How Green Is Your Governor?

  • The Michigan League of Conservation Voters gives Governor Snyder a B- to C+.

Rick Snyder was the first Republican running for governor to be endorsed by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV), a lobbying group that advocates for conservational and environmental laws and protection.


The MLCV has been tracking Governor Snyder’s position on environmental issues through the “How Green is your Governor” scorecard, an online evaluation that rates the administration’s environmental policy decision – green is good, red is bad, and yellow is neutral.

Michigan Radio's Zoe Clark spoke with Lisa Wozniak, Executive Director of the MLCV, about how Governor Sndyer measures up after his first year in office.

After endorsing their first Republican governor, the league decided to keep track of the administration’s environmental position. “On balance, he’s following through on some of the promises he’s made,” says Wozniak.

Notably, on December 1st Governor Snyder vetoed a bill that would have blocked state environmental regulations stricter than those at the federal level. “If we’re held to the federal law as it pertains to the Great Lakes, frankly we won’t be issuing the kinds of protections that we really need…and [Governor Snyder] knew that this was something he couldn’t let happen. So he issued his first veto, and we’re thrilled,” Wozniak says.

One disappointment for the MLVC was the administration’s support, throughout the year, of coal-fired power plants. “Coal is a very dirty energy source. What goes up comes right back down. We have mercury warnings on every single one of our lakes and streams in the state. And we happen to think that our state deserves to move in a better, clean energy direction,” says Wozniak.

Overall, Wozniak gives Governor Snyder a passing grade. “Comparing this governor to the other candidates in the field, I have to say that Governor Snyder is following his commitment to protect the Great Lakes through his veto…those kind of small but very important steps are the means that we have to protect our Pure Michigan.”

You can learn more about the MLCV’s “How Green is your Governor” scorecard at

Checking in With the Department of Environmental Quality

  • Dan Wyant, 51, is the Director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder.

As the year winds down, we’re spending some time this week on The Environment Report taking a look at the state of our environment. On Thursday, we’ll hear from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters on just how well they think Governor Snyder has been protecting Michigan’s natural resources. But, first, today, we speak with the man whose job it is to keep your environment healthy. That would be Dan Wyant, Director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.


Cutting the DEQ’s Budget

I first asked Wyant about his department’s budget. It’s been cut and cut over the past decade; just this year alone it saw a 15 percent cut. The cuts do have an impact, says Wyant, but, “it’s forced [the department] to prioritize… think about what we want to accomplish. So, we’re focused around air quality and water quality and public health… and I think we can say, with some confidence, that we are seeing more environmental stewardship, not less.”

Economic Development

Governor Snyder has said one of the goals for the DEQ is for the department to be a part of Michigan’s economic development. Both Snyder and Wyant believe the DEQ has a role in the state’s recovery. “We know that it’s our role to ensure good environmental stewardship – that’s why we were created and that’s our job,” notes Wyant. But, he also says he thinks there are certain things the department can do to help businesses grow in the state. “We want to be recognizing permit timing so that businesses can get timely decisions and… we’re looking at old and antiquated, duplicates of regulation… and we want to address culture. We want to be a department of problem solvers. It doesn’t mean that we don’t wear the black hats and that we don’t have to tell people they can’t do things… but we really want to be a full partner with those that do business,” Wyant says.

Working with Lawmakers

Director Wyant was appointed by Republican Governor Snyder but he, also, works closely with the state legislature.  The GOP majorities in both the state House and Senate sometimes disagree with both Wyant and Snyder about certain environmental issues.  One such issue is wetlands protection. Wyant says he and the Governor will continue to push the legislature to keep the wetlands program. “The Snyder Administration and myself have been advocating very strongly to keep the program… We think the resource is really important for water quality, it’s very important for habitat and natural resources." And, he notes, he thinks he and the governor now have a majority of lawmakers believing that the program should be saved.

