Court Ruling on Environmental Suits & Tree Recycling

  • Christmas tree drop-off sites are becoming more common. (Photo by mmhaffie, Flickr)

The Michigan Supreme Court says anyone can sue the state if they believe it’s acting in a way that harms the environment. Jennifer Guerra has more on the recent ruling:


Nick Schroeck is with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. He says if a company wants to do something like discharge treated wastewater into a creek or a river, for example, it needs a permit from the state to do so:


“The way our environmental law works, you have to have a permit to pollute, as it were. That means that the state regulates the amount of pollution that’s allowed into the waters of the state.”

Find a drop-off site near you

More uses for Christmas trees

New York City’s Mulchfest

Transcript

A law called the Michigan Environmental Protection Act or MEPA makes it possible for someone to sue the state for issuing that permit if they think it harms the environment. But a state Supreme Court ruling in 2004 took a restrictive view of who had the right to sue under that law.


That is. until last week’s ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court which says anyone with standing can sue under MEPA:


“Concerned citizens or environmental groups could essentially sue the state Department of Natural Resources and Environment over permitting decisions or failures in their permitting decisions for the state failing to adequately protect the environment.”


That is, they can sue as long as they are sufficiently affected by the matter at hand.


Schroeck calls it…


“A good decision for the environment… for now.”


That’s because the justices voted 4–3 in favor of the more liberal reading of the law. But when conservatives take back the court this month, that decision could be overturned.


For the Environment Report, I’m Jennifer Guerra.


(STING)


This is the Environment Report.


So you’ve put away all the ornaments and the lights and the tinsel… and you have that bare tree in your living room. It’s not illegal in Michigan to throw your Christmas tree away… but a lot of cities and counties do recycle them… and chip them up into mulch.


Here’s the tricky part: some cities will pick up your tree at the curb… but only on one specific day. Others give you a two week window – usually the first two weeks of January. The City of Ann Arbor cancelled its curbside tree pickup this year to save money… and instead, residents have to haul their tree to a drop-off station.


Marsha Gray is the executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. She says the first thing you should do if you want to recycle your tree is call the people who pick up your trash.


“You want to ask them if they do a separate collection for the trees. If they’re collecting them separately from your regular trash, that means they’re most likely recycling, probably chipping those trees into mulch. If they’re collecting at the same time and they’re going right into the bin that means they will go to the landfill.”


If your waste hauler won’t recycle your tree… Gray says you can call your city or county offices. … especially the parks and public works departments. She says many cities and towns now offer drop-off sites for tree recycling.


Gray says tree recycling has been on the rise in Michigan in the past few years. And they’re not not just being used for mulch.


“Some of the trees are actually sunk into ponds and streams for fish habitat. And they’re actually worked into the sand and soil to prevent beach erosion in the wintertime.”


And of course… you can get creative with the tree in your own backyard.


“A lot of people will put them out if they have bird feeders to let the birds perch in near the feeder while they’re waiting their turn, you can chip it yourself, some people like to have the mulch for their own gardening purposes. I’ve read some really weird and interesting ideas, including, taking the branches and using the actual branch to create a stabilizer for plants.”


Gray says it’s also possible to take a chainsaw to the tree and save the trunk to use as firewood. But there are a couple caveats. She says you shouldn’t burn the branches because they can spark. Also… you’ll have to let the cut-up trunk sit in your log pile and season for a year before you burn it.


You can learn more about reusing Christmas trees on our website, environment report dot org. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Challenging the EPA Over CO2 Regs

  • Lisa Jackson is the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. (Photo courtesy of the US EPA)

The Environmental Protection
Agency officially found global
warming gasses such as carbon
dioxide are a threat to human
health. Mark Brush reports
three states are challenging
that finding:

Transcript

The Environmental Protection
Agency officially found global
warming gasses such as carbon
dioxide are a threat to human
health. Mark Brush reports
three states are challenging
that finding:

The EPA says it has a duty to regulate greenhouse gasses to protect us from global warming.

The state of Texas, Virginia, and Alabama have filed legal challenges to try to stop the EPA. They say the coming regulations will be bad for the economy. And they call into question the science that EPA based its decision on.

Here’s the Texas attorney general – Greg Abbott:

“The information on which the EPA relies can neither confirm nor deny that there has been global warming, or that temperatures have risen.”

The EPA says it’s evaluated all the science available for the last ten years, and that the evidence is quote “compelling” that climate change is real – and that it’s a threat to human health and welfare.

Those three states challenging the EPA’s decision to regulate greenhouse gases are countered by sixteen other states supporting the EPA’s decision.

For The Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

Coal Will Not Go Quietly

  • In the fall of 2007, the state of Kansas made the unprecedented decision to deny a power company permits for a coal plant because of greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo courtesy of the Energy Information Administration)

Reducing the greenhouse gases that
cause global warming will mean less
reliance on fossil fuels, such as coal.
Almost two years ago, Kansas became
the first state ever to deny permits
for a coal plant because of greenhouse
gas emissions. Since then, there have
been lawsuits on all sides. Even the
compromise the Governor in Kansas reached
with the coal company in May is now
stalled. Devin Browne reports that
coal just will not go quietly:

Transcript

Reducing the greenhouse gases that
cause global warming will mean less
reliance on fossil fuels, such as coal.
Almost two years ago, Kansas became
the first state ever to deny permits
for a coal plant because of greenhouse
gas emissions. Since then, there have
been lawsuits on all sides. Even the
compromise the Governor in Kansas reached
with the coal company in May is now
stalled. Devin Browne reports that
coal just will not go quietly:

The Sunflower Electric Power Corporation had actually applied and been
approved for a permit to build a new coal plant in 2002. But, for whatever
reason, they let the permit expire. Seemed like no big deal at the time
– they figured they’d get another one whenever they turned in another
application.

Except that they didn’t. In the fall of 2007, the state of Kansas made
the unprecedented decision to deny the power company. Cindy Hertel is with
Sunflower.

“It would be like going for your drivers license, taking the drivers
test, passing it, then being denied your drivers license because you
don’t drive a Prius. Can’t change the rules in the middle of the game.
And that’s what happened.”

Rod Bremby is the Secretary of Health and Environment in Kansas. He says
the state didn’t really change the rules on regulating CO2 because there
aren’t any rules on CO2. And since there’s no federal regulations,
Secretary Bremby instituted a state regulation. He said it would be
irresponsible not to regulate the gases causing climate change.

Stephanie Cole with the Sierra Club called it a watershed moment.

“We were excited, we were stunned – however, it wasn’t long after
that, legislators from Western Kansas started making comments that they
disapproved of Secretary Bremby’s decision and that they were going to
make legislative attempts to overturn the permit denial. So victory was
short-lived.”

Since then, the power company, Sunflower, has hired lobbyists. They’ve
helped legislators draft new bills to allow the coal-burning power plant.
The power company sued both the previous and current governor for civil
rights violations. For two years – nothing.

Then Kansas got a new governor – Mark Parkinson. Almost immediately
after he became governor last May, he cut a deal with Sunflower. Stop the
lawsuits. Build only one unit, not two or three. And, most importantly to
the Governor’s agenda, put in transmission lines to Colorado so that
Kansas can start exporting wind energy out of state.

Kansas is the third windiest state in the country. But it needs
infrastructure to get that wind-power to other states. And, in the
governor’s deal, power companies like Sunflower help build that
infrastructure.

Cole, with the Sierra Club, said the deal was very much a let-down.

“Because it is very troubling to many of us who have been involved in
this so long. It is such a disappointment.”

For a moment the battle seemed to be over. But, it wasn’t.

In July, Sunflower received a letter from the EPA asking them to submit a
new application for a permit. John Knodel is an environmental engineer
with the EPA.

“It’s not appropriate, in our mind, that they take an application that
was for three 700 MW units and simply say, ‘that was bigger, this project
is smaller.’ We say, ‘you have to go through a process and make it
very clear what this new project is all about.’”

Now that the EPA is stepping in, Sunflower & the Sierra Club are back to
square one.

The power company is expected to turn in its new application this fall.
The Sierra Club is expected to fight it. And Sunflower is expected to
fight back.

Cindy Hertel with Sunflower says the power company is just trying to keep
electricity bills low.

Hertel: “This is still in the best interest of our members.”

Browne: “This still makes sense economically?”

Hertel: “It still makes sense. What people need to know is that we are
cost biased, not fuel biased.”

Browne: “And, right now, for Sunflower, that means coal.”

But it might not be coal for very long.

The U.S. House passed a bill last winter that includes a hefty carbon tax
and incentives for renewable energy. A similar bill was recently
introduced in the Senate.

If it passes, Kansas might find its wind energy not only beats coal in
price, but wind-power could become the next big export for the state.

For The Environment Report, I’m Devin Browne.

Related Links

Army Corps and Enviros Spar Over River Levels

Court battles over the Missouri River have subsided… for now. The debate has focused on whether the Corps of Engineers should drop water levels to protect endangered species… or keep a normal flow to ensure barges would be able to ship cargo. In the end… levels went down… but not for nearly as long as courts had ordered. And as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber reports… this summer’s fight might just be the first battle in a war over the river’s management:

Transcript

Court battles over the Missouri River have subsided… for now. The debate has focused on
whether the Corps of Engineers should drop water levels to protect endangered species… or keep
a normal flow to ensure barges would be able to ship cargo. In the end, levels went down, but not
for nearly as long as courts had ordered. And as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber
reports, this summer’s fight might just be the first battle in a war over the river’s management:


On paper, the Corps of Engineers lowered the Missouri River this summer because of three
things: The piping plover and the least turn, two birds hat nest on sandbars, and the pallid
sturgeon, a fish that lays eggs in the shallow water.


Lawsuits by environmental groups like Chad Smith’s argued having too much water flowing in
the summertime disrupts and essentially washes away those nesting areas.


But Smith, who’s with the group, American Rivers, says the issue is much larger than two birds
and a fish…


“What we’re trying to do is to restore some semblance of the river’s natural flow, along with a lot
of habitat and try to make the Missouri River look and act more like a river. Right now it’s
managed like a ditch and it looks like a ditch.”


Smith says years of management by the Corps of Engineers – building dams and levees and
controlling river flows – have made river depths fairly consistent. But he says, really, that’s just
not how rivers work.


“You would have snow melt and rain coming into the river in the springtime, increasing the
flows, and then throughout the rest of the year, particularly during the hot summer months, the
levels would be very much lower, and that’s the kind of natural dynamic that fish and wildlife
adapted to.”


And so when a federal judge in Minnesota told the Corps of Engineers to lower water levels on
the Missouri, it was an attempt to get the river back to its natural ebb and flow. The court order
was for a four-week drop in levels, but the Corps only lowered the water for three days towards
the end of the endangered species’ nesting periods.


But even those three days upset business interests along the river, particularly the barge industry.
Towboats can be seen pushing barges up and down the Missouri River between Sioux City Iowa
and St. Louis. A group of politicians and business leaders, in fact, recently met at the Gateway
Arch in St. Louis to criticize the judge’s order. It’s actually the Mississippi River that passes in
front of the Arch, but because the Missouri spills into the Mississippi just north of St. Louis, the
group noted that lowering one would lower the other. And Missouri Senator Jim
Talent says that has a negative effect on jobs and the local economy.


“When that river goes down the barges can’t move. We’re inhibiting barge traffic already and if
this continues it’s going to stop. And we really need to step back from the brink of an action that’s
really just unreasonable and being forced on us by an extreme interpretation of the law by the
courts.”


Congresswoman JoAnn Emerson, whose district borders the Mississippi, wonders why the
Endangered Species Act that essentially won the lawsuit to lower levels is of higher importance
than people’s livelihoods.


“My mandate in Congress is from the people up and down the Mississippi River, people from my
Congressional district. My mandate isn’t from the piping plover or the least tern or the pallid
sturgeon.”


The debate over the Missouri River might have been moot if not for one other factor: A drought
has plagued parts of the Midwest for more than a year and made the rivers even lower.


A few days after the group met at the Arch, the Mississippi River got too shallow for any barge
traffic and closed for a weekend. Having cargo just sitting there, not getting to market, cost the
economy a million dollars a day by some estimates.


Barge groups blamed the lowering of the Missouri; environmental groups blamed the drought.
Barge traffic is moving again and the nesting season is over for the endangered species named in
the lawsuit. But the fight is far from over as both sides appear ready for another round. Once
again, Chad Smith with American Rivers.


“We’re prepared to stay in court for as long as it takes if the Corps is going to continue to be
obstinate about this. The Corps is now on notice through the court actions this summer that these
things are serious and they can’t hide from them.”


For its part, the Corps has said it will work with other government agencies, namely the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service, to come up with a plan for managing the river for both wildlife and the
barges in time for next year. But it has said that before, and the two sides seem just as
far apart as they’ve ever been.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tom Weber.

Related Links

Army Corps to Lower River Levels

The Corps of Engineers will soon lower water on the Missouri River… a month after it was first ordered by a judge to do so. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber reports:

Transcript

The Corps of Engineers will soon lower water on the Missouri River… a
month after it was first ordered by a judge to do so. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Tom Weber reports:


The Corps is only going to keep the river levels down for three days. A
federal judge in Washington had ordered the reduction to protect nesting
endangered species… but the Corps said that would conflict with another
ruling from Nebraska that said water must be high enough for barges.


Those lawsuits were all combined and sent to a court in Minnesota… where
judge Paul Magnuson ruled the two orders were not in conflict. He says that
means the order to lower levels still applies.


Barge companies were told to secure vessels because the river will likely be
too shallow for navigation during the three days. The corps had risked
being fined a half-million dollars a day for being in contempt of the
ruling… but Judge Magnuson says he won’t enforce those fines at this time.


Environmental groups say it might be too late for the species… but it’s
better than nothing.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tom Weber.

Related Links

Community Wins Suit Against Egg Farm

An Ohio jury has awarded neighbors of a large factory farm $19.7 million in damages. People living near Buckeye Egg Farm in central Ohio have complained for years of fly infestations and odors. The outcome is seen as a victory by those living next to large-scale farm operations throughout the region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston has the story:

Transcript

An Ohio jury has awarded neighbors of a large factory farm 19.7 million dollars in damages. People living near Buckeye Egg Farm in Central Ohio have complained for years of fly infestations and odors. The outcome of the lawsuit may or may not affect similar cases in other states. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports.


(Natural sound of locusts, wind, dog barking in the distance)

Freda Douthitt’s house sits at the end of a gravel lane. The driveway is surrounded by trees and wild flowers. She’s always liked it here because it’s secluded … she’s a couple miles from a rural road. She likes to sit on the multi-tiered back patio that overlooks a small pond. That’s where she grades composition papers from her Freshman English class at Ohio University.

(sound of flies)


But she has also had to swat at flies for the past ten years. Douthitt collects flies in a container that is nearly the size of a gallon milk jug. She estimates this one has about 2-3 inches worth of decomposing flies and maggots collected since August 22.


“It smells out here. That’s the flytrap. That keeps some of them from getting in the house. Today there’s a few flies out here. There are days when that wall would be just polka dotted with them.


Douthitt has frozen the containers of flies and collected them over the years. She took them to court with her to prove the problems she deals with living near a factory farm.
That’s what helped her win a 1.2 million dollar share of a settlement with Buckeye Egg Farm. It’s one of the world’s largest egg-laying producers. Douthitt’s house is three-quarters of a mile from one of the company’s egg-laying plants. The flies come from the vast amounts of manure produced by millions of chickens housed at the company’s barns. The manure gets spread on farm fields that surround Douthitt’s house after harvest season in the fall. Since then … she has watched as run-off from Buckeye Egg properties killed tens-of-thousands of fish in a nearby creek. She has even seen the creek water turn purple.


She says she never expected to win in court against the company when she began the legal battle 9 years ago.


“I never thought about suing. Until one of the neighbors I’d been working hard with trying to get the EPA to do something … trying to get the county health department interested … um, we were both frustrated at that point. She called up one evening and said we’re ready to call a lawyer, are you? And I said, yeah, I’ll meet with you.
As the years went by I became pretty frustrated, and wondered what would make a difference.”


Douthitt and 20 of her neighbors won a 19.7 million dollar lawsuit against Buckeye Egg.
This win has other people in Great Lakes states hopeful they too can win in court against large factory farms.


Julie Janson of Olivia, Minnesota knows Douthitt’s story all too well. Janson has been fighting hog factory farm owner Valadco for 6 years. Her house sits sandwiched between two of the company’s hog barns. Janson and her husband filed a lawsuit this spring against the company. They are asking for close to 200-thousand dollars because Janson says her family of eight gets sick from manure odors.


Janson says she took her 11-year-old daughter to a specialist in California to prove she has brain damage from smelling hydrogen sulfide.


Decomposing manure creates hydrogen sulfide gas and ammonia that smells like rotten eggs.


“Sometimes it’s enough to gag a maggot. The stink is putrid. And, it penetrates through your house, through the windows and doors. Every little crack in your home.”


Janson says her family has spent one hundred thousand dollars to fight Valadco.
She had to close her daycare center, which she ran from her home, partly because of the stench. Her husband is supporting the family with his truck-driving job that brings in nearly 38-thousand dollars a year.


She says a win over Buckeye Egg farm in Ohio is a victory that can help her cause.


“There’s finally been some justice served. Some of these people have been fighting for over ten years. And … to me … it just says no matter how long and painful it is, you need to fight for justice because if us citizens don’t fight it’s never gonna happen.”


Both Janson and Douthitt say it’s not the money that will make them happy.
Douthitt says she will probably never see the money that she is owed.
But … she says the county judge may force the company to clean up its farms and the surrounding communities.


“How can they have that many animals and that much manure and let it just pour out and not treat it? They let it just pour out onto the land.”


Buckeye egg farm officials have said they may appeal the verdict. The company says it has already spent millions of dollars to try and clean up its facilities. Earlier this year, Buckeye Egg settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit with Ohio’s attorney general’s office. The state sued the company for dumping dead chickens in a field and polluting creeks by spilling contaminated water. The state has since filed seven sets of contempt charges against Buckeye Egg for not correcting the problems. It’s still undecided whether Buckeye Egg will file for bankruptcy following the verdict.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Natalie Walston.

Top Enforcement Position on Hold

The nomination of former Ohio Environmental Protection Agency director Donald Schregardus to be the assistant U.S. EPA Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance is being challenged in the Senate. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports:

Transcript

The nomination of former Ohio Environmental Protection Agency director, Donald Schregardus to be the assistant U.S. EPA administrator for enforcement and compliance is being challenged in the senate. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports.


Schregardus was nominated by President Bush to fill the vacant position. But U.S. senators Charles Schumer of New York and Barbara Boxer have placed a hold on Schregardus’s nomination. Schumer says he fears the administration won’t pursue lawsuits against polluting utility companies in the Midwest. New Jersey senators Robert Toricelli and John Corzine have written a letter to Bush criticizing Schregardus’s record on air pollution issues. Schregardus was director of the Ohio EPA for eight years. He left the agency with a backlog of citizen complaints. Schregardus won’t speak with the media until after the confirmation hearings. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Natalie Walston.

COMPANY DROPS ‘SLAP-SUIT’ AGAINST ENVIROS

In recent years, environmentalists and consumer advocates have
been the target of what they’ve termed "slap suits." When the
activists
have blasted companies for alleged pollution or consumer rip-offs, the
companies have returned fire, by filing counter suits. In Ohio,
there’s
a
new development in one of the nation’s longest running environmental
battles — the owner of a hazardous waste incinerator has just
suspended a
so-called slap suit. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill Cohen has
more: