Supreme Court Reversal & Air Pollution Report Card

  • Some of the major sources of air pollution are power plants, factories, and cars and trucks. (Photo courtesy of the DOE)

This week, the Michigan Supreme Court’s conservative majority reversed a major decision that allowed Michigan citizens to sue the state over pollution concerns.

In December, the high court ruled that state agencies that issue permits that result in harm can be named in a citizen suit. At the time, there was a liberal majority in the Court.

The office of Attorney General Bill Schuette asked the Court to rehear the case.

The newly conservative Court did that this week… and with an order reversed the December ruling.

Nick Schroeck is the executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

“What the Court did is it basically potentially rolled back a layer of environmental protection by calling into question whether or not the state can be liable for its permitting decisions. So if the state permits something that goes on to harm the environment, arguably the state should be liable if they made a bad decision. And what the Court did is they’ve kinda called that into question.”

Schroeck says he expects this new decision will be challenged.

A related Environment Report story

The State of the Air report

More about particle pollution


(short music sting)

This is the Environment Report.

The American Lung Association released its State of the Air Report this week.

More than a dozen Michigan cities made the list of the most polluted cities in the country for ozone pollution – also known as smog – and particle pollution – also called soot. The major sources of this pollution are factories and power plants… and our cars and trucks and even our lawnmowers.

Shelly Kiser is the director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Michigan, and she joins me now to talk about this.

So your report has three separate lists of the most polluted cities. There’s a list for ozone pollution, or smog. Then there are lists for year-round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution. What’s the difference between these three types of pollution?

SK: So ozone is created in the atmosphere with a couple chemicals that need heat and light, so it’s usually something we see in the summer. It increases your risk of early death, you’re more likely to have asthma attacks. Particle pollution, on the other hand, is what we think of as soot, so it’s tiny pieces of something that can blow in the wind, and they are so tiny that they can go way down in the deepest part of your lungs and really wreak havoc there. It increases your risk of death during high levels over a short period of time, or at low levels over a long period of time.

RW: Which Michigan cities have the most polluted air?

SK: The highest on the list of anyone from Michigan was the Detroit Metropolitan area. And it was ranked 17th for year-round particle pollution. For ozone, there were a number of cities that ranked in the top 100, for instance, Grand Rapids was tied for 43rd worst ozone pollution in the country.

RW: There is some good news in your report. Many Michigan communities have improved air quality over previous years and some Michigan cities actually made the list of the cleanest cities in the country. What’d you find there?

SK: The cleanest cities for particle pollution were the greater Lansing area. And also in Saginaw. We’re making progress and air pollution is being reduced gradually over time, but we’ve got a ways to go.

RW: Your report calls for tighter regulations on coal-burning power plants and tailpipe emissions from cars. What else can we do?

SK: Some of the things we can do are make sure our cars are tuned up and running well. I know everyone loves the fire pits, but they do contribute to particle pollution. We can do our mowing of our lawns in the evening because in the morning if you do it or during the day, then it’s more likely to react with the sunlight and create ozone. So those are all things we can do to reduce our pollution levels.

RW: Shelly Kiser is the director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Michigan. Thank you for your time!

SK: Thank you for having me.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Salmon Fishery on the Rocks

  • The Chinook salmon was initially introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1870s. Michigan, New York and Wisconsin reintroduced the Chinook salmon to the Great Lakes in 1966. (Photo courtesy of USFWS)

There’s a decision looming for Lake Huron that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. The state must decide whether it should keep putting chinook salmon in the lake. The fish has been the driving force behind sport fishing in the Great Lakes. But the salmon’s future in the Upper Lakes is now questionable. Peter Payette reports:

It’s hard to overstate how drastically salmon transformed the Great Lakes after they were introduced more than 40 years ago.

Ed Retherford is a charter boat captain on Lake Huron.
He says in the old days on a weekend in Rockport he’d see cars with boat trailers backed up for a mile or two waiting to launch.
But that’s all gone now.