Looking to 2012

Wyant says the goal for 2012 will be focusing on one of the Governor’s favorite phrases, “Relentless Positive Action.” “We do that”, Wyant says, by, “encouraging more environmental stewardship – not less. We want to see Michigan’s economy recover – we think that’s good for the environment. And, lastly, the governor is very focused on customer service – our customers are the citizens of Michigan.”

Great Lakes Funding & Christmas Tree Debate

  • Lauren and her potted tree. It will stay outdoors until Christmas Eve, when it will be brought in for 14 hours. (Photo by Jennifer Guerra)

People who are working on cleaning up the Great Lakes got some good news this week. After months of negotiations, the 2012 federal budget contains $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

That money will be used to clean up pollution, deal with invasive species and restore wildlife habitat. A lot of these projects are already underway.

Jeff Skelding is the campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. He says in a time when many budgets are getting slashed, funding for Great Lakes cleanup will remain steady.

“We have pretty much full support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Great Lakes Congressional delegation. I mean, they see the wisdom of infusing federal funding into the region, not only to clean up the Lakes which of course is very important, but the ancillary benefit we get from that is the economic benefits of investing these funds.”

The budget also includes more than $500 million to help Great Lakes states upgrade their aging sewer systems. When it rains, the sewers often get overloaded, and raw sewage can wash up on beaches.

(music bump)

This is the Environment Report.

There’s a long-running debate about which kind of Christmas tree is greener: real or artificial. We sent reporter Jennifer Guerra to find out:

Lauren Northrop and her husband Tom are big fans of Christmas.

“We love celebrating it, I love decorating, but we always have this dilemma: what do we do about a tree?”

They didn’t want a plastic tree because it’s, well, plastic. And they didn’t like the idea of bringing a live tree into their house, only to have it die and then drag it out to the curb to be recycled.

So they skipped the Christmas tree thing altogether for the last four years. But then, their son was born.

They bought a live, baby Christmas tree with its roots still intact. That way, when Christmas is done and the ground thaws, they can plant it in their backyard.

“I was planning to keep the tree inside until December 25th so that we could decorate it and put lights on it. When we went to buy it they said if you do that, it probably won’t survive.”

That’s probably way too much hassle for most people.

So a lot of people go for real, cut trees. Pat Fera would love to have a real cut Christmas tree in her house.

“But I’m very afraid of them. I had a friend of mine, this was back in the ‘60s, and she and her mother had gone to midnight mass and her father was home and he was sleeping on the couch and what woke him up was the sound of the tree just going wooosh.”

Apparently the TV shorted, it ignited the tree, tree caught on fire and the dad just made it out of the house.

SCHILDGEN: “Well yeah, if you’re not careful that’s certainly, yeah, a real tree is a hell of a fire hazard!”

That’s Bob Schildgen. He writes an environmental advice column for the Sierra Club called Hey, Mr. Green. So I called him up and asked him…

Guerra: “Hey, Mr. Green. Which is more environmentally friendly? Why don’t we tackle one at a time: let’s go with plastic trees. What do you think about those?”

Schildgen: “Well, I don’t think they’re environmentally friendly for a number of reasons. One is that they’re made out of materials that use petrochemicals and metals and so forth. They get eventually tossed in the landfill, they have a life of about 9 years and then they’re tossed. They can’t be recycled.”

And since most plastic Christmas trees are made in places like China, they have to be shipped a very long way to end up in your family room.

So plastic is out.

Schildgen does like the idea of live bulb trees, but their survival rate once you plant them in the ground isn’t that great. So he says – aside from the fire hazard mentioned – real cut trees are a much greener option than plastic. With a real tree you’re using a renewable resource; the trees are raised on tree farms, so you’re not contributing to any deforestation. And they’re completely recyclable.

“I think another feature that I like about them is that, and this is not exactly an obvious environmental issue, but I think it’s very good for children to see something fresh, green, real, alive, and then watch it cycle as the needles fall off and it goes into its natural demise. I think that’s good for people.”

