Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Faster alerts backed for missing seniors

By MATT WALTERS
Capital News Service

LANSING – A new Senate proposal could help bring missing seniors home more quickly.

The bill would require law enforcement agencies to issue a public alert when a person 60 or older is reported missing and is believed to be incapable of returning home on his or her own.

Similar legislation is already in place in 27 states, including Indiana and Illinois.

The motivation behind the bill is to improve the safety of seniors throughout the state, said Katie Carey, press secretary for Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, the main sponsor.

“This legislation would make sure immediate action is taken when a senior goes missing,” Carey said, adding that it would expedite the process of creating a missing person report in a way similar to Amber Alerts for missing children.

“It would create an alert that would be immediately given to television and radio stations in the event of a missing senior.  This would help the community act more quickly to bring that person home safely,” Carey said.

She said the bill was drafted after legislators heard the story of Estelle Mozelle Pierce, who died after wandering away from her Southwest Detroit home in 2005.

Jennie Stinson, of Ann Arbor, has advocated “Silver Alert” legislation since her father, Norris Lee, died last September.

On Sept. 3, the 85-year-old Lee went missing after his wife dropped him off at the Birmingham Community Center.  His body was found two weeks later in a wooded area not far from the center, where he was last seen.

Stinson said the medical examiner believed he died the evening of his disappearance or early the next morning.

According to Stinson, her father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2009.

“That day was like every other Friday since he had been diagnosed,” Stinson said.

She said that at the time, her father showed few signs of the disease, which made his disappearance impossible to predict.

“He was still in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, as far as we or his doctor could tell. He could even name the current Detroit Tigers’ line-up.  The only thing he really had trouble with was time and day,” Stinson said.

Stinson said that her mother contacted Birmingham police after she went to pick him up and couldn’t find him.  By that time, Lee hadn’t been seen for two hours.

Stinson said that because of the two-hour time gap, a Silver Alert may not have saved her father’s life but said it would have helped in the search effort.

“We needed to talk to everyone we could but it was impossible to find everyone who may have seen him.  Someone must have seen him but we had no way to get the word out for people to be aware of his disappearance,” Stinson said.

She said a Silver Alert may have also allowed her father’s body to be found sooner and avoided the need to search as far away as Detroit.

“A Silver Alert may not have been useful in finding my father alive but maybe someone would have seen him by the river sooner than two weeks later,” Stinson said.

She said that she supports the proposed bill because it could help other families avoid a similar tragedy.

“To have a positive outcome, the whole community needs to be on the lookout for a missing person, not just the person’s family and police.  If this helps just one family not go through what we did, it’ll be worth it,” Stinson said.

Carrie Collins-Fadell, public policy director for the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Michigan in Southfield, said the Silver Alerts would help keep seniors safe, particularly those with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

According to Collins-Fadell, six out of every 10 people with dementia will wander away, sometimes with fatal consequences.

“This is a large amount of people, considering there are more than 230,000 individuals in Michigan who suffer from the disease,” Collins-Fadell said.

Collins-Fadell said that because Alzheimer’s affects only the mind, it can be difficult to tell if someone who has the disease needs help.

“The individual can look healthy as they are wandering on foot or in a car.  People who come in contact with them might not even know they need help,” Collins-Fadell said.

She said that the proposed legislation would be beneficial to family caregivers who live with Alzheimer’s patients at their home, many of whom are unpaid.

“These caregivers represent a huge cost savings to the state Medicaid system.  This legislation is one way to help them and make their jobs easier,” Collins-Fadell said.

The bill is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Its co-sponsors are Sens. Tupac Hunter, D-Detroit; Steven Bieda, D-Warren; Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton; John Gleason, D-Flushing; Glenn Anderson, D-Westland; Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor; Virgil Smith, D-Detroit; and Morris Hood III, D-Detroit.

A similar bill is pending in the House Family, Children and Seniors Committee.  Its sponsors include Reps. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing; Joan Bauer, D-Lansing; Lesia Liss, D-Warren; Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor; Marcia Hovey-Wright, D-Muskegon; and Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 

Filed under: Uncategorized

Battle blazes over burning ban

By SARA QAMAR
Capital News Service

LANSING – A regulation proposed by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) would ban open burning of household trash to prevent pollution and health risks, including lung disease, heart disease and asthma.

