Climate change, corporate polluters and Line 5: The Advance’s top environmental stories of 2022

By: - December 24, 2022 5:15 am

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

Climate change, corporate polluters and Line 5: The Advance’s top environmental stories of 2022

Just because 2022 was a year dominated by political campaigns and election coverage doesn’t mean that other issues took a back seat.

That includes no shortage of environmental issues, from pushbacks against environmental racism to the ever-shifting legal saga of the Line 5 pipeline.

Here are some of the Advance’s top environmental stories of 2022.

Environmental cleanup

In a situation reminiscent of the 2020 “green ooze” toxic waste spill in Madison Heights, a hexavalent chromium spill in the Huron River caused a stir in August that prompted lawmakers and activists to urge stronger pollution regulations

While the city’s water has been declared safe since then, an investigation is ongoing.

Cleanup efforts across the state for Superfund sites and “areas of concern” in the Great Lakes have been bolstered this year by new funds from the federal government. One area in Muskegon Lake is now closer than ever to federal delisting.

In other news, PFAS is still an issue in Michigan that some lawmakers want to see more action on, and environmentalists are still seeking priority protection for a swath of wilderness area in the U.P.

Tiffany Stewart, co-founder of the Environmental Council for Huron Valley at the Huron River in Milford, Aug. 10, 2022 | Kyle Davidson

Utilities face accountability

As climate change becomes an ever-pressing issue, the state and its major energy utilities have been met with pressure to mitigate Michigan’s part in global warming.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has directed a number of efforts to move this goal forward, including a climate plan to take Michigan to carbon neutrality by 2050. A state environmental panel also recommended that all coal plants in the state close by 2035.

Accountability from utilities have mostly occurred due to public pressure, from groups demanding accountability for outages to a social justice coalition fighting against DTE Energy and Consumers Energy’s respective requests for rate hikes.  

Attorney General Dana Nessel was also able to secure a deal with Consumers Energy to end the major utility’s use of coal by 2025 — 15 earlier than originally planned.

Water crises

Like Flint, Benton Harbor has become yet another Michigan city harmed by a lead-related water crisis.

Lawsuits over the “ultimate inexcusable repeat of history” continue in the city, while the state continues to make progress on replacing lead lines.

As for Flint, lawsuits over the manmade crisis are ongoing nearly a decade later. Defendants have included GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, members of his administration and companies connected to the crisis.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in June that a judge lacked the authority in 2021 to indict Snyder and eight others on charges. Earlier this month, a federal judge dismissed two criminal charges against Snyder.

In August, a mistrial was declared in a trial of two engineering firms that consulted with the city of Flint during that time.

Only one case related to the Flint water crisis remains, as former Flint public works official Howard Croft still has misdemeanor charges pending.

Flint water plant | Susan J. Demas

Line 5

The controversial and aging oil pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac made no shortage of news this year.

At play are the fate of the current, nearly 70-year-old dual Line 5 pipelines under the Straits, as well as Canadian owner Enbridge’s plans to replace the lines with a newer, tunnel-encased version.

Nessel is still seeking to decommission the current pipeline via court action. Her lawsuit is presently in federal court, where a judge in August ordered it should stay, siding with Enbridge in a blow to the state’s case. Nessel is expected to appeal the decision.

Meanwhile, Line 5’s presence in treaty lands and sacred waters remains a source of acrimony between Enbridge and Indigenous communities in Michigan. Several demonstrations were held by tribal water protectors in 2022 to urge Line 5’s “eviction” from the Straits and to call on Enbridge to respect treaty rights.

Indigenous Siberians, facing their own existential threats from the fossil fuel industry back home, also joined the fight in Michigan this year against Line 5.

The pipeline converged with Michigan politics during the election season. Candidates on both sides of the aisle made their opinions on Line 5 known, while opponents of the pipeline pushed back against certain Republican claims about impacts of a potential shutdown.

As for a replacement pipeline, review processes are still ongoing for several agencies and public bodies. Activists have sounded the alarm about potentially dangerous conditions during the tunnel project’s construction; a state panel has sought more information on these potential threats; and public comment meetings have been populated with opinionated voices. Tribes in Michigan and beyond have been particularly vocal about the dangers of approving another long-lived oil pipeline.

Line 5 doesn’t just make news in Michigan. Hundreds of miles long, the embattled pipeline originates at the tip of Northwest Wisconsin before continuing into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and eventually out into Canada.

About 12 miles of the pipeline in Wisconsin runs through reservation lands. The Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians have been locked in legal battles with Enbridge since July 2019.

After a judge ruled for the tribe in September, establishing that Enbridge has been trespassing and must pay damages to the tribe, both parties are set to meet and come up with a plan for the future of the pipeline by Christmas.

Honor the Earth table at “Enbridge eviction” celebration, Conkling Park, Mackinaw City | Laina G. Stebbins

Natural disasters, climate change, conservation efforts

Not to be outdone by the hundred-year Midland flood of 2020, a rare and even more destructive EF3 tornado ripped through Gaylord in late May, leaving two dead and dozens injured. A rogue lightning strike just days prior also sparked a more than 2,00-acre fire in northern Michigan.

More frequent extreme weather events have prompted concern that the effects of climate change are ramping up in the Great Lakes region. Lawmakers and Whitmer agreed on a budget plan this year that will invest in water, infrastructure and more to mitigate these effects.

Mitigation and conservation efforts can also be found at tribal fisheries, like that of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBB), where tribal citizens in the Natural Resources Department continue to work tirelessly to revive native Great Lakes fish populations that have waned in recent decades.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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