“You’d be lucky, except maybe for the brown trout festival, you’d be lucky to see twenty boats there on a weekend. It just decimated that area. You can imagine the economics involved.”

Chinook or king salmon practically disappeared from Lake Huron about seven years ago. Most of the charter boats are gone now because the kinds of fish that remain are just not as exciting to catch as salmon.

State officials figure little towns like Rockport lose upwards of a million dollars in tourism business every year without the fishery.

More about Chinook salmon from the DNR

A related Environment Report story

Ten Threats to the Great Lakes


The salmon’s demise followed the disappearance of its favorite food, little fish called alewives. Scientists say there were too many salmon eating the alewives and problems lower down on the food chain caused by invasive mussels.

State fisheries biologist Jim Johnson says salmon would rather starve than eat something besides an alewife.

“So at first, the salmon went through a period of just being starved out. They didn’t have enough to eat. They wouldn’t switch to eating round gobies and they died of malnutrition.”

The changes in Lake Huron since have been significant.

Neither salmon nor alewives are native to the lake. And with them out of the way, native fish like walleye have come back.

The state continues to stock one and a half million Chinook salmon in Lake Huron every year.

But Jim Johnson says the walleye eat most of them. He says Lake Huron can’t support a big salmon fishery any more.

“It’s just not realistic. The lake doesn’t offer that and there’s nothing the DNR can do to change that.”

The question now is whether to stock any chinook salmon in Huron at all. Giving up on the most popular sport fish in the Great Lakes is hard to swallow but most people see the writing on the wall. So even if stocking continues, it will likely be a fraction of what it once was.

On the other side of the state, there are now worrying signs that the same fate might be in store for Lake Michigan.

There are lots of salmon in Lake Michigan today.

But charter boat captain Denny Grinold says something went wrong last fall. He says the big salmon, the four-year old fish that come up into the rivers to spawn in August, never showed up.

“You keep looking for ‘em. You keep looking for ‘em. You go out and you fish the patterns that you’ve fished in the past. Those large Chinook should be there and they just weren’t there.”

The warm water and lots of windy days last year might account for the missing fish. But research provides no comfort for the future.

The DNR has created a system of red flags to evaluate the conditions for salmon in Lake Michigan. These are based on things like how much food is available, the weight of the fish and how many are being caught.

Twenty of the 30 flags have been triggered.

The manager of Lake Michigan for the Department of Natural Resources, Jim Dexter, says the lake is not a happy place.

“The lake is very perturbed. It’s certainly not a stable, quality ecosystem. I mean it’s working right now. It’s producing a fishery. People are happy but it’s tenuous.”

There’s not much the state can do to change anything.

If the experience of Lake Huron is any guide, it’s the presence of those little feeder fish, alewives, that is critical.

At the moment, there are believed to be fewer alewives in Lake Michigan than at any time on record.

For the Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.

Clean Energy Workshop & Lightbulb Nutrition Facts

  • The new label on lightbulb packages is designed like the nutrition facts on food - and is supposed to help you figure out what kind of lightbulb is best for you. (Image courtesy of DOE)

Business owners and politicians are trying to figure out how to make Michigan a manufacturing hub for things like advanced batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels.

They’re gathering at the Clean Energy Manufacturing Workshop in Ann Arbor today and tomorrow.

Steven Busch will be paying pretty close attention.

He’s with Energetx Composites Company in Holland. It’s a spin-off company of Tiara Yacht. Before the economy went south, their main business was building high end yachts. Now, they make blades for wind turbines.

“The basic manufacturing process is very similar. We have the expertise on how to handle large, big, bulky things.”

He says they’re planning to stay in Michigan.

“Michigan offers the best engineering and manufacturing skill set probably in the world. Geographically, the Great Lakes are a great opportunity as a place to be able to ship products over the water.”

Busch says he’d like to see more training programs at universities and community colleges – and more retraining programs for former auto workers who want to get into the business.

(music bridge)

This is the Environment Report.

If you’ve ever been lost in the lightbulb aisle… things are getting a little easier. There’s a new label the federal government is requiring on lightbulb packages. It looks a lot like the Nutrition Facts label on food.

But the label still needs some deciphering. Greenovation dot tv’s Matt Grocoff knows a thing or two about lightbulbs. I met up with Matt so he could show me how to read the new labels:

More about the new label

Matt Grocoff’s tips for buying lightbulbs

More about the Clean Energy Manufacturing Workshop


Grocoff: The problem is these things have never been labeled right and it’s really important to have the right kind of lighting in your house.

RW: Alright, so we have this nutrition facts style label for lighting now. I see here on the left side it’s orange and yellow and white in the middle then furthest to the right it’s blue. What do you recommend when you’re going around your house?

Grocoff: When you go around your house, think about the time of day you’re using that space. In the daytime you want sunlight. In the nighttime you want something that mimics candlelight or a kerosene lantern or fire. So in your kitchen you may want something that has a cooler temperature light, so you’re going to look for something in that whiter or bluer range on the right side of the scale on the label. In your bedroom, as you’re going to sleep, right after you put your book down or change into your pajamas, you’re going to be looking for something in the warmer spectrum, on the left side, which is more yellow.

RW: So one of the complaints that I still hear a lot, is that when people are choosing energy efficient lightbulbs they get them home and the light wasn’t very good or they take a long time to warm up. Have they come a long way, are they any better now?

Grocoff: Oh man, they’ve come so far, Rebecca. There’s more and more choices coming on to the market right now. This is the bulb we have in house. This is the lightbulb that is going to change the world as far as I’m concerned (laughs). It’s one of the new LED bulbs. They’re still pretty expensive but they’re coming down. Let me plug this in for you and show you.

(sound of screwing lightbulb into socket)

If you look at this bulb, it’s got a really opaque yellow on the outside, but then when you flip it on, it comes on instantly and it’s got this beautiful, warm glow to it.

We won’t need to change this lightbulb until my two-year-old daughter goes to college.

RW: How much does this cost?

Grocoff: This lightbulb, right now, you can buy at one of the big box stores for $39.95. So it’s still pretty expensive, but over the life of the bulb it about matches the price of a compact flourescent bulb. As these start coming down in price, they’re going to far exceed the energy savings on any bulb that’s out there especially the old school incandescent bulbs.

RW: All right, thanks Matt!

Grocoff: Thank you, Rebecca, and wait, we have to turn off the lights. (flips switch)

RW: That’s Matt Grocoff of I’m Rebecca Williams.

Pipeline Safety & Deer Baiting Ban

  • Baiting deer with corn, apples, sugar beets or carrots has been banned for three years in the Lower Peninsula. (Photo by Scott Bauer - USDA)

The people who operate oil and gas pipelines – and the people who regulate them – met in Washington D.C. yesterday.

The forum on pipeline safety was triggered by last summer’s oil spill in the Kalamazoo River and two fatal gas line explosions in California and Pennsylvania.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says current regulations need to be stronger.

“Look it, we get it. We know these pipeline breaks and explosions cause a lot of, in the case of Michigan, a lot of environmental degradation. So we’re stepping up on our side of things and we’re going to use the bully pulpit to make sure the companies do the same.”

Secretary LaHood wants to increase fines for companies that violate safety rules.

Representatives of the gas and oil pipeline industries both said they are working toward a goal of zero accidents.

(music sting)

This is the Environment Report.

Baiting deer is the subject of lots of debate in Lansing this month. There’s a ban on feeding deer in the Lower Peninsula that could be lifted in June. The restriction was a response to the discovery of chronic wasting disease in one deer in 2008. But no more sick animals have been found and the pressure is growing to let hunters bait wild deer. Peter Payette reports:


For at least a half century hunters in Michigan have put out corn, sugar beets, carrots and other vegetables to attract deer in the fall. When baiting was banned in Lower Michigan three years ago, a state hotline was flooded with calls from people reporting neighbors.

Almost 600 tickets were issued.

But now phone calls and tickets are fewer.

Assistant Chief of Law Enforcement Dean Molnar thinks people are tired of the ban and less inclined to report illegal baiting.

Molnar recently told the Natural Resources Commission hunters are also working hard to avoid being caught.

“They’re finding that the bait is being cut up and chopped. We’ve had some reports of people actually buying juicers and are juicing their beets and their carrots and spreading the pulp out as you would with apple mash after it was going through the cider process.”

Wildlife biologists generally agree it’s a bad idea to feed wild deer. Setting out a pile of food causes them to congregate in ways they usually wouldn’t. And that can spread diseases like bovine tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease.

Many hunters recognize this and oppose baiting.

Kevin Gould from Ionia County told the commission disease is just one reason not to allow baiting.

“I see huge benefits for us not baiting deer. One it increases the number of hours and days in the woods. I think that’s a huge benefit. Be out in the woods longer to harvest that deer. Be more selective. Learn about the environment. Huge benefit.”

But many other hunters want to bait, especially in northern Lower Michigan.

Deer are most plentiful in the southern part of the state and in the UP baiting is still allowed. But up north lots of people hunt on land where deer are scarce. Some corn or a few apples can improve their chances of seeing a deer on opening day.

Don Inman thinks it should be allowed. He’s a retired conservation officer who lives in Presque Isle County. The baiting ban has been around there longer because of bovine tuberculosis. Inman says the ban hurts the sport of hunting.

“There’s no question that the number of hunters that have been coming up here has gone down.”

Inman thinks concerns about diseases might be overstated. And he says small amounts of bait don’t attract big crowds of deer.

“From my experience and all my friends too who have hunted in this area and hunted here when bait was legal, we very seldom saw like four deer. We put out a coffee can of corn and spread it around.”

So far the state’s largest conservation group, Michigan United Conservation clubs is opposed to lifting the ban. But MUCC recently held a panel discussion to explore the issue at the request of its members.

For the Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.

And that’s the Environment Report for today. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Health Concerns After the Oil Spill (Part 2)

  • The Kalamazoo River on July 30, 2010, after the Enbridge pipeline broke. (Photo courtesy of the State of Michigan)

Waiting to find out if there are long term health effects from the Enbridge oil spill…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Until last July, many people in Marshall had no idea an oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners ran underneath their town.

Then, it broke. More than 840,000 gallons of thick, black oil from the Canadian tar sands poured into the Kalamazoo River.

“I think I can sum it up in one word and that is nightmare.”

Deb Miller lives just 50 feet from the Kalamazoo River.

“The smell, I don’t even know how to describe the smell, there are no words. You could not be outside.”

Miller and her husband Ken own a carpet store. It’s right above the Ceresco Dam, about 20 feet from the River. So she couldn’t escape the oil spill by going to the store.

“The headaches were just absolutely intense, watering eyes. The cough, it was chronic.”

She says the daily headaches and coughing lasted for months.

And many of her neighbors felt the same way.

Part 1 of this series

The Michigan Dept of Community Health report

The NRDC report


Last fall, the Michigan Department of Community Health issued a report on acute health effects of the oil spill. The report says headaches, nausea and respiratory symptoms were the most common problems. Some people reported rashes. The report says that’s consistent with what you’d expect for short term health effects from an oil spill.

But many people are wondering if the chemicals they may have been exposed to from the oil will affect them later on.

Paul Makoski is an environmental health manager with the Calhoun County Health Department.

“We had residents that were exposed to any number of chemicals and substances that are certainly not in their everyday exposure. What effect those have in the amount that they were in the environment is still the great unknown and that’s why we’re still trying to find somebody with that expertise who can help us with that.”

He says the health department is just in the beginning stages of considering a long term health study. They haven’t yet approached Enbridge to ask them to pay for a study.

The type of oil spilled in the Kalamazoo River was diluted bitumen. Bitumen is a type of oil that comes from tar sands. It’s a very thick oil, and it has to be diluted in order to move through pipelines. It’s often diluted with natural gas condensate.

Anthony Swift is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He’s an author of a recent NRDC report on the risks of tar sands oil.

“Part of the difficulty is there are so many different toxins in diluted bitumen, each has its own rap sheet of symptoms. But several of them are carcinogenic, you have heavy metals that have all sorts of different systemic risks to various organ systems.”

He says bitumen has significantly higher concentrations of mercury, arsenic, and chromium than conventional crude. But he says there haven’t been any academic studies on the long term health effects of diluted bitumen… so there are many unknowns.

Lorraine Grymala is a spokesperson with Enbridge. She says Enbridge has put together a panel to review medical claims.

“You know, Enbridge’s business is energy transportation, that’s what we know, that’s what we’re good at, and when it comes to evaluating the validity of medical claims that’s out of our realm of understanding.”

But some residents worry when the oil spill is declared cleaned up… they’ll be forgotten about.

Susan Connolly lives in Marshall with her family. She says she’s concerned about her 5 year old son and 3 year old daughter.

“If my son or daughter becomes ill, I will track you down. The government needs to step up and enforce Enbridge to pay for a long term health study. Make them do it!”

There is a precedent for this now. Some of the people affected by the BP spill in the Gulf will be getting a long term health study. The National Institutes of Health has launched a 10-year study of 55,000 cleanup workers and volunteers. BP chipped in $10 million for a portion of that study.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Oil Lingers in Kalamazoo River (Part 1)

  • A Great Blue Heron covered in oil after the rupture of Enbridge's Line 6B near Marshall in July 2010. (Photo courtesy of EPA Region 5)

It was one of the largest oil spills in the Midwest… and it’s not over yet.

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Crews are still cleaning up from last July’s oil spill in the Kalamazoo River. An oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners ruptured… and spilled more than 840,000 gallons of heavy crude. The oil polluted Talmadge Creek and more than 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency say most of that oil has been sucked out of the river… and tens of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil have been removed.

But the work is far from done.

(heavy machinery sounds)

Mark Durno is the Deputy Incident Commander with the EPA. He’s overseeing the cleanup teams.
He’s standing on the bank of the Kalamazoo River. Dump trucks and loaders rumble over a bridge out to an island in the river.

“The islands were heavily contaminated, we didn’t expect to see as much oil as we did. If you’d shovel down into the islands you’d see oil pool into the holes we’d dig.”

Workers are scooping out contaminated soil… hauling it to a staging area and shipping it off site.

Mark Durno says the weather will dictate what happens next. He says heavy rainstorms will probably move oil around. They won’t know how much more cleanup work they’ll have to do until they finish their spring assessment.

“Once the heavy rains recede, we’ll do an assessment over the entire stretch of river to determine whether there are substantial amounts of submerged oil in sediments that still exist in the system.”


He says if they find a lot of oil at the bottom of the river… the crews will have to remove it.

Reports that Enbridge submitted to the EPA and the state of Michigan show the type of oil spilled in the Kalamazoo River was diluted bitumen. Bitumen is a type of oil that comes from tar sands. It’s a very thick oil, and it has to be diluted in order to move through pipelines.

Mark Durno says the nature of the oil is making the clean up more difficult.

“I truly believe the characteristics of this material is the reason we still have such a heavy operation out here. Because it was a very heavy crude, we ended up with a lot more submerged oil than we anticipated having to deal with.”

He says the cleanup could continue for another year. But that doesn’t include restoration of habitat, and that’ll take even longer. And workers will not be able to clean up every last drop of oil. Mark Durno says that’s not feasible… and it would mean damaging sensitive habitats. So he says it’s possible some oil will turn up years down the road. Right now… more than 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River down to Morrow Lake are closed to the public. No fishing. No boating. No swimming.

The official cause of the oil spill is still under federal investigation.

Susan Hedman is the EPA Administrator for Region 5. She says Enbridge won’t be fined until the investigation is done.

“We are committed to holding Enbridge accountable. Not a single penny of taxpayer money will be used to recover this spill.”

Enbridge noted in its annual report that the cleanup has cost $550 million dollars so far.

Lorraine Grymala is a spokesperson with Enbridge.

“We expect the majority of that to be recovered through insurance. That $550 million doesn’t include fines or penalties or lawsuits related to the incident.”

She says Enbridge spends millions every year to monitor their pipelines for safety.

The pipeline that broke in Marshall is part of Enbridge’s Lakehead system. The system stretches from North Dakota across Michigan into New York. Over the past decade, the federal government has documented 83 spills and other safety problems on the Lakehead System.

The pipeline system is more than 60 years old. EPA’s Mark Durno says that’s been on his mind a lot lately.

“We know this is an aging pipeline system, so we’re prepared for more frequent spills of this nature. We hope that we don’t but we have to be prepared to do it.”

On Thursday, we’ll hear from people who have been directly affected by the oil spill and their worries about long term health effects.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Blocking the EPA & Extinction for Isle Royale Wolves?

  • Wolves on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior (Photo courtesy of

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled four years ago that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate planet-warming greenhouse gasses… if the agency found those gasses are a threat to human health and safety. In 2009, the EPA found greenhouse gasses are a threat… and the agency started taking steps to regulate emissions from industries such as coal-burning power plants and automobiles.

For months now, many members of Congress have been trying to block the EPA from doing that. The latest people to climb on board are from Michigan: Republican Representative Fred Upton and Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow.

Fred Upton chairs the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. He not only wants to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses… he wants to repeal the EPA’s scientific finding that greenhouse gasses are harmful.

Ryan Werder is the political director for the nonpartisan group Michigan League of Conservation Voters. He says since he was appointed Chair, Congressman Upton has shifted to the right politically.

“He was always a good, moderate, reliable voice. Before, when he said climate change was a reality and something we had to consider. He suddenly removed that from this website and acts as if climate change is non-existent.”

A Bloomberg story about the legislation in Congress

The Isle Royale Wolf Research Team’s website

A related Audubon Magazine story


Werder says Senator Debbie Stabenow is also under pressure. Stabenow wants to delay the EPA’s regulations for two years… to protect Michigan’s agriculture and auto industries.

“She’s worried about her re-election and she’s trying to do her best to make sure that utilities and industries and autos and everybody are happy.”

Bottom line: Michigan’s members of Congress are trying to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses anytime soon… if ever.

(music bump)

This is the Environment Report.

For 53 years, researchers from Michigan Tech have been studying the island’s wolf and moose populations.

This year… they found there are fewer wolves – just 16. And only a couple of females that can still have babies. Rolf Peterson has been studying the wolves for more than four decades and he joins me now to talk about this.

What’s happening to the female wolves?

Peterson: In late 2009, six of the ten females we had in the population died. That was just an unusual, presumably a fluke. Only one of the females was radio collared and she died in a very unusual way, she died giving birth.

RW: So what’s the outlook for the existence of wolves on Isle Royale?

Peterson: Well, it could be just a little hurdle they have to jump through. It also could mean the beginning of the end if those one or two females should die without giving birth to a female. And if neither of the two pups we thought we saw this year are female, then that’s it. The population would go extinct because there are no females.

RW: Do you think people should intervene?

Peterson: Oh not yet, no. As long as there’s a chance the existing population can pull it off, it’d be worthwhile to let them go.

RW: So the wolves keep the island’s moose in check, and you’ve found the moose population is currently around 500 animals. If the wolves go extinct, what would happen to the moose?

Peterson: Oh, they’d increase. They’d increase to the point where they’d starve to death catastrophically.

RW: You’ve spent so much of your life living on Isle Royale studying the wolves and the moose on the island. What, if anything, surprises you?

Peterson: (laughs) Almost everything that happens there surprises me. We’re almost unable to predict the short term future. I guess the resiliency of wolves in general does usually surprise me. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they pulled out of this one. But exactly how they’re going to do it is what’s fascinating.

RW: Well, thank you so much for your time!

Peterson: You bet, thank you now.

RW: Rolf Peterson is a research professor at Michigan Tech University.
That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Landowners Sue Gas Companies Over Leases

  • Natural gas drilling rig in Wyoming (Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management).

Last May, oil and gas companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying up rights to drill in Michigan. By summer, private landowners in northern Michigan had signed leases promising record payments to drill on their land. But by the end of the year, the frenzy over the new gas play had fizzled. And, as Bob Allen reports, hundreds of people were claiming they’d been cheated:

The first person to file suit against the gas companies in Emmet County is Mildred Lutz.

A sturdy 92 years old, she still keeps a garden and cans her own vegetables.

Last summer, a man knocked on her door and offered to pay her almost a hundred thousand dollars for the oil and gas deep underground beneath her farm.

Mildred had just lost her husband of sixty-nine years, Carl. And she thought the money would come in handy for a whole list of expenses, including funeral costs. So after talking it over with her five children, she signed a lease and took the document to the bank in Alanson to be notarized.

She never heard another word from the oil and gas developers and she never got paid.

And how does she feel about that?

“Well, not very good. I don’t know, I’ve always kind of had the feeling of trusting a lot of people, I guess. I hate to see people being dishonest. When you do that, you’re just really hurting a lot of people that were depending on this.”

A related story by Bob Allen

Part 1 of Michigan Watch series on gas drilling

Part 2 of Michigan Watch series on gas drilling

Part 3 of Michigan Watch series on gas drilling

Part 4 of Michigan Watch series on gas drilling

Part 5 of Michigan Watch series on gas drilling


Attorney Bill Rolinski says he’s heard from a lot of people who ended up in the same boat as Mildred Lutz.

So far, he says he’s filed a handful of lawsuits against six companies. But what he discovered is that they all were working on behalf of Chesapeake Energy, the second largest natural gas supplier in the country.

He contends they acted together to manipulate the market by bidding up the prices of leases to record levels, in effect driving out competition.

That means landowner’s properties were tied up in those leases.

Meanwhile, Rolinski says, Chesapeake drilled a test well. And he believes the test showed the Collingwood shale formation isn’t as promising as the company first thought.

So after that, he alleges, Chesapeake and its agents bailed out of these leases for what he calls bogus reasons. And hundreds of landowners were left holding worthless contracts.

“It didn’t say in the contract: if the wells are good I will pay you, if they’re not any good I’m not. But that’s in effect what happened.”

An attorney for Chesapeake says that’s an interesting story, but good luck proving conspiracy in a courtroom.

Steve Barney of Petoskey is representing all the companies named in the lawsuits in northern Michigan.

“One of the easiest things to put in a complaint are allegations relating to fraud and conspiracy. But they’re also the hardest to prove. And, all I can tell you is I would be absolutely flabbergasted if there is evidence produced supporting any of those allegations, period.”

Barney says only a small fraction of leases was rejected and for good reasons.

The main reason is the property has a mortgage on it. And Barney insists that can put a multi-million dollar well at risk if a property owner defaults and the bank forecloses.
But attorneys for landowners say the vast majority of properties in Michigan have mortgages on them, and if all potential leases on those properties were rejected mineral development would never get done.

Besides, Bill Rolinski says, other gas companies such as Encana paid up.

“Here’s Encana taking x number of leases in one county, paying 90% of their leases, all right. And here’s Chesapeake, et al taking the same number of leases in the same county but paying none of them. There’s got to be something wrong there, you know?”

It will be up to the courts to decide who may have done wrong.

For the Environment Report, I’m Bob Allen.