Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Second parent adoption bill revived

Capital News Service

LANSING – A controversial new Senate bill would allow two unmarried people to adopt a child.

If passed, it would change the law that allows only single individuals or married couples to adopt.

Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, the main sponsor, said the motivation is to improve the lives of children in the adoption process.

“Having two responsible parents is important for a child’s emotional security,” Warren said.

Second parent adoption is legal in 15 states, including Indiana and Illinois.

But Dan Jarvis, research and policy director at the Michigan Family Forum, said Michigan would be unwise to legalize second parent adoptions.

“We’re concerned about creating families with unmarried parents,” Jarvis said.

He said children are better off with one mother and one father and that the bill would create awkward relationships between unmarried parents and children.

“This bill has very few parameters on who could adopt.  It doesn’t even require that the parents live together,” Jarvis said.

The bill would allow same-sex partners to jointly adopt a child.  They are unable to be married in Michigan, making it nearly impossible for both partners to adopt the same child.

Warren said, “Marriage and adoption are separate issues.  This bill isn’t just referring to same-sex couples.  Same-sex marriage is a whole other discussion.”

She said that the state shouldn’t decide what types of couples can adopt and what types can’t.

“Michigan is diverse and shouldn’t make decisions about people’s lifestyles,” Warren said.

Sen. Steven Bieda, D-Warren, a co-sponsor, said the adoption process needs modernization and that the legislation would be a step in that direction.

Bieda said that current laws don’t account for two unmarried adults who wish to adopt, regardless of gender or romantic involvement.

He added that no matter what the relationship is between the adults, the second parent would still have to go through an extensive screening process and thorough background check before being awarded parental rights.

“There have been situations where a brother and sister were looking to adopt but only one could be the child’s parent,” Bieda said.

Michigan also doesn’t allow a birth parent to legally share parental responsibilities with an unmarried partner.

He said that becomes a problem when a single parent simply wants greater stability for his or her child.

“In some situations, you have one legal parent and one de facto parent,” Bieda said, adding that allowing another person to be legally responsible would provide greater stability.

“In some cases, the de facto parent is unable to even be a child’s emergency contact if they get sick,” Bieda said.

Warren said that the bill would provide more financial security for adopted children by allowing them to receive benefits, such as health insurance, through two parents instead of one.

“A high percentage of families in poverty are single-parent families,” Warren said.

But the Family Forum’s Jarvis said an adult could still help support a child regardless of their legal relationship.

“There’s nothing stopping someone from buying a child health insurance if they wanted to,” Jarvis said.

Christina Fecher, media relations representative at the Department of Human Services, said the department hasn’t had an opportunity to look at the bill and can’t comment yet.

Fecher said, “What I can tell you is that we will work with our legislative partners to ensure children have safe, loving and stable homes.”

Similar bills were introduced in the past two legislative sessions but died.

Both Warren and Bieda say they’re optimistic about the proposal’s future, even with Republican majorities in the House and Senate and a Republican governor.

“The leadership in the executive office has been focused on outcomes, and this would be a positive outcome for Michigan,” Warren said.

The bill is pending in the Senate Families, Seniors and Human Services Committee.

A House version is also in committee.  Its sponsors include Reps. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor; Jon Switalski, D-Warren; David Rutledge, D-Ypsilanti; Lesia Liss, D-Warren; 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

Tenure protects teachers, hurts kids, Rogers says

Capital News Service

LANSING– Public school teachers may soon see changes, or even an outright repeal, of tenure.

A bill by Rep. Bill Rogers, R-Brighton, seeks to eliminate the law that makes it difficult for districts to fire experienced teachers.

Under current law, teachers undergo a four-year probationary period at the beginning of their careers. After which they receive tenure.

Critics of tenure say that it allows unqualified or misbehaving teachers to keep employment, undermining the quality of education. Districts seeking to fire a tenured teacher must go through a lengthy process that costs tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, which deters schools from dismissing teachers.

“We need to put the accountability to effectively educate our children back onto Michigan’s teachers,” Rogers said. “The lack of accountability in the classroom harms students for years, and Michigan’s children deserve better than that.”

Mark Dombroski, superintendent of Cheboygan Public Schools, said his district has successfully fired under-performing teachers but he estimates that it cost the district anywhere from $80,000 to $120,000 in each case.

However, Dombroski opposes a repeal of tenure since it would leave teachers “with no protection” from a changing administration that may not see eye to eye with certain teachers.

“Things that teachers don’t have control over could impact whether a teacher gets a good evaluation. Without having some protection or a program in place that gives them protection, teachers can’t make changes” in the way they teach Dombroski said.

David Hecker, president of the Michigan affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, agreed that repeal would leave his members vulnerable by eliminating their right to due process in evaluations of misconduct or poor performance.

Hecker said that districts have the right to fire teachers found misbehaving or underperforming, but only after properly reviewing each case.

“We want good teachers in the classroom,” Hecker said. “We don’t want bad teachers in the classroom, and like every other occupation there are some people that just shouldn’t be doing it.”

Critics also argue that repeal would deter teachers from working in the state, making other states with tenure protection more appealing.

However, Rogers said that quality teachers shouldn’t worry.

“The good teachers aren’t going to be affected by it whatsoever,” Rogers said. “If they’re doing a good job, this won’t even faze them.”

The State Board of Education has suggested revisions in the law to Gov. Rick Snyder, stopping short of repeal.
One suggestion by the board is to base tenure on proficiency level instead years of teaching. According to the board, proficiency should be determined using “multiple measures” with at least 40 percent based on student’s academic growth.

Additional pushes have been made to current tenure procedures.

For example, Rep. Tim Melton, D-Auburn Hills, introduced a bill that mirrored the board’s recommendation, requiring tenure to be based on an evaluation of teacher effectiveness.

But Cheboygan’s Dombroski cautioned against evaluating teachers entirely on effectiveness or student performance since they work with a wide range of students.

Student performance can be part of the process because teachers should give all students “ an opportunity to excel at the best of their ability,” Dombroski said. But other factors include outside services students receive and family income.

For example, Dombroski said some students in northern Michigan lack high-speed Internet access at home, which puts their teachers on an unfair playing field when it comes to academic performance.

“So much of the students’ success is outside of school,” Dombroski said. “Granted, we have a huge part in students’ success, but we aren’t there to give them support from childbirth to school readiness and then at home.”

According to Hecker, the union president, changes in the tenure law should include student performance, but urged other measures like peer-evaluation for a better, well-rounded perspective of the educator.

Hecker said if the state decides to base tenure partially on student performance, evaluations should be done on a local level, rather than statewide.

“This way you have an evaluation system that fits that school district and what that school district does,” Hecker said.

Rogers said he’s still willing to hear suggestions from all sides of the issue.

“If they want to come to the table and give us compelling evidence that modification would be a better course, I’m all ears,” Rogers said.

According to Rogers, either repeal or modification is urgently needed.

“It will enhance students’ ability to get good-quality teachers,” Rogers said. “If we lose a whole classroom or a couple of students we haven’t done our job.”

The tenure bills are 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

Lawmakers want federal action on nuclear waste dump site

Capital News Service

LANSING – The federal government’s long-running failure to open a disposal site in Nevada for high-level nuclear waste is irking some Michigan lawmakers.

A pending House resolution urges the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to begin accepting waste at the Yucca Mountain repository, which was supposed to open in 1998.

That hasn’t happened because opponents in the federal government and in Nevada brought the plan to a stand-still over safety and political concerns.

Michigan’s nuclear plants have been storing their waste on-site for decades.

Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, primary sponsor of the resolution, said his main goal is to make sure the federal government keeps its promise.

Resolutions are expressions of legislative opinion and have no legal effect.

“The government has been collecting tax money to pay for the repository for years now but it remains unopened,” Nesbitt said.

People who receive electricity from nuclear plants pay a tax on every kilowatt hour of energy.  The money goes toward funding the proposed national repository, he said.

Nesbitt said that’s amounted to approximately $760 million in Michigan since 1982.

There are three operating nuclear power plants in Michigan: Cook Nuclear Plant in Bridgman, Fermi 2 Nuclear Power Plant in Frenchtown Township, and Palisades Nuclear Plant in Covert.

The resolution says those plants generated 21.5 percent of the state’s electricity in 2009.

Palisades is the biggest property taxpayer in his southwest Michigan district, Nesbitt said.

He said a permanent storage facility will help keep the plant operating long-term and the state and country need a place to store nuclear waste.

Hugh McDiarmid, communications director at the Michigan Environmental Council, also stressed the need for a permanent storage facility.

McDiarmid said that a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain would be only a temporary solution since it could hold only the waste already produced.

He said high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored on-site in spent fuel pools or in concrete-and-steel dry storage casks.

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Energy projected that Michigan’s three operating plants would produce more than 2,800 tons of high-level nuclear waste by the spring of 2010.

Waste is also temporarily stored at the former site of Big Rock Point Nuclear Power Plant in Charlevoix, which closed in 1997.

Kevin Kamps, a member of Beyond Nuclear, a national anti-nuclear energy group based in Maryland, said there are 64 tons of high-level nuclear waste at Big Rock, some of which is 50 years old.

Kamps said research and lawsuits around the country raise questions about the safety of temporary storage methods.

“Fermi 2 is filled to the brim,” said Michael Keegan, co-chair of Don’t Waste Michigan, an anti-nuclear energy group based in Monroe.

He said that Fermi’s spent fuel pools will be loaded to twice their designed capacity by 2015.

“It’s an industry without a disposal system.  No one wants the waste and no one knows what to do with it,” Keegan

Guy Cerullo, communications manager for Fermi 2 at DTE Energy, said the spent fuel pools at Fermi contain all the waste that has accumulated since the plant opened in 1988 and are around 70 percent full.

The circular pools are 40 feet deep by 40 feet in diameter, made of concrete and lined with steel.  They are the same at every nuclear plant around the country, Cerullo said.

“We are running out of room because the federal government failed to live up to their commitment,” said Cerullo.

DTE has yet to transfer its high-level nuclear waste at Fermi 2 to dry storage casks but plans to do so this summer, Cerullo said.

The waste will be transferred to two or three casks, a process he said takes about a month to complete.

Each cask is approximately 20 feet tall, made of carbon steel and concrete, with 27-inch thick walls.  Casks will be placed on large concrete slabs in a high-security area of the plant.

According to Cerullo, the casks are identical to nearly 1,000 others used at 46 nuclear plants around the United States.

Cerullo said DTE will do whatever necessary to make sure the transfer is done safely.

“We go to great lengths to ensure the safety of everything we do at Fermi 2.  It is our number-one priority, and this process will be no different,” he said.

McDiarmid, of the MEC, said the day-to-day risk of those methods isn’t high but concern grows as more waste accumulates.

“These storage solutions were not designed to last this long,” he said, adding that a natural disaster could cause serious problems.

According to Keegan of Don’t Waste Michigan, current storage devices were meant to last for only 10 to 12 years.

He also said that keeping potentially dangerous waste on-site increases the risk of a terrorist attack.

But Cerullo said he’s confident that DTE’s dry storage casks will create little-to-no risk to the environment.

“The casks are designed and tested for even the worst conditions, be it an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, flood or sabotage,” Cerullo said.

The casks are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 20 years, after which the can be re-licensed for another 20 to 40 years.  However, they’re designed to safely store spent fuel for longer periods than that, Cerullo said.

The resolution passed through the House Energy and Technology Committee and is awaiting a full vote.  Co-sponsors include Reps. Sharon Tyler, R-Niles; Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville; Dale Zorn, R-Ida; Ray Franz, R-Onekama; Frank Foster, R-Pellston; Douglas Geiss, D-Taylor; Matt Lori, R-Constantine; and Amanda Price, R-Holland.

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


Filed under: Uncategorized

Farm environmental standards bill nears governor

Capital News Service

LANSING – Legislation to formally recognize a long-standing farm environmental improvement program is well on its way to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk for approval.

The measure would recognize the decade-old Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) and add further incentives for farmers to sign up for the voluntary program.

Chief among those incentives is reduced liability for farmers who accidentally contaminate water sources. Under the bill, MAEAP-verified farms would be exempt from civil fines for “discharges” into public water.

Rep. Kevin Daley, R-Lum, who sponsored the legislation, said it would “make Michigan a leader in agricultural environmental stewardship.”

“By making it law, but keeping it a voluntary program, we believe more farmers will participate,” Daley said.

And Rep. Matt Lori, R-Constantine, praised the “fantastic program” and said encouraging more farmers to join while keeping its voluntary nature intact is the right step.

Jim Johnson, the director of the environmental stewardship division of the Department of Agriculture, said the program is the first time the state has used a “comprehensive approach” to farm conservation. MAEAP is operated by Johnson’s division within Agriculture.

Reduced liability would be mitigated by the amount of work required to become verified, he said.

According to Johnson, the average farm spends approximately $25,000 to become verified as complying with environmental standards and larger farms can spend upwards of $100,000.

The money goes to equipment to make the farms compliant with MAEAP standards, address existing risks, implement an “action plan” and participate in seminars.

The program, introduced in 2000, works to “identify, address, improve and verify” farms’ impact on the environment. Johnson said it helps farmers become more environmentally aware and make their operations more sustainable.

The lengthy process includes educational sessions, a detailed risk-assessment procedure and confirmation that controllable risks have been reduced or eliminated.

The aim is to reduce the number of discharges of pollutants.

Rep. Steven Lindberg, D-Marquette, however, wasn’t fully sold on the proposal.

While he supported recognizing MAEAP, he also voted against an accompanying bill that loosens civil liabilities for water pollution by verified farms.

“I generally think the fewer laws we have, the better,” Lindberg said, “but if we are going to do this, we need to give farmers a really good reason to self-enforce.” The enforcement provisions in the bill he opposed don’t “have enough teeth.”

However, the Michigan Farm Bureau disagrees.

Matt Smego, its legislative counsel, said its members are “very pleased” with the legislation, calling it a “good middle ground” between farmers and other partners in food production.

“It’s a great program,” Smego said of its incentive-based approach and voluntary nature.

“The meaningful incentives help offset substantial personal investment” by farmers, Smego said.

The Farm Bureau has a goal of increasing the number of verified farms by 500 percent by 2015, covering 80 percent of Michigan’s food production, he said.

Approximately 10,000 farms have entered the process, with nearly 1,000 having completed or requested final verification.

James Clift, the policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said his organization is neutral on the legislation because of concerns with the environmental safeguards.

While Clift said the council generally supports MAEAP and its goals, he said potential improvements to the legislation weren’t adopted.

“Originally the bill gave farmers complete liability protection,” he said. “We worked to successfully limit the scope to that of the current program.”

However, he said some provisions are ambiguous, including definitions of accidental discharges, repeat offender language and increased water quality assurance.

For example, the council wanted more details on water quality monitoring, specifically whether water quality was improving.

However, Johnson said such concerns are “easy to say if you’ve never been on a farm.”

He said lower liability for farmers who are already taking the necessary steps provides a further incentive for joining.

One goal of the program is to “keep from having these discharges on a farm in the first place,” and the incentives don’t relieve farmers of their legal responsibilities, Johnson said.

“Significant environmental laws are in place that still apply,” he said.

Under the new law, the biggest change to the program would be increased scrutiny from increased public exposure.

Snyder is expected to sign the legislation after endorsing MAEAP in his State of the State address.

Filed under: Legislation

Proposal would exempt some road projects from wetlands requirement

Capital News Service

LANSING —- A new Senate bill would prohibit the state from imposing mitigation requirements on some road projects that damage wetlands.

Sen. Tom Casperson, R- Escanaba, sponsored the measure that would apply to projects with the right-of-way of existing roads.

“The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), is saying they can’t go along with this because it is violating federal law and the quality of environment in Michigan, but so many things can be positively affected if the bill is passed,” Casperson said.

The bill would prohibit the DEQ from imposing wetland mitigation requirements on some road projects, said Brad Wurfel, press secretary at the Department of natural Resources and Environment.

Mitigation requires new wetlands to be created if an existing one was previously filled in by road construction.

Wurfel said the DEQ can’t comment about its stance on the bill but said environmental quality could be harmed.

Ed Noyola, deputy director of the County Road Association of Michigan, said the change would benefit the road system, even though it could hurt the environment.

“This bill would definitely have an impact on roads, but for the DEQ, it could jeopardize environmental qualities,” Noyola said.

For example, it would make budgeting easier, reduce permits and make road projects more cost-efficient, he said.

“It would be a streamlined process, not needing mitigation for the building of roads,” Noyola said.

Co-sponsors include Sens. R- Darwin Booher, R-Tory Rocca, R- Howard Walker and R-John Proos.

Casperson said he introduced the bill to alleviate costs of road-building by county road commissions and to upgrade roads, as long as they stay within existing right-of-ways.

“The road commissions throughout the state are frustrated right now because they have to get permission, through permits, to mitigate wetlands for road-building,” Casperson said.

They must go through a permit process and have to build–or not build–based on what the department says, according to Casperson.

According to Casperson, the most significant improvement would be in funding, because commissions devote time to obtain permits when they could be improving the roads.

“Better roads means better transportation to all areas of the state, and this boosts the overall economy and gives the road commissions more money,” Casperson said.

If the bill is passed, it will apply to state highways, and city and county roads.

It’s pending in the Senate Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee.

(c) 2011 Capital News Service. Not to be used without permission.

Filed under: Legislation

Program brings water, woods and wildlife into Northern Michigan classrooms

Capital News Service

LANSING — Wheeling big boxes of skulls, feathers and posters into a classroom and exciting children about nature in the Great Lakes region is the best part of the job, Jeff Dykehouse says.

Jeff Dykehouse, curator of natural history for the Mackinac State Historic Parks, with schoolchildren. Credit: Mackinac Island State Park Commission.

As curator of natural history at Mackinac State Historic Parks, Dykehouse visits an average of 50 schools within 75 miles of Mackinaw City during the course of a winter. Most students involved in the Water, Woods and Wildlife program are third- and fourth-graders.

“I try to convince these kids about how lucky we are to be living in the Great Lakes area with all this clean, fresh water we take for granted,” he said. “I tell stories and give examples about when people who are not from Michigan come here and are amazed at the varieties of plants and animals we have.”

So far this winter, he has visited a number of elementary schools including, Shay, Central and Ottawa in Emmet County; Rogers City in Presque Isle County; Pickford and St. Ignus in Mackinac County; and Cheboygan Eastside, Bishop Baraga and Onaway in Cheboygan County.

Showing artifacts while jumping around like a child himself excites the children about the program and encourages them to care about natural history, Dykehouse said.

Presentations vary according to the curriculum of the classes. And he said it excites students that someone in addition to their teachers thinks that what they learn is important.

“The missions of the program include getting across the message of the Mackinac State Parks – that we’re here to teach people and protect the cultural and natural history of the parks –and getting the value of natural resources across to the kids so they can continue to enjoy it and protect it,” he said

His agency administers attractions on Mackinac Island and in Mackinaw City: Fort Mackinac, Mackinac Island State Park, Historic Downtown Mackinac, the Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, Michilimackinac State Park, Colonial Michilimackinac, Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse.

Dykehouse’s biology background helped him develop the program about 17 years ago.

“Other similar programs existed which were led by historians and archeologists and talked about the history of our sites,” Dykehouse said. “Those guys were having all the fun. So being the only biologist on staff, I decided to design something similar with natural history.”

This education outreach program reaches about 8,000 students a year.

That means reaching more than 180,000 children so far, said Steven Brission, chief curator at Mackinac State Historic Parks, “We hope to continue it indefinitely.”

The program goes hand-in-hand with the Michigan Grade Level Content Expectations, said Sue Gimble-Crandell, who teaches third grade at nearby Cheboygan East Elementary School. Her students study the habitats of local ponds, the Great Lakes, forests and food chains.

Dykehouse brings those lessons alive, Gimble-Crandell said. “He talks about the watershed, passes around models of the animals, which really brings it home for the students.”

Dykehouse said, “I hope to bring awareness to these kids so that they would want to preserve and protect these natural resources and wildlife in the future. I want them to know about nature and not fear it.

“What would be the point of preserving a forest or a bird or a watershed if it’s something I wouldn’t care or know about?” he said.

Shaheen Kanthawala writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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

Filed under: Education

Doctors advocate less invasive ways to diagnose breast cancer

Capital News Service

LANSING – Surgically removing a lump in the breast may seem like the best first course of action when it’s detected but it isn’t always necessary, new research shows.

A national study by doctors from University of Florida, Gainesville, indicates that the rate of open surgery biopsies – surgically removing lumps – remains higher than appropriate despite many advantages associated with less surgically aggressive procedures.

But that may not be the picture in Michigan.

“Needle biopsies dominate in major medical institutions in Michigan,” said Vincent Cimmino, professor of surgery at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor.

Cimmino said that minimally invasive procedures are the  widely accepted standards of practice in larger hospitals in the state.

“Even when a lump that cannot be detected by routine examination is found during mammography, the general practice is to use X-rays to identify and lead to the lesion, using a thin hollow needle and a wire to extract tissue samples for diagnosis,” he said.

But certain situations call for open surgery.

When a lump is detected near the chest wall or around the nipples, surgeons follow medical guidelines that require open surgery biopsies, Cimmino said.

E. J. Siegl, a senior nurse consultant with the  state’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Program, has been involved with breast cancer management for several years.

“We’re seeing a trend moving toward minimally invasive procedures,” she said.  “Most of our surgeons are recommending needle biopsies as the first step towards cancer management.”

The program is run by the Department of Community Health and funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Siegl said times have changed and all women don’t have to undergo the unnecessary pain and discomfort caused by open surgery.

Minimally invasive breast biopsies are cost-efficient, less painful and disrupt patients’ lives less, according to the Florida study.

Patients’ preferences sometimes trump medical advice.

“Many times we suggest one way but the patient may say, ‘I just want the lump out,’ and we have to accommodate their wishes,” Cimmino said.

He also said some patients are uncomfortable with lumps in their breasts, even when tests for cancer cells come out negative.

In such cases, surgeons must do open surgery to remove the lumps.

Siegl said those are unnecessary because most benign lumps are normal parts of a woman’s body.

The study also called for more training and changes in existing practices.

Cimmino said that’s not so necessary, however.

“I’m not sure that more training is the answer,” he said.  “You cannot apply training without commensurate technology.”

He said that improved regionalization of services might be a better solution.

“This way, physicians with less technology or equipment can send their patients to better-equipped institutions,” he said.

But that alternative isn’t possible if patients aren’t willing to travel, Cimmino said.

The state program refers women to surgeons depending on where they live, and professionals like Siegl have noticed one trend cited in the study.

“We are seeing more open surgery procedures done in medical institutions not affiliated with academic institutions,” she said.

The study said the use of minimally invasive biopsies is more common at academic hospitals compared to non-academic ones.

Medical institutions like U-M’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, where Cimmino practices, are better equipped with technology and expertise, said Christina Jacobs, a breast imaging radiologist with the Bronson Advanced Radiology Services in Kalamazoo.

Jacob also practices at the Michigan State University-affiliated Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo where she said surgeons prefer minimally invasive procedures.

She said about 30 to 40 percent of their patients test positive for cancer cells and that’s when they undergo surgical biopsies.

Jacob often encounters situations where patients fear that needle biopsies will spread cancer cells into their bloodstream.

“Needle biopsies have been done for 15 to 20 years in this country and nothing shows that there’s increasing spread of cancer cells in the body,” she said.

Cimmino said that most patients are more knowledgeable than in the past although the study recommends more efforts to educate women about their options.

“There’s a lot of information today available for women and they’re coming to us better informed about their options,”  he said.


Filed under: Health Care

Imported Canadian oil raises pipeline concerns

Capital News Service

LANSING — Plans to increase the import of a raw form of oil piped from Canada through the Midwest are worrying environment groups that say the trend could pose health and environmental dangers in the Great Lakes Basin.

A new report highlights what the groups say are escalating risks of major pipeline spills of the oil, which is a potentially unstable blend of bitumen and natural gas.

“The problem is that this form of oil has a lot more corrosive elements and requires more operational heat and pressure to push through pipelines which are not built to handle these kinds of pressure,” said Josh Mogerman, senior media associate at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Chicago office.

Also involved with the report are the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and the Pipeline Safety Trust.

The crude oil contains up to 20 times more acid and is 70 times thicker than regular crude oil. It also has more abrasive, sandy particles that can damage the interior of pipelines, leading to major oil spills, the report said.

But John Griffin, executive director of the Associated Petroleum Industries of Michigan, said the report is part of a campaign strategy to stop the use of fossil fuel.

He also said that pipelines in the U.S. are designed to handle all sorts of crude oil.

“This crude oil is no more different than any other type of crude oil in the industry,” Griffin said.

Griffin noted that fuel, which is processed from the crude oil, is a crucial and popular source of energy in the U.S.

Pipelines that sometimes carry the oil run through the Great Lakes region close to lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie. The pipelines also run under the St. Clair River, which drains into lakes St. Clair and Erie and the Detroit River.

Mogerman said that initially the U.S. imported the tar sands oil from Canada after a partial refining process.

“But the refining capacity in Canada is full, so what’s being shipped in greater and greater amounts in recent years is this diluted bitumen which is mixed with other products to make it thin enough to move through the pipelines,” he said.

The refining process takes away abrasive particles like sand and also removes silicate and sulfur to come up with a form of synthetic crude oil, a less corrosive form, according to the report.

Without any changes in safety standards, diluted bitumen imports to the U.S. increased almost five fold in 2010, according to the report. In addition, Canadian tar sands producers plan to triple the amount in the next eight years.

Kate Colarulli, who runs the “dirty fuels” campaign at the Sierra Club in Washington, said that the diluted bitumen is a toxic substance that poses elevated risks to the public.

According to the report, it contains heavy metals and gases that can cause spinal and respiratory problems in humans and wildlife if high levels accumulate.

“If the government is going to allow the importation of this oil, it should come up with new guidelines that meet the unique transportation requirements of the bitumen oil,” Colarulli said.

But Griffin said that all U.S. pipelines are manufactured, designed and maintained according to regulations set by the U.S. Department of Transportation to ensure safety.

And Lorraine Grymala, community affairs manager at Enbridge-U.S., said oil companies like Enbridge, which is a member of the Associated Petroleum Industries, invest millions of dollars each year on pipeline maintenance and installation.

Mogerman of the NRDC said little research has been done to assess the safety requirements of transporting the material although legislation to change pipeline safety standards is pending in Congress.

Rita Chapman, director of Sierra Club’s clean water program in Michigan, said increased imports of the oils is hazardous to the Great Lakes, a critical source of drinking water for more than 33 million people.

“We need to find other energy sources – renewable sources – rather than tapping into these corrosive sources that are putting our water sources at risk,” she said.

Chapman also said that the public could face something similar to the Gulf oil disaster if a pipeline bursts near one of the Great Lakes.

“We have to change the standards of oil transportation, especially around the Great Lakes, to prevent an incident similar to that of the Kalamazoo River,” said Beth Wallace, the community outreach regional coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation’s, Great Lakes Regional Center in Ann Arbor.

Last year, a ruptured pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy Partners spilled more than 800,000 gallons of oil into a creek that drain into the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge Energy is a subsidiary of Canada’s Enbridge Inc.

The environmental groups called for a re-assessment of pipelines along heavily populated and environmentally sensitive areas in the Great Lakes Basin and said federal regulators should inspect pipelines instead of oil company inspectors.

Federal regulations require oil companies to inspect pipelines every five years — but only if their lines cross heavily populated or environmentally sensitive areas.

Mogerman said that more transparency is needed.

“The public needs to know that there is a significant risk related to transporting diluted bitumen,” he said. “And that is our major concern.”

Filed under: Uncategorized

Property tax exemption proposed for nonprofit housing groups

Capital News Service

LANSING — A new bill would exempt nonprofit housing organizations such as Habitat for Humanity from property taxes on homes being built for low-income families.

The bill is from Rep. Dale Zorn, who was a county commissioner in Monroe County for 20 years.

Zorn, R-Ida, said some municipalities already grant such exemptions, but it should become a statewide policy.

When such organizations have been paying property taxes, sometimes they can’t afford the payments.

“They end up having to re-sell them rather than re-build them,” Zorn said.

Once a low-income family takes ownership of a property, the tax would be reinstated under the bill.

“In most cases it will only take a year or two,” he said.

The savings to nonprofits could free up additional resources to invest in construction, said Rep. Bruce Rendon, R-Lake City, a co-sponsor of the bill.

“It would help to keep that money in their coffers and to look for another host family to do another project,” he said.

Other sponsors include Reps. Peter Lund, R-Shelby Township; Mark Ouimet, R-Scio Township; Nancy Jenkins, R-Clayton; and Pat Somerville, R-New Boston.

Habitat for Humanity is a community asset, Rendon said, and gives all people involved a sense of worth and direction.

“This would actually aid local economies in communities by creating work and housing. I think the plus is much more than what it would cost the local government,” Rendon said.

But if the bill goes through, it could create a division between nonprofits and local communities, resulting in a weaker program, Michigan Townships Association legislative liaison Bill Anderson said.

Under current law, nonprofits are required to ask the city or other municipality’s permission for the tax exemption. But under the bill, nonprofits would be sidestepping the dialogue, Anderson said, instead of working with the community.

“It’s a great program,” but many times people feel the organizations are not contributing revenue to the already cash-strapped communities they are working in, he said.

Most properties are donated by the city or lank banks and are dilapidated houses, which are not paying taxes, said Habitat for Humanity Michigan President Sandy Pearson.

“What we’re actually doing is creating a situation where we are building tax-generating property, so we feel we do contribute to the community,” Pearson said.

The bill is pending in the House Tax Policy Committee.

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

Filed under: Legislation

Universities lure back their dropouts

Capital News Service

LANSING – Public universities in Michigan are trying to recruit back students who have dropped out before completing their degrees.

Because of declining enrollment rates, universities are looking for nontraditional students to keep numbers up according to the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.

For example, Western Michigan University’s registrar’s office searches dropouts from the past 10 years.

The focus however, remains on retaining current students and those who dropped out within the past three years, said Keith Hearit, vice provost for strategic and enrollment management.

“Once they leave without a degree, it becomes much harder for them to come back,” Hearit said.

When WMU students who have more than 90 credits haven’t returned, the registrar’s office opens up active files, contacting them at least once a year for five years.

“It’s one of those things where you can see that it has clearly weighed upon them,” Hearit said.

The office sends out about 500 letters a year with a 10 percent response rate. For students who decide to come back, the office shows them how to get back on track.

“Certainly you have to take a fresh look at what they’ve done to see how they can reapply those credits towards graduation,” he said.

“As I watch what’s happening with the economy, certainly the idea that a degree trains you for something is entrenched. And we do find that for many of our prospective graduates, the degree becomes the first run-through that employers go through to bring the applicants down to a manageable size,” Hearit said.

According to the Presidents Council, 50,000 to 60,000 state residents have some college education, but have not finished a bachelor’s degree.

Wayne State University uses a variety of processes to drawback students who may not have returned in one or two semesters.

When programs are not offered anymore, students may need to change majors, university registrar Linda Falkiewicz said. In such situations the university advises them about majors.

The office of the registrar, she said, keeps track of how long students have been gone and questions students about why they’re leaving and when they’re coming back.

“Money is always an issue,” but many people leave for personal reasons such as marriage, children, surgeries or to work because they prefer not to borrow, she said.

In the two years the registrar’s office has implemented such efforts, it has increased overall interaction and communication with students, she said, which contributes to Wayne State’s low number of non-returning students.

“Of tens of thousands of students, 10 or 20 wander off and don’t come back,” she said.

Wayne State has the largest count of part-time students among Michigan’s 15 public universities.

Because non-traditional students’ situations vary dramatically, there is an unmet need to cater to these individuals, said Presidents Council executive director Michael Boulus.

Most of those students transferred from other colleges rather than coming straight from high school, he said.

Returning students need to be given a plan that they can complete in one or two years, he said.

“You’ve got to entice them with the success and a roadmap that says you can do this given your job, given your family,” Boulus said.

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

Filed under: Education

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