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At Home and in Washington, New Leadership Emerges

May 1, 1999 | By Arlin Wasserman
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In the 1970s concerned citizens in northern Michigan rallied public opinion to keep oil drilling out of two-thirds of the Pigeon River State Forest, one of the state's largest and most impressive natural areas. Even though it was Michigan's most contentious environmental conflict at the time, most citizens and the oil industry now view it as a national success story.

The Pigeon River outcome gave rise in 1995 to a new statewide alliance to strengthen oversight of oil and gas development. The Michigan Energy Reform Coalition, made up of 30 local governments and organizations, has persistently pressed for comprehensive planning and the protection of public health and sensitive natural areas.

Managed by the Institute and representing more than 200,000 state residents, MERC has charted fresh ways to tackle long-standing issues. It's revived the spirit of the Pigeon River accord and spread it to kitchen tables and town halls across the North Woods, catching the eye of lawmakers in Lansing along the way.

The ongoing results are impressive. Last summer state legislators enacted several new reform laws, and the Department of Natural Resources stepped up its efforts to ensure the energy industry pays its fair share for drilling on state-owned lands.

In the past year public activism has intensified, as citizens forged past formidable obstacles determined to protect their health, safety, property values, and environment. Four current cases are profiled here.



Bill in Congress Would Protect Great Lakes

Bart Stupak

In March Congressman Bart Stupak (D-Menominee) raised the stakes in the struggle for control over oil and gas development beneath the Great Lakes and introduced legislation to ban any new wells along the shoreline. “I’ve seen inconsistent policies from the DEQ and DNR,” said Rep. Stupak. “Their arguments against my legislation show a total lack of sensitivity to the overall impact on Michigan’s environment and its people.”

Rep. Stupak’s bill comes amid the state’s effort to appear sympathetic to public concerns about drilling beneath the Great Lakes while appeasing the oil and gas industry.

Before the 1998 campaign season, Gov. John Engler asked the Michigan Environmental Science Board to investigate the safety of “directional” drilling beneath the lakes. The Science Board found that existing state oversight programs failed to address the considerable risks posed to sensitive shoreline environments. It recommended that the departments of natural resources and environmental quality (DNR/DEQ) join with local governments and the public to develop a comprehensive plan for managing oil and gas drilling along the coast.

Gov. Engler and both agencies publicly embraced the Science Board’s report, but have since declined to follow through with most of its recommendations.

In fact, last December the Chief of the DEQ Geological Survey Division, Harold Fitch, traveled to Salt Lake City and gained a formal resolution of support for Great Lakes drilling from the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a trade association formed by the governors of 37 states, including Michigan. The resolution asserts that Michigan’s regulations already protect the coastline.

Support for Rep. Stupak’s bill is growing among lawmakers from Great Lakes states, notably Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Rep. Tom Barrett (D-WI). ~A.W.


EPA May Step In on Hydrogen Sulfide

Michigan residents are facing a growing safety threat from hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a poisonous by-product of natural gas production known for its distinctive "rotten egg" odor. While state agencies have been slow to respond to repeated complaints from citizens and local governments, Washington has noticed that something smells funny in Michigan's natural gas regulations.

At the request of the Institute and nearly 200 other public health, environmental, and civic organizations from across the nation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may list H2S as a hazardous air pollutant. This would give the EPA the authority to bypass the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and make sure that people are safe from dangerous exposure to the gas.

Such EPA action means that new wells containing high concentrations of H2S could not be drilled in populated areas unless oil and gas producers meet the stricter safety standards of the federal Clean Air Act.

State Inaction
Last year, after months of research and organizing by Manistee and Mason county citizens and the Institute, it appeared the state was on track to develop more effective H2S regulations. The DEQ held hearings on new rules that would have provided some fledgling public health protections. And the Michigan Environmental Science Board, a panel appointed by the Governor, met to determine health risks from H2S.

But more than 16 months later, the Science Board has yet to make any recommendations and the new DEQ rules have not been adopted.

The EPA could require companies handling H2S to develop rigorous accident prevention programs and establish effective plans to protect the public in the event of a catastrophic accident. Companies also would have to keep more careful records of accidental releases, and make the information easily available to the public. ~A.W.

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