Welcome to the April 1, 2021 edition of Three Things Thursday! Spring in Michigan is always an adventure: one day you are celebrating the crocuses and daffodils and the next you are building a fire in the woodstove. This year we mark the second spring within a global pandemic; the second spring with infection numbers soaring. It’s also the first spring with a new administration in the White House, bringing real plans for vaccine distribution and a deep commitment to ensuring the health, safety and economic recovery for the American people.
Although most eyes are on Washington these days, the antics in our state legislature and the challenges to our drinking water keep Michigan in the national news. This week’s edition of Three Things examines a legislative package recently introduced by Michigan Republicans aimed at making voting harder, not easier; the latest on PFAS contamination in Michigan communities; and details on President Biden’s Build Back Better plan.
1. A 39-bill package attacking our elections laws
After historic turnout in the 2020 election (especially from historically marginalized voters), Republicans in Michigan’s legislature have now proposed sweeping changes to our state’s election laws in a blatant attempt to further disenfranchise marginalized communities and communities of color.
Despite a well-executed election during a global pandemic, which included more people than ever voting via absentee ballots, former President Trump spread lies and misinformation, questioning security and challenging election results. Falling in line behind the President, we saw many Michigan Republican lawmakers capitalize upon the Trump conspiracies to question the election certification process.
In early 2021, following validation of a secure and successful election, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson introduced a legislative agenda focused on expanding and strengthening voting rights in our state. Rather than support the continued enhancement of our democracy, however, Republicans in the legislature, led by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, introduced a 39-bill package that would make it harder–not easier– for Michiganders to vote. Unfortunately, this is not unique to Michigan and is, in fact, happening all over the country.
Some of the most concerning pieces of legislation take direct aim at Michigan’s election process and laws, including attempts to restrict how and where Michiganders can access their ballots. One of our partner organizations, All Voting Is Local, summarized some of the most concerning aspects of the bill package and what they could mean for Michigan voters. Here’s a snapshot:
- Senate Bill 0287: Bans prepaid postage on return envelopes for mailed ballots
- Senate Bill 310: Bars the Secretary of State’s office from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications
- Senate Bill 0286: Shortens the deadline to return mailed ballots in a ballot drop box from 8 p.m. on Election Day to 5 p.m. the day before
- Senate Bill 0285: Requires photo identification for all absentee ballot applicants
These four bills are just the tip of the iceberg, exemplifying how Senate Republicans think about our current election laws and their thinly veiled attempt to disenfranchise Michigan voters (curtailing access to absentee ballots and ballot drop boxes!!??).
What is especially concerning about the Senate Republican plans is that the legislative play is just step one. Knowing that this package will be vetoed when it reaches the Governor’s desk, Shirkey and friends already have plans for circumventing Governor Whitmer’s authority and taking this to the ballot.
Michigan LCV Education Fund’s Democracy For All team (formally known as our Civic Engagement team) has been tracking the legislation closely, along with partner organizations, like the ACLU of Michigan and All Voting Is Local. We issued a collective statement in immediate response to the Republican’s action, calling on lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature to protect, not restrict, the freedom and right to vote in our state. In the days ahead, our Democracy For All team, in concert with our Communications and Government Affairs teams, will be all-hands-on-deck in fighting this legislative package and harnessing our members’ discontent with this direct attack on our democratic process.
2. PFAS Update: The Voices of Impacted Citizens in Rockford and Oscoda
As you know, toxic PFAS contamination has reached crisis levels in communities across our state and is also a growing problem nationally. Communities are finding PFAS chemicals leaching into groundwater and soil, poisoning drinking water and public and private lands.
Over the past few years, there have been several communities across Michigan that have been severely impacted by PFAS contamination, including Oscoda, near Lake Huron, and Rockford/Belmont in Kent County. In both communities, PFAS has contaminated drinking water, recreational waterways, and broad swaths of private and public land, causing severe health impacts and poisoning wildlife and aquatic species.
Recently, there have been even more instances of PFAS contamination reported in other areas of Michigan. In Traverse City, for example, PFAS has contaminated drinking water in residential wells near East Grand Traverse Bay. And, last week it was reported that the smelt population in Lake Superior has been contaminated by PFAS chemicals, making the fish a danger to eat as the chemicals are known carcinogens.
With PFAS contamination continuing to rear its ugly head, the Michigan LCV team has amped up the pressure in our work to raise awareness around this serious issue and catalyze action from our lawmakers to address the health and safety of Michiganders all across the state. This week the Michigan LCV team co-hosted two events, helping to lift up the voices and stories of individuals and families impacted by these toxic “forever” chemicals.
On Tuesday, our Communications team was instrumental in organizing a press event directly across the street from the House Street Dump in Belmont (Kent County), which has some of the highest levels of PFAS contamination in the nation as a result of unregulated dumping by Wolverine World Wide throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Neighbors up and down the street came together to voice their unified opposition to an inadequate cleanup plan proposed by Wolverine World Wide, which is currently being reviewed by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). Our friend Sandy Wynn-Stelt, whose husband died shortly after his liver and kidney cancer diagnosis, has been a champion for her neighborhood and was an essential voice at the event. In fact, the press conference was held in Sandy’s driveway – directly across the street from the chain link fence with “Do Not Cross” hazard signs posted by Wolverine World Wide.
The main issue at hand is Wolverine World Wide’s proposed cleanup plan, which has been denounced by scientific experts as wholly inadequate and ineffective. The company has basically proposed the creation of a park on the contaminated property and planting trees to soak up the contamination. This is by far the cheapest option, next to doing nothing, and the community is not only unimpressed, but outraged.
Neighbors came together to make their voices heard and the media paid attention. The timing was perfect as EGLE hosted a public hearing on Wolverine’s plan the very next day. Our collective efforts garnered stories in MLive, WZZM Channel 13 and WGVU Radio (a PBS/NPR affiliate).
And, while the Tigers may have had their opening day (3-2 Tigers!), Michigan LCV had a PFAS double header, determined to win on behalf of impacted citizens…
The following day (Wednesday) we co-hosted a webinar with National Wildlife Federation and a community-based organization named Need Our Water (NOW) Oscoda, which has been fighting the Air Force for years as they skirted responsibility and adequate cleanup for PFAS contamination from the Wurtsmith Base .
Just last year, after decades of inaction, the U.S. Air Force committed to a remediation plan to clean up the contamination caused by firefighting foam and other water resistant materials used at the base before it closed. While this marked a victory for the Oscoda community, the Air Force then announced that it would not follow Michigan law in their remediation efforts, a blatant disregard for state authority and the health of the Oscoda community. In response, Gov. Whitmer, just yesterday, invoked a clause in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)–championed by Sens. Peters and Stabenow–to put pressure on the Pentagon to comply with Michigan’s contamination clean up laws. By invoking said clause, Whitmer is demanding that the U.S. Air Force to follow Michigan’s laws and remediate contamination from PFAS chemicals in Oscoda to Michigan standards. In so doing, our tough Governor is (once again) demonstrating strong, decisive leadership on an enormously important issue, one with huge implications for the health and well-being of a Michigan community.
NOTE: In 2020, Michigan enacted some of the nation’s most stringent PFAS standards, implementing a much higher standard for acceptable levels of PFAS in drinking water and soil than EPA advisory limits. As a result of Michigan’s higher standards, more than 150 locations were added to the list of more than 24,000 contaminated sites across the state.
PFAS contamination, like many of the fights we engage in, is the story of David vs. Goliath: impacted individuals, families and communities vs. multi-national corporations and/or the Defense Dept