However, pending legislation by Rep. Kenneth Kurtz, R-Coldwater, would block the regulation from taking effect.

Critics of the rule cite property rights concerns and costly trash disposal for rural residents, where open burning is more common.

“In terms of rural communities, where formalized trash pickup is more expensive or less available, the burning of household garbage is a cultural practice,” DEQ communications director Brad Wurfel said.

The proposed rule, one of many left over from the Granholm administration awaiting Gov. Rick Snyder’s approval, needs to be signed before April 1 for DEQ to issue the regulation.

Wurfel said it’s not uncommon for a new administration to review rules proposed by its predecessor therefore deciding whether they should take effect.

“They want to do a careful review right now. They want to make sure that what the governor signs is where the governor wants to go,” he said.

DEQ opposes Kurtz’s bill, Wurfel said.

Uncontrolled emissions from burning can exacerbate lung disease, heart disease and asthma, among other health risks, leading to more emergency rooms visits, said American Lung Association-Michigan advocacy director Shelly Kiser.

The group supports the proposed DEQ rule.

The elderly and children are most vulnerable to particulates in the air, Kiser said.

Two of the most harmful emissions are dioxin and particulates that are small enough to lodge deep in the lungs and enter the bloodstream.

In a 2010 state of the air report, the association gave Kent, Allegan, Oakland and Washtenaw counties a C grade in particle pollution, with Wayne County receiving an F.

Because Michigan must meet federal air quality standards, allowing residents to release uncontrolled emissions could make it harder for businesses to meet the standards, Michigan Environmental Council communications director Hugh McDiarmid said.

“We spend a fair amount of money for pollution control equipment in our factory smokestacks and power plants,” he said.

MEC policy director James Clift said it would cost rural households about $12 a month for trash service.

Implementing the ban would be fairer for people who incur medical bills for treatment of health problems caused by the emissions, he said.

“Where one person might be saving money by not taking their trash to a landfill, it might lead to other people spending money,” he said.

Co-sponsors of the bill include Reps. David Agema, R-Grandville; Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City; and Jeff Farrington, R-Utica.

It’s pending in the House Natural Resources, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 

 

 

Filed under: Uncategorized

Arts budget cuts called short-sighted

By EMMA OGUTU
Capital News Service

LANSING — Art and music may not seem essential in schools’ academic achievement.

Rather they’re considered costly extras and, thus, prime prospects for elimination when schools face increased budget cuts, according to studies.

But the arts do more than invigorate the economy — they strengthen children’s cognitive development and enhance learning through increased hands-on, creative thinking, according to a presentation at an arts and culture forum in Lansing.

“Children motivated by the arts develop attention skills and strategies for memory retrieval that also apply to other academic subject areas, such as math and science,” said Kenneth Fischer, president of the University Musical Society, a performing arts group affiliated with the University of Michigan.

Fischer also said the arts – music, creative writing, drawing and dance – provide the critical thinking and problem-solving skills required by employers, citing a report by the Conference Board, a business performance research association in New York City.

“One of the top-five applied skills sought by employers in today’s market is creativity, and we need to embrace the arts which are the indicators of innovation and ingenuity,” he said.

But budget cuts are limiting the variety of art education programs offered by schools and institutions, such as the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, which coordinates state grants.

John Bracey, the council’s executive director, said that while state appropriations for art school projects fell from $26 million in 2006 to $2 million this year, the council is working harder to ensure that schoolchildren are exposed to the “transformative” life experiences created by the arts.

Among successful projects is the year-old school bus grant that awards up to $500 in gas money for educational arts and culture trips, Bracey said.

This month, the council announced the approval of $43,878 in such grants to 118 schools to support trips for more than 13,000 students across the state.

“If schools’ budgets have been cut to the point where our arts and cultural learning is diminishing, somebody has to step up to the plate and offer something,” Bracey said.  “These are experiences that make our children’s lives as fulfilled as can be — they complete a child’s growth and development.”

Although academic priority goes to core curriculum subjects like the sciences, Bracey said exposure to arts and culture lays the foundation for the focus and critical thinking needed in such studies.

“Some of the most successful engineers or doctors are going to have, somewhere in their education, participated in theater or school bands or played musical instruments,” he said.

Fischer’s presentation at the forum cited studies that reveal high performance among students who consistently participate in the arts.

For instance, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that students who play musical instruments have higher math test scores than those without musical involvement.

Studies also show that students with an education rich in the arts have higher GPAs and standardized test scores, lower drop-out rates and even better civic engagement.

The decision by some districts to eliminate art programs is creating a public outcry, said Mike Latvis, director of public policy at ArtServe, a Wixom-based statewide art education advocacy group.

Last year, the group received more than 30 phone calls from concerned teachers and parents complaining about the elimination of art programs in their children’s schools.

Latvis said that his organization is working towards legislation to stop the elimination of essential art programs.

Currrent law gives districts authority to choose how to spend their dollars, according to State Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for K-12 Education.

Kathleen Hubbard has taught visual and fine arts for 19 years and said that with a reduced art education budget, she has become more innovative by recycling materials into projects.

Hubbard, who teaches at Thunder Bay Junior High School in Alpena, said she has witnessed the “wonderful’ breakthroughs” that art subjects have on students with cognitive or emotional impairments.

She was the 2006 winner of a Michigan Association of School Boards award for creating a humanities course that incorporates seven fine arts subjects.

“I believe art humanities should be a requirement because that’s what develops a whole person,” she said.  “When districts reduce the budget to fine arts, the cost to the students is higher than what they are going to save.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Education

Counties push to maintain public services

By PAIGE LaBARGE
Capital News Service

LANSING— Despite tough economic times and cutbacks in public services, some counties are managing to find money to maintain projects that help keep the quality of Michigan high.

The Michigan Association of Counties (MAC) 2011 legislative priorities list forecasts what issues many come up and how the association will handle them, according to Angela Minicuci, communication coordinator.

According to the list, MAC will push the state to maintain a variety of programs like the County Jail Reimbursement Program for jails that house state prisoners. Another priority is to maintain quality roads by giving county boards the option of districting county road commissioners.

“This will help to save the state a lot of money and will also keep in mind the quality of transportation and the environment,” Minicuci said.

Other priorities cover economic development and taxation, the court system and public safety, health and human services, transportation and environmental issues.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2011-12 budget proposal also calls for a new incentive-based revenue sharing program for cities, villages, counties and townships.

Minicuci said that revenue sharing and unfunded mandates –- state requirements –- are the most important factors in setting county priorities because they always affect the budget, according to Minicuci.

Cameron Habermehl, chair of the Alpena County Board of Commissioners, said that his employees are working the proposed new revenue sharing allocation into their projects.

“County revenue sharing faces a 30 to 33 percent cut, which will really change our number of staff members,” Habermehl said. “We will have to go through our own budget and make fair cuts across the board in order to maintain projects we are working on and stay with the new proposal limits.”

Jim O’Donnell, the Marquette County building official, said that the county is  not affected by any budget changes at the moment.

“Marquette County is still supporting new construction of condos and a boardwalk on Lake Superior,” O’Donnell said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Proposal would require concussion guidelines for school sports

By JONATHAN GANCI
Capital News Service

LANSING — Lawmakers are jumping into the game against concussions by pushing for treatment guidelines for public school athletes.

A bill by Rep. Thomas Hooker, R-Byron Center, would require districts to develop guidelines and a fact sheet to better inform athletes, coaches and parents about the risks of head injuries.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) already has similar rules in place that apply to both public and private schools.

Under Hooker’s legislation, athletes who suffer a head injury during a competition, practice or tryout must be removed from the activity until they receive medical clearance.

While there would be no penalty for noncompliance with the guidelines, Hooker said it would provide a pattern for schools to follow.

Hooker said the bill “will provide a process of determining what a concussion is. It’s a good thing to have a standard of care, a standard of not putting an athlete at risk.”

According to Hooker, the proposal is based on an outline developed by the National Football League, which wants similar legislation across the country.

“The goal is to make sure our legislation in the state models all the other states,” Hooker said. “We are trying to have some kind of uniformity in that way.”

Hooker said that guidelines would bolster existing rules of the MHSAA.

John Johnson, the MHSAA’s communication director, said that the organization’s rules can provide a template for statewide legislation

Those rules, adopted last year, require students to be removed from competitions after an apparent head injury, allowing reentry only after medical clearance.

However, MHSAA imposes penalties on schools that don’t comply.

After a first violation, schools are placed on a two-year probation in the sport where the concussion occurred. If a school commits another violation during that probationary period, it’s banned from MHSAA tournaments in that sport for that year.

After almost a full year of implementation, no schools have been cited for a violation.

“It speaks volumes to the attention that our schools are giving concussions,” Johnson said.

Sometimes concussions aren’t noticed initially.

Steve Babbitt, athletic director at Blissfield Community Schools, said the worst such case in the district happened after a student suffered a mild concussion that went undetected.

Babbitt said that only after the athlete was hit again was a concussion diagnosed, forcing the player to miss a longer period of time than if the first concussion has been promptly spotted.

Athletes who reenter an activity before a concussion heals risk another concussion that may cause long-term damage or even death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency estimates concussions in 5-to-18-year olds cause 135,000 emergency room visits annually.

Both Hooker’s bill and MHSAA’s rules also aim at educating parents in hopes of helping them spot concussions.

Johnson said parents are pivotal in the safety of injured athletes because symptoms can manifest themselves after an incident.

“Everybody thinks that a concussion is a knock-down, laid-out-on-the-field kind of thing, and it isn’t,” Johnson said. “That’s why it’s important that all parties involved are up to speed and know what to look for.”

Blissfield’s Babbitt said that beyond parents and coaches, trainers are key in concussion treatment. Babbitt said that his trainer has educated coaches on what to look for and signs of symptoms.

According to Babbitt, guidelines in dealing with concussions benefit trainers since they allow diagnosis without backlash from players or coaches.

“They take the pressure off of trainers,” Babbitt said. “It gives them guidelines to follow and it prevents them from being the bad guy.”

While trainers are an effective tool in dealing with concussions, many schools have only one trainer for the entire athletic department.

The MHSAA’s Johnson said that ideally schools would have more trainers to deal with concussions.

“In a perfect world there would be a trainer at every event,” Johnson said. “The reality is that it’s not possible. Schools don’t have the budget.”

Without additionally funding, schools will have to rely on guidelines and better education.

“We are just trying to do our best to ensure kids are safe,” Hooker said.

Co-sponsors include Reps. Ken Yonker, R-Caledonia; Dave Agema, R-Grandville; Barb Byrum,  D-Onondaga; and Bruce Rendon, R-Lake City.

The bill is pending in the House Education Committee.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Education

Road-crunching trumps repaving in more counties

By KATHLEEN LOFTUS
Capital News Service

LANSING — Half of Michigan’s 83 counties are expected to turn paved roads to gravel this year due to insufficient funding — three times the number from 2007.

Before 2007, only 12 counties had converted paved roads into gravel, according to the County Road Association of Michigan (CRAM).

In 2009, 38 moved to gravel roads because of costs.

Today, CRAM estimates that have chosen gravel instead of repaving to keep roads safe and cost-efficient.

CRAM public relations specialist Monica Ware said counties prefer not to return roads to gravel, but without enough funding, unsafe crumbling roads must be reconstructed.

“We’re left with no choice but to unfortunately go back to gravel,” she said.

There are no comprehensive figures on the number of county roads graveled in 2010, but the number last year is estimated at nearly 200, according to CRAM.

In an a CRAM poll, 27 counties reported anticipating or having the possibility of pulverizing some roads, including Alcona, Ingham, Marquette, Montcalm and Tuscola.

Lapeer County did not return any roads to gravel last year and isn’t planning to do so soon, said Ryan Doyle, assistant highway engineer.

Of 1,200 county miles of roads, 811 are gravel.

“It’s always an option as funding goes down, but we haven’t gotten to that point,” Doyle said.

Marquette County didn’t change any roads to gravel in 2010 either, according to Jim Iwanicki, engineer manager at the road commission.

A few years ago, some roads returned to gravel after the road commission asked townships for input on the best way to use their money, Iwanicki said.

The consensus was gravel. To repave a road that lasts only seven or eight years until deterioration and required repaving is too costly, he said.

The county will analyze roads and budgets over the next year to see if more roads will be turned to gravel.

Most counties returning roads to gravel predicted one to seven miles of change in 2010, but Calhoun County anticipated graveling 25 to 40 miles of local roads.

According to CRAM, 93 percent of counties reduced road maintenance in the last three years, with an 82 percent reduction on gravel road maintenance.

Ware said the roads are still being maintained and plowed. However, on weekend and during overtime shifts, they may not be plowed until there is significant snow accumulation.

She also said it’s hard to put a price tag on how much cheaper it is to have gravel roads but the initial capital cost saves up to $200,000 to $250,000 per mile.

“It’s not a one-time expenditure. There is longer-term gravel road maintenance for keeping the roads safe. If there isn’t funding for paving a road, we need a safe gravel road.”

Revenues to county road commissions have gone down to a decade-low while expenses have increased. For example, salt has risen 200 percent, Ware said.

“No one thinks this is an ideal situation. If there were enough funding, roads would be repaved.”

“If just revenue decreased, the efficiencies implemented would be enough, but with skyrocketing costs we’ve ended up with the challenges we’re facing,” she said.

People aren’t happy about black dust produced by gravel roads, but testing confirmed the dust creates no health problems, she said.

But Gilbert Baladi, a Michigan State University civil and environmental engineering professor, said breaking up pavement and switching to gravel increases motorists’ costs. Vehicle operating costs go up, average speeds are slower causing delays and it costs the drivers more to travel on gravel than pavement.

He said more maintenance is required for the engine, loose gravel can cause more problems in the exhaust system and longer traveling time means more gas expenses.

Baladi said the quality of the roads isn’t good.

“There are so many potholes on the road, you almost have to navigate back and forth, switching lanes to avoid them,” said Baladi, an expert on pavement design and maintenance.

Baladi said dust is needed to hold gravel roads together. Every car that drives on a gravel road pushes the gravel to the sides and displaces it. Brine is put on roads to hold down dust and stabilize them.

Every so often, gravel is pushed back on the road and every year or two, fresh gravel is added.

Baladi said, “I don’t think adding gravel will save much money but it’s the only possible solution right now.”

Ben Bodkin, Michigan Association of Counties director of legislative affairs, said the state doesn’t pay counties as much as it should for essential services.

“We’re seeing slower services. Roads aren’t plowed well and they’re turning paved roads into gravel. This is not the progress I want to see,” Bodkin said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Transportation

Meet nature face to face, state environmentalists say

By YANAN CHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING—Are you tired of sitting in a classroom to learn about the environment? Why not go outside to touch and feel nature?

This summer, dozens of environmental and outdoor education organizations want to immerse students in their surroundings.

For example, Marquette County will have a summer camp in August. In Grand Traverse County, there’s a trip to Valley of the Giants. Kent County will open a gardening program in June.

Many such outdoor programs are run by more than 50 business, health, youth, recreational, environmental and educational groups in the state.

These groups are part of the No Child Left Inside Coalition, a national organization that said it aims to alert Congress and the public to the need for schools to devote more resources and attention to environmental education.

As a member of the coalition, Michigan 4-H Youth Development offers outdoor education programs to students in many counties.

In Marquette County, the U.P. Adventure Challenge Seekers 4-H Club runs four camps each year, one for each season.

Brian Wibby, the Michigan State University Extension educator, said the county received a $10,000 grant from MSU to purchase canoes, gear trailers, backpacking equipment and camping supplies so the children won’t worry about equipment.

Wibby said that the club, established in 2009, aims to provide opportunities for youth to experience the natural environment of the Upper Peninsula, to learn valuable skills and to promote a desire and ability to participate in life-long outdoor recreation activities.

Kathy Wright, a co-leader of the club, said, “Our next camp will be held in August at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge.” The four-day program will include canoeing, camping, climbing and outdoor education.

She said past participants were excited to learn how to paddle a boat and how to pack a backpack, as well as learning more about their environment.