Schildgen says some farmers use pesticides on their tree, so if you’re concerned about that, you should look for local organic trees.

For The Environment Report, I’m Jennifer Guerra.

And that’s the Environment Report. Happy holidays! I’m Rebecca Williams.

Fingerprinting Mercury Emissions

  • PhD candidate Laura Sherman setting up a rain collector in Crystal River, Florida. (Photo by Emily White)

Mercury is a neurotoxin. The Environmental Protection Agency says mercury can be especially harmful for babies and kids. Mercury can affect their developing brains and harm their memory, attention, language and motor skills.

Mercury is naturally-occurring. Volcanoes emit mercury and so do hot springs, like the ones in Yellowstone National Park.

But the EPA points out… the largest manmade source of mercury emissions in the U.S. comes from coal-burning power plants.

Joel Blum is a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan. Blum says when power plants burn coal, mercury is emitted as a gas.

“In order to become toxic, it has to be transformed into a particular form known as methylmercury which is something that happens in the environment.”

So… mercury falls from the atmosphere, and is converted to methylmercury in the water. That toxic form builds up in fish… and it can build up in us when we eat fish.

But for years… there’s been a big debate about where that mercury goes when it’s released from a power plant smokestack.

“How much is deposited nearby, close to the plant, and how much goes into what we call global pool of mercury – basically goes into the atmosphere and stays there for a long period of time and mixes with mercury from other sources.”

Joel Blum and his colleagues have started to crack that puzzle with some careful detective work. They were able to track mercury emissions from a power plant in Florida… and they found that a high proportion of the mercury ended up nearby.

They did this by looking at chemical fingerprints.

“The element mercury has seven different forms that have slightly different masses.”

So – they can measure the ratio of these mercury isotopes and look at very subtle differences.

“And that can be used to tell different batches of mercury apart from one another.”

The team took the fingerprint of mercury in coal from the regions in Kentucky and West Virginia that supply the Florida power plant. And they measured rainfall at sites near the plant… and sites far away from the plant… for a month. It turned out the mercury fingerprint in those rainfall samples near the plant was very different from the mercury coming from other sources from across the Gulf of Mexico.

“So our study basically showed that a large portion of the mercury is being deposited locally from a particular power plant which strengthens the argument that we should be regulating mercury emissions from our own power plants in the United States.”

In Michigan, utility companies have been installing mercury control systems to meet state regulations.

The mercury fingerprinting method has been ten years in the making. But Joel Blum makes a point of saying that this is a very new technique… and there are many questions they still need to answer. For one thing… they still have to get mercury samples from the top of smokestacks.

Laura Sherman is a PhD candidate who’s been working on the project. She says someone would have to go up near the top of the smokestack to get mercury samples.

“They basically sit up there pulling air through little tubes with gold beads in them. All the mercury in the stack will stick to those gold beads, and we can analyze it later, so that’s something we would like to do.”

And she says right now, they’ve only looked at mercury fingerprints from this one power plant in Florida, so they don’t know yet what they’ll find at other plants.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Neither DTE Energy nor Consumers Energy responded to our requests for comment on the study.

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

Mercury Pollution & Detroit Green Garage

  • The Detroit Green Garage, in the midtown area of the city. (Photo courtesy of the Green Garage)

A new report from the group Environment Michigan says 115 inland lakes and rivers in the state have advisories for mercury pollution. Eating contaminated fish is the main way people are exposed to mercury.

Jessica Surma is with Environment Michigan. She says children are especially at risk for adverse health effects from mercury exposure.

“These can include lowered IQs, developmental disabilities and problems with motor control.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says electric utilities are by far the largest manmade sources of mercury emissions in the U.S. The EPA is planning to regulate mercury from power plants – for the first time ever.

John Austerberry is with DTE Energy.

