On this, the 46th Earth Day, I have reflected on both how far we have come and how much further we have to go. Certainly, our waters and air are cleaner than they were in 1970. Our energy and cars are cleaner as well. However, the environmental challenges our society now faces are more complex and more granular and, therefore, harder to “solve.” Think about algae in Lake Erie and invasive species throughout our lakes and lands – those are much harder to deal with than a handful of industrial polluters.
Given the events of the last year in Flint, Michigan has become the country’s “canary in a coal mine” with respect to lead. More people are talking about lead and know about it than literally ever before. When John Oliver spends 18 minutes on it on HBO, you know it is permeating the nation’s consciousness. In some cases, it is possible we are focusing too much on water and not enough on paint and dust. Despite the political posturing and the recent criminal charges, I do expect that the politicians and regulators will, in the near term, step up and we will see greater action on lead removal and protection. Unfortunately, that has been the pattern – major environmental problems result in new environmental initiatives.
Unfortunately, the Flint crisis is likely to delay, perhaps indefinitely, the State’s efforts on developing a Michigan energy policy and, despite his recent letter to State employees, regulatory paralysis will likely reign in Lansing. It is difficult to see State agency employees taking anything other than the most conservative of positions to avoid falling prey to the kinds of problems that occurred in and from the Flint crisis – criminal charges have a way of focusing the mind.
The lack of: (i) an energy policy; (ii) a current solid waste policy; and (iii) a fully funded sustainable program to support brownfield redevelopment (although long promised legislation on brownfield incentives was recently introduced) coupled with the greater focus on petroleum transport via pipeline, particularly, under the Great Lakes, makes me wonder how things will look here in Michigan on the next Earth Day. Michiganders have always had a healthy respect for our environment – we were among the first in the nation to protect wetlands and waters – the 1950’s vintage easement on pipeline 5 under the straights of Mackinac was cutting edge in its time. Will Michigan resume its previous environmental leadership or will we continue to struggle as we have for the last few years? Being in a negative national spotlight is not something any of us sought but now that we’re here – perhaps it is time to step up and take a leadership role on the environment as we once did. It will cost money and effort but the results – our health and the health of the environment are worth it.