In Grand Traverse County, the next trip of its outdoor education program will take middle school students to the Valley of the Giants on South Manitou Island, according to Boone Scharp, the Kingsley Outdoor Adventure Club leader.

“Our club has 67 high school student members and 21 middle school student members. We have different kinds of activities every month. We do rock climbing, caving trips, trees growing and other activities,” said Boone Scharp, the club leader.

“The traditional classroom of environmental teaching makes students fall asleep, so they need to go outside to experience the environment by themselves. They can learn knowledge by their own experience,” Scharp said.

He emphasized the importance of outdoor education. “The state has training programs for everyone,” and people can make use of them.

In addition to some environmental knowledge, members of his club get a better understanding of themselves and strengthen friendships, he said.

On the club’s website, member Cody Gidner reflected that during the last year’s winter camp, he never gave up even though things got tough and stayed positive to help others who were struggling.

In Kent County, the 4-H Development Program has a Junior Master Gardener Summer Camp for 4th to 6th grade students.

Kendra Wills, the MSU Extension educator in the county, said, “The gardening program will help kids learn how to grow healthy vegetables and how to take care of plants. Also, each kid will grow his or her own fruit, vegetables or flowers.”

The 10-session program begins on June 15.

“Kids will grow their own plants at a local farm first, and we have a weekly meeting to teach them how to take care of their plants,” she said.

Each week the program teaches a different topic. It includes several field trips so participants can better connect with nature and gain more environmental knowledge.

“Kids can learn where the food comes from and the nutrients in each vegetable by their own experience,” Wills said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Environment

‘Soft’ touches green up Detroit River’s ‘hard’ shoreline

By KIMBERLY HIRAI
Capital News Service

LANSING — The Detroit River shoreline has miles of steel sheet pilings, concrete break walls and cement used to deepen the river and increase water flow for safety, navigation and industry.

Credit: Department of Natural Resources and Environment

Freighters needed such “hard” shoreline engineering to load and unload coal, salt, cement products and other materials, said civil engineer Patrick Doher of the Ann Arbor office of JJR, a landscape architecture firm. Manufacturers along the river processed those raw materials and shipped the final product the same way.

That hard edge is no longer needed to move freight in parts of the Detroit River. And its legacy isn’t great for river species looking for a place to live, for the expense of repairing its crumbling or cracking rim, and for the eyes of Detroiters and visitors.

Rising in its place is the concept of “soft” shoreline engineering like that designed and engineered by JJR along Gabriel Richard Park’s river edge and in sections of William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor in the waterfront’s East District.

Construction of a section of Milliken, Michigan’s first urban state park, was plagued by “concrete dinosaurs,” when the project began in 2008, said Luba Sitar, the Department of Natural Resources recreation division manager for southeastern Michigan.

Concrete and steel had transformed 31 of 32 miles of river shore into commerce and industry’s backdoor, according to a report by John Hartig, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Detroit River International Refuge, and Anna Cook, a biological technician at the agency.

Part of Milliken was transformed into a stormwater-treating wetland. Staff removed industrial relics— boat launches, wooden structures, train tracks and the turnstile on which train cars turned after dropping their loads, Sitar said.

Here’s how soft shoreline engineering works: Instead of concrete and steel, designers put vegetation, stone and other materials that soften the edge while maintaining a stable shoreline.

The technique uses ecological principles to reduce erosion, keep the shoreline intact, restore habitat and improve public access. A soft shoreline also creates a visually appealing “waterfront porch” for businesses, industry, homeowners and public places and can increase waterfront property values.

Hartig said most projects so far have been in Southeast Michigan, including one proposed for the St. Clair River. However, the techniques have been used elsewhere in the state, including Gull Lake near Kalamazoo and along northern Michigan streams.

A Detroit American Heritage River Initiative conference in 1999 led to a manual of best practices that guided testing and demonstrations of the technique along the Detroit River and western Lake Erie. Since then, the state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have approved 38 projects costing more than $16.5 million,

JJR’s Doher said natural stone and plants replaced the East District’s hard industrial shoreline, creating habitat for fish and wildlife native to the Detroit River.

Because freighters don’t unload in the East District anymore, “we were able to reduce that hardened and sheeted edge and create more natural habitat,” he said.

Construction was completed in 2009 in a complicated process.

Sitar said an orange snow fence marked where old and new soil met. The team brought in clay to the 5-acre site to create islands lined with burlap-wrapped logs and topped with wetland plants. The roots will eventually stabilize the shoreline as the logs disintegrate.

The soft shoreline also cleans stormwater before it flows into the river. Stormwater now enters the wetland area from 11 acres in and near Milliken State Park before spilling into the Detroit River.

Sitar said she hopes local school science classes will monitor progress by taking water samples at the top of the wetland and at the discharge site.

At its best — and depending on a project’s needs and materials — soft shoreline engineering costs half as much as hard shoreline techniques, where concrete or steel sheet pilings cost about $2,000 per linear foot, according to the refuge’s Hartig.

While hard design structures often have a limited life, soft engineering produces living shorelines that can repair themselves.

The technique can’t be used everywhere, but where appropriate, the option offers multiple benefits, Hartig said.

“It’s an initiative or practice whose time has come,” he said, adding, “You’ve got to be sort of opportunistic. You’ve got to be at the table at the right time for this.”

Kimberly Hirai writes for Great Lakes Echo.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Environment

Anglers group cautions about drilling near Au Sable River

By JEFF GILLIES
Capital News Service

LANSING — Protecting northern Michigan trout streams from the potential threats of oil and gas development will take some watch-dogging by a fishing and conservation organization, according to a report commissioned by the group.

The group, Anglers of the Au Sable, has a history of going to court over oil and gas issues. To prepare for what could come next, it commissioned environmental author and former Muskegon Chronicle reporter Jeff Alexander to investigate the region’s gas and oil infrastructure and a controversial method of natural gas extraction that could become more common there.

The report acknowledges the industry’s importance in northern Michigan, and the authors, Alexander and Anglers Vice President John Bebow, said it’s not an “anti-oil industry manifesto.”

For example: “Pumping millions of gallons of oil across thousands of miles of land and many lakes and rivers on a daily basis keeps the region’s economy running smoothly,” the report said. “Oil and gas exploration has long played an important role in northern Michigan’s economy and will continue to provide revenue and jobs for the foreseeable future.”

The report pays a lot of attention to a 58-year-old oil pipeline underneath the Au Sable and two of its tributaries. The pipeline is owned by Enbridge Inc., which also owns the pipeline that ruptured last July and spilled about 800,000 gallons of oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River in the southwest part of the state.

Several inspections in the last decade show the Enbridge pipeline under the Au Sable and both Big Creek tributary systems is in good condition, according to federal records and company officials.

The Anglers report called the company’s response to concerns over the risk of a potential spill “swift and thorough.”

Yet it cited eight incidents where problems with Enbridge pipelines caused millions of dollars in damage and caused two deaths in Great Lakes states.

Two leaks in Bay County in 2003 and 2005 spilled a combined 600 barrels of oil and caused $165,000 in property damage, according to a congressional committee report. A third leak in Monroe County in 2003 spilled 130 barrels of oil and caused $255,000 in property damage.

Also detailed are possibly severe consequences of a hypothetical spill on the Au Sable.

“According to federal government documents, a worst-case scenario could result in a spill of 1.5 million gallons of light crude into the Au Sable River in eight minutes,” the report said.

That’s nearly twice as much oil as leaked into the Kalamazoo River over the course of the 2010 spill. Additionally, the Au Sable’s cold-water ecosystem is more fragile, its fishery is more valuable and its slower flow would take longer to flush the oil out, according to the report.

It also discussed concerns in northern Michigan over a potential boom in a controversial method of natural gas extraction called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The method allows drillers to reach natural gas within shale deposits like the Collingwood formation that runs under the Au Sable and elsewhere through northern Michigan.

Records from the Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Geological Survey show that fewer than 10 wells have been drilled so far into the Collingwood none of them in the Au Sable watershed, the report said.

However, Encana Corp., a Canadian energy company that uses fracking, bought the rights to drill in thousands of acres near the Au Sable and Manistee rivers at a state auction last October.

Alan Boras, Encana’s vice president of media relations, said, “Fundamentally, we work very, very hard to make sure we don’t impact the environment, and particularly that we don’t impact surface water.”

Concerns about fracking raised in the Anglers report include:

  • Toxic chemicals: Fracking involves high-pressure injection underground of toxic chemicals that critics say could contaminate groundwater or surface water if something goes wrong.
  • Water use: Fracking requires an immense amount of water — typically 3 to 8 million gallons per well. The water is permanently removed from the aquifer it’s withdrawn from, either remaining deep underground or trucked off-site for disposal.
  • Regulation: Fracking is exempt from many water protection laws, including provisions of federal Safe Drinking Water Act and a Michigan law that prevents large water withdrawals from harming nearby streams.

Boras said the natural gas industry is well-regulated, especially against adverse environmental impacts.

Thomas Wellman, the mineral and land manager for the Department of Natural Resources’ forest section, agrees, according to the report.

In an e-mail to Anglers, he wrote, “The regulatory requirements and geological conditions in Michigan ensure that hydraulic fracturing continues to be done safely.”

A thick layer of rock separates the Collingwood shale from important aquifers, Wellman wrote.

Jeff Gillies writes for Great Lakes Echo.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 

Filed under: Environment

Better management needed for private forest land

By LAUREN WALKER
Capital News Service

LANSING ­­—Access to forest education and management assistance is one of the biggest hurdles for private forest owners, experts say.

Privately owned forests account for nearly 65 percent of the state’s 19 million acres of forest land, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Non-industrial owners have 8.4 million of them.

Lauri Elbing, a policy associate for the Nature Conservancy, said most non-industrial owners list recreation and aesthetics as their main interests and that most owners manage their property to meet those goals.

However, that approach often results in owners applying no forest management at all, or only responding to pests, diseases and invasive species — often after the damage has been done.

She said that such poor forest management decisions result from a lack of access and knowledge about technical assistance.

Rick Lucas, district forester for the Osceola-Lake Conservation District in Reed City, said technical assistance programs from DNR, U.S. Department of Agriculture, county conservation districts and private consultants often receive low legislative priority and are victims of budget cuts.

He added that cooperation among these agencies, special interest groups and the forest industry is necessary to make technical aid readily available.

“What’s lacking out there is a spearheaded effort to point everybody in the same direction, to pique their interests in the value of being an active decision-maker for their property,” he said.

He said studies show that only 15 to 20 percent of private owners seek professional assistance when making decisions about their forests. The rest contribute to some of the greatest dangers to private forest health.

“Doing nothing on your property can be a real threat in that you’re not recognizing insect and disease potentials, invasive plants and other threats that we’re very concerned about,” he said.

The president of the Michigan Forest Association, Collin Burnett of Parma, said that some owner inaction is due to misinformation.

“There’s a lot of inaccuracies, particularly in our younger school system, that works against us very badly. Frequently kids are taught that it’s not good to cut a tree, and basically it depends on the whole complex interaction of a forest,” he said.

He said that effective land management tries to mimic the ways nature manages forests on its own. For example, the survival of some species that many forest owners desire, such as oak and walnut, require the removal of old growth, which nature does through natural disasters and fire.

Bill Botti, executive director of the Forest Association, said lack of thinning — failure to remove old growth — is a big problem because it creates crowded conditions that prevent quality trees and plants from growing.

A related problem is the lack of markets for thinned-out trees and plants in Michigan, he said.

“In some parts of the country where there’s a market for biomass fuel, the material can be thinned out and sold, but in most places in Michigan we don’t have that kind of market and so the woods are overcrowded,” he said.

Burnett, who owns about 400 acres of forested land, said priority should go to owners who lack experience managing a forest.

The range of private owners goes from people who are expert forest managers with an understanding of what’s going on in the ecology of the forest to brand-new owners, he said.

“Our problem is getting the relatively uneducated folks educated to the point where they have a concept of what’s going on in the forest,” he said.

Burnett advises new forest owners “to make it their business to learn about forestry and how forests work.”

“The wise thing to do would be to learn first,” he said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Environment

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