some particles are large or dark enough to be seen as soot or smoke. Others are so small that individually they can only be detected with an electron microscope.

Many manmade and natural sources emit PM directly or emit other pollutants that react in the atmosphere to form PM. These solid and liquid particles come in a wide range of sizes.

Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as “fine” particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.

In 2008, when Wozniak’s League of Conservation Voters awarded Hieftje an “Environmental Leadership Award” for his environmental achievements, the city was on the EPA’s list of areas nation-wide where air quality was classified as “nonattainment.” Nonattainment areas are where residents are at the greatest health risk thanks to “fine” particles in the air. In that same year, the city also made the EPA’s list for areas that failed to meet the agency’s 8-Hour Ozone standards, as well. Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County were number 6 the list of Michigan counties where a large percentage of surface water sources failed to meet federal Clean Water Act standards.

In 2010, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters endorsed local political Democratic insiders including then state representative Rebekah Warren, Ned Staebler, Hieftje and Christine Green, a candidate for the 52nd District state seat that went to Republican Mark Ouimet. The group also endorsed Republican Rick Snyder.

A look at the Board of Directors of Ecology Center, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the Huron River Watershed Council and the Michigan Environmental Council, and it becomes clear that there is a tangled web of influence that reaches from Ann Arbor to Lansing and back again—influence that has been used to bestow awards and green cred on local politicos whose environmental records include EPA warnings of consistently poor air and water quality.

For example, Chris Kolb, Executive Director of the Michigan Environmental Council, sits on the board of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. Lisa Wozniak, Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, sits on the Board of the Huron River Watershed Council. Wozniak also sits on the Board of Kolb’s Michigan Environmental Council. 2010 State House candidate Christine Green, who scored an endorsement from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, serves as an at-large member of the Michigan Environmental Council Board. She also sits on the Board of Michael Garfield’s Ann Arbor Ecology Center. Phil Roos, an Ann Arborite, sits on the Boards of both the Michigan Environmental Council and the Board of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. Hieftje sat on the Board of Garfield’s Recycle Ann Arbor, as well as Rubin’s Huron River Watershed Council.

Between 2006 and 2010 these enviro groups and “environmental activists” have given the Green Thumb’s up to local politicos who tried to sell parkland, and went on to try to lease river front acreage for use as a construction site for a 1,000 car parking garage. During Michigan’s “Greenest mayor’s” years in office, Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) for the City of Ann Arbor increased by 9.8 percent from 2000 to 2010, from an estimated 481,607,203 miles to 529,238,685, according to data compiled by WATS.

As with Hieftje and his political cronies, Rep. Dingell has found The Sierra Club endorsement virtually impossible to land.

Nonetheless, Michigan-based enviro groups controlled by Ann Arborites have stepped in to fill the void for a Congressman who has been called an “environmental demon.” Chris Kolb recently penned a treacly endorsement of Rep. John Dingell’s environmental “achievements.” Lisa Wozniak was on hand to laud Mr. Dingell Environmentalist when he kicked off his 2012 re-election campaign. Never mind that when Rep. Dingell was ousted from his chairmanship of the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce, progressive media outlet Mother Jones cheered. ”Huge news. Great news. Michigan Representative John Dingell, who has spent over 50 years in the House of Representatives being the auto industry’s babysitter, has lost his position as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to the younger and more liberal Henry Waxman.”

EPA data reveal Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County have seriously and chronically dirty air, contaminated surface and underground water sources. Yet, Michigan and Ann Arbor enviro groups and their leaders continue to bestow glowing endorsements on the same tight-knit group of local, county, state and national politicos who run as “environmentalists.” The Gospel according to the EPA is that Garfield’s “strongest environmental record of any Mayor in the Midwest” has in reality accomplished little, according to EPA data from the past decade, to clean up our county’s air and remediate surface and water table water contamination. Hieftje, however, is far from alone in his abuse of the title “environmentalist.”

In the movie classic “The Godfather,” an undertaker aptly named Bonasera comes to Don Vito Corleone and asks a favor, murder, as payback for the brutal beating of his daughter during an attempted rape. The Don grants the man’s request, in part, with this caveat: “Good. Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me.” Of course that day comes. It always comes. The chance for local and state enviro groups and their leaders to “do a service” for their Dons will come sooner rather than later—first we’ll see a new batch of enviro endorsements just in time for the August Democratic primary election, and then again in November. 

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