“We agree with the goal of those regulations, but we are concerned that the federal rules will not provide sufficient time for the utilities to plan and install control systems.”

He says the company doesn’t know yet how much any new mercury control systems might cost or how much of that cost they might pass on to customers.

(music bump)

This is the Environment Report.

People everywhere are trying to get a grasp on what “sustainability” and “green jobs” really look like. That’s an especially urgent quest in a struggling city like Detroit. Some folks there have developed a building—and a community—that’s trying to find out. It’s called the Detroit Green Garage. Sarah Cwiek has this report:

The Detroit Green Garage was a sort of garage at one point. It started off in 1920 as a Model T showroom just north of downtown Detroit.

“There were actually no pillars because they used to drive Models T’s through here. They went in here and went out there.”

That’s Peggy Brennan. A few years ago she and her husband Tom got interested in all things sustainability related. They held weekly study groups on environmental issues, but they wanted to do more. So they went hunting for a space where they could create a larger green-focused community, and they found it here.

“What we ended up doing was spending two years with a community of people doing design work. As to how we were going to make it into how we were going to do materials, and all that stuff.”

The result: this former abandoned warehouse has been re-built from the inside, almost entirely from re-used and re-purposed materials. And the Green Garage largely creates its own energy—through solar panels and a geothermal heating and cooling system.

Now that the building itself is functional, the Green Garage is just now moving into its main role as a green business incubator. There are two businesses there already, and Brennan says they have room for up to 15.

Jason Peet has spent a lot of time at the Green Garage. He’s been getting help from Green Garage researchers and using workshop space as he launches his business.

Peet says when he first started hanging out here, all he had was an idea.

“I knew that I wanted to work with reclaimed wood and the problem of demolition, and the way demolition was being done in the city. I knew I wanted to produce a product out of that and that the history of the home was attached to the wood.”

Now, Peet is in the process of launching a business he calls Mend — one that makes furniture from wood taken out of Detroit homes that are about to be demolished. He sees it as a way to make something out of material that would otherwise go to the landfill—and preserve a bit of the city’s history.

Peet says Detroit is a great place to be for that because with tens of thousands of abandoned homes, there’s “tons of material” to work with. But he says there’s more to it than that.

“I think it’s a great place to do this work because there’s so many other people, there’s so much energy. And that’s something I experience on a daily basis.”

The Brennans say that’s exactly what they hope to foster with the Green Garage. Not just the businesses that could be the foundation of a new “green economy” — but a community working to define what it means to live sustainably.

For the Environment Report I’m Sarah Cwiek.

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

New Chemicals & Forest Christmas Tree

  • Amelia Payette, age 9, with the tree her family chose on their trip into the national forest. (Photo by Sarah Payette)

Researchers at Indiana University have discovered two new kinds of flame retardant chemicals showing up in the air around the Great Lakes. These chemicals are added to foam to help keep furniture and baby products from catching on fire. They’re replacing other flame retardants that have been linked to neurological and developmental defects, and fertility and reproductive problems.

These newer chemicals are called brominated benzylates and brominated phthalates.

Ron Hites is an author of the study. His team found the chemicals in air samples from six sites around the Great Lakes… from Chicago to the remote Eagle Harbor in the Upper Peninsula. But he says it’s not clear yet what this might mean.

“We have very limited toxicology and virtually no information on ecological effects.”

Hites says one study suggests these chemicals can cause DNA damage in fish.

He says the concentrations of the chemicals in the atmosphere appear to be doubling every year or two in the Great Lakes region.

(music bump)

This is the Environment Report.

Most of us get our Christmas trees from a lot or a farm.

But if you have a saw and five bucks, you can cut down a tree in the national forest. Peter Payette took his family out to do it the old fashioned way and sent this report:

It’s true that five bucks is not much to pay for a tree, but it’ll cost you some time and gas money to get there.

The first stop is at a U.S. Forest Service office to buy a tag.

There’s one in Cadillac where Dianne Berry sells us our tags and helps us get our bearings.

“This is a two sided map… the other side has the area closest to Manistee. And on the Huron-Manistee we have almost a million acres.”

That means there are 500,000 acres of trees just on this side of the state, between Cadillac and Big Rapids!

But Dianne is reluctant to suggest a place to start looking for a Christmas tree.

“Oh there’s a lot of trees, a lot of beautiful trees.”

This is the second time we’ve done this and the navigating is a little more complicated than you might think.

National forests are actually a patchwork of forests checkered with blocks of private land. So you have to do some figuring to be sure you’re actually on public land so you don’t bring down somebody else’s tree.

“I think we need to go that way…”

The first piece of advice the Forest Service offers is to tell someone when you take a trip into the forest.

I have my entire family, my in-laws, and two dogs with me so I’m probably okay.

My advice, if you’re going for a Christmas tree is lower your expectations a little bit. Wild trees are not as full or symmetrical as the ones available on tree lots.

Last time my oldest daughter, Isabelle, was mortified when we got it back to our living room.

“In the woods it looks really fat and bushy and you bring it in your house and it looks like a twig.”

(sound of searching in the woods)

And that’s my other piece of advice: be ready for disagreements, since it’s easy to find fault with these trees.

(sound of Peter’s daughters arguing about a tree)

The results this time were much better than before.

We searched more widely and found a clump of fine spruce trees.

My in-laws took one with a split trunk that had many branches. Ours was a little skimpier but filled out nicely when we loaded it up with ornaments.

My mother in-law said it looked as good as any tree you’d buy for forty-five dollars.

I think she really meant it.

For the Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.

If you want to cut down a tree in the national forest you really do have to do it the old fashioned way – the Forest Service says no chainsaws are allowed.

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

Forestry Council Shakeup & Home Heating Debate

  • A stand of red pine trees in the Huron-Manistee National Forest. (Photo courtesy of Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service)

There’s a shakeup in managing Michigan’s forests.

A new advisory council is heavily weighted with voices from the timber industry.

And there will be more emphasis on developing forest products to boost the state’s economy. Bob Allen reports:

Governor Rick Snyder says there’s a lot of potential to use natural resources to bring in more revenue.

The head of the Department of Natural Resources has just appointed a new ten member forest advisory council. Eight of the ten members are connected to the timber industry.

The new council will focus on developing logging and lumber, pulp and paper, and bio fuels.

An existing forest management advisory group includes other interests such as wildlife, recreation and conservation as well as logging.

Marvin Roberson with the Sierra Club says those other voices largely will be gone from the new council.

“I think this is going to mean a lack of management for natural conservation values and an increase in management for timber-only values.”

The DNR also is reorganizing its forestry division so that come January it will no longer deal with oil, gas and minerals or recreation on state forest land.

(music bump)

This is the Environment Report.

Michigan lawmakers are debating this week how to help low-income families pay their heating bills. It’s turned into an urgent problem because of federal budget cuts… and a court decision that’s tied up millions of dollars.

Here’s how it works: there’s a program called the Low-Income Energy Efficiency Fund. If you get your power from DTE or Consumers Energy, you pay into that fund when you pay your energy bills… somewhere between one and two dollars a month.

There’s been about $90 million dollars in that fund annually. About $60 million of that goes to help low-income families keep their heat on in the winter. The other $30 million goes toward energy efficiency projects (often to help low-income families weatherize their homes to save energy and money).

But… this summer, a court decision changed everything.

State Representative Jeff Irwin says some of the industries that also have to pay into this home heating fund sued the state. They said that the Michigan Legislature made an error in 2008… and left out language that authorizes the Michigan Public Service Commission to collect this money.

“So they brought that suit forward and they won. It turns out in 2008 the Legislature did leave out some key language. So now you’ve got thousands of families across Michigan facing the loss of heating assistance this winter. And also you have a number of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects across the state in various stages of completion that are also left in the lurch.”

Irwin says lawmakers could have put the program back together, but they haven’t.

When that court decision came down… the Michigan Public Service Commission canceled the grants it had awarded for energy efficiency projects.

Sean Reed is with the Clean Energy Coalition. It’s a non-profit group that was using the low-income funds to help cities in bad financial shape upgrade their energy systems… cities like Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor.

“In some of them they don’t have functioning heating or air conditioning systems in the city hall facilities, which if you’re a municipal employee and you’re trying to get things done, and you’re just wearing your coat and your hat all day just to stay warm.”

Reed says they have a number of projects that were stopped midstream.

The Legislature is talking about how to fulfill those contracts.

But some Republicans say there’s a bigger problem with the low-income heating fund. Representative Ken Horn says low-income heating money should not be used for energy efficiency projects.

“And that money was going towards wind energy projects for the Great Lakes, solar panels sitting in warehouses that need to be installed yet, cities are changing out their traffic lights from incandescent to LED.”

Michigan lawmakers say they’ll find a way to pay for heating assistance before they go on their winter break next week. But it’s not clear what will happen with the money for energy upgrades.

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

Black Bears Moving South

  • A hungry black bear left its paw print in a frame of Terry Klein's beehive. (Photo by Terry Klein)

Black bears have been doing well in northern Michigan for a while. There are somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 bears in the state, mostly in the U.P. and the northern lower peninsula. But in recent years… bears have been on the move.

Some people are already getting a little closer to bears than they’d like to.

(bee buzzing)

“There’s one coming up to inspect…”

Terry Klein is a commercial beekeeper and he’s checking on the hives in his backyard.

“These are in good shape if they’re that far down and there’s that much honey on them.”

(sound of Klein opening a hive)

He lives in St. Charles. It’s about 20 miles southwest of Saginaw.

“This spring is the most recent fun we had with the bear, if you want to call it that.”

He had 20 hives set up near the Saginaw-Midland county line. Only two of them survived the winter. And those last two hives were the ones the bear decided to eat. He left behind a calling card.

“There was one very definite paw print in one of the frames that had fallen or got knocked out of the hive, and there were several other frames that you could see claw marks.”

Bears do love honey, but they also love to eat the bee larvae. So they can devour the entire hive.

Black bears are not just wandering into the Saginaw area. They’ve been showing up all over southern Michigan.

Adam Bump is a bear specialist with the Department of Natural Resources.

“We get scattered reports especially on the west side of the state. But over the last five to ten years they’ve been coming much more consistently.”

He says bears have shown up in the Thumb, and around Flint, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Lansing, and the Chelsea area.

He says a lot of the time, the bears are young males that get pushed out during the breeding season. They’ll head down looking for new territory.

“It’s not that we’re completely full up in the north – it can’t take one more bear – it’s just that we’re getting more taking the chance and moving south.”

He says bears like to travel along rivers and forested corridors. And he says bears appear to be finding good routes to travel.

“Even in the greater Grand Rapids area you have a lot of green space, so when you have those connecting forest corridors or even forested blocks you build bear habitat.”

Bump says some female bears appear to be moving south too. And some might be setting up camp… and having babies.

“We think we have an established population now as far down as Grand Rapids, possibly into Ionia County. We’re getting more and more reports of bears in southern Michigan, even bears that are too young to have moved, so they had to have been produced in southern Michigan.”

But he says they don’t know exactly where those established populations might be.

Dwayne Etter is trying to figure that out. He’s a bear researcher with the DNR. He puts radio collars on bears and uses GPS to track their movements.

“We haven’t been able to get a female bear collared yet. So we’d really like to get a female bear collared down here because then we could track and see if she’s reproducing.”

The DNR is planning to allow bears to expand naturally into southern Michigan.

Adam Bump says he’s hoping they can keep conflicts between black bears and people to a minimum.

“The reality is they’re not a very aggressive animal. The chances of them doing anything to a person or a pet are extremely low. If you do have reports or see one in the neighborhood, the best thing to do is remove any attractants, don’t put your trash out the night before trash pickup, pull in birdfeeders.”

He says the most important thing to know is to never feed a bear directly. He says black bears have a natural fear of humans… but if they lose that fear and associate people with food, they can become dangerous.

But Adam Bump says he expects bear encounters to be rare… and the bear will probably run away before you even see it.

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

Less Money for Cities to Fix Water Systems?

  • Water at the Senior Citizens' Housing Center in Louisville, NY before it is filtered. (Photo by Julie Grant)

Advocates for clean water are concerned about proposed Congressional spending cuts. The program that helps communities afford expensive water and sewer projects is expected to be cut in half. Julie Grant reports many local governments won’t be able to afford them:

(sound of water room)

When Ernie Runions took the job as maintenance manager at the Senior Citizens Housing Center in Louisville, New York, he didn’t realize how much time he’d be spending in this small room. The water room. It’s filled with water tanks and filters. Runions says the equipment cost about $25,000 and the price tag keeps rising…

“It’s in terrible shape. It keeps falling apart. Every time we fix it, it’s $5,000, $3,000. This place is right in the hole because of that.”

(sound of water pouring)

We fill a bucket with the nursing home’s water – before it’s gone through the extensive filtering.

It smells bad, like eggs and iron. It’s got a blackish tint, and it’s got black particles floating in it.

Runions says even after the filtering, the elderly residents don’t want to drink it. It’s high in sodium, which can be bad for their health. And it smells like chlorine, which Runions uses to kill bacteria:

“And they complain. They say the chlorine is making me itch, all the extra chlorine. I’ve got red blotches all over my body, and my doctor says it’s the chlorine from the building.”

Town leaders say that until a few years ago, everyone used well water. And most people had some kind of problem with it. Nearly half the wells tested had coliform bacteria contamination – some suspected sewage was seeping into the wells.

Residents wanted to build a municipal water system, so they didn’t have to rely on well water. But that’s a multi-million dollar endeavor.

Cities all over the country have problems like this.

Andy Buchsbaum is a director at the National Wildlife Federation in Ann Arbor. He says water and sewer districts make some money by charging for their services:

“But the level of spending that’s needed here to improve sewage infrastructure is so great that individuals and businesses in these municipalities can’t possibly shoulder the burden themselves.”

The biggest federal assistance comes from what’s called the state revolving loan fund. It gives money to states to provide zero-or-low interest loans to local governments for water and sewer projects.

There’s stiff competition to get the assistance. Michigan had requests for 51 drinking water projects in the coming year – eight of those projects have been offered funding.

The state revolving loan fund also helps communities with wastewater projects.

When there’s a big storm, many older sewer systems can’t handle all the water. So raw sewage overflows, and can wash up on beaches around the Great Lakes.

Detroit has a lot of sewage overflows. The water and sewer department proposed a plan to modernize the sewers. But the city worried residents couldn’t afford it, so the plan was scaled back.

Buchsbaum says the need to upgrade and build new sewers is growing. But Congress has proposed cutting the state revolving loan program in half.

“The last significant investment that was made in this country was over forty years ago, and sewage pipes just don’t last that long. Therefore we’ve got to invest more in sewage capacity. Instead we’re investing less – and a lot less. And what that slash means is that we’re going to see literally hundreds of billions of gallons of raw and untreated sewage spilling into our lakes and streams.”

Some water industry experts say funding for sewer and drinking water projects got a big boost under the 2009 federal stimulus package. The cuts proposed now in Congress would reduce the state revolving loan fund back to pre-stimulus levels. But they say, even at the highest investment, there wasn’t near enough money to meet community needs.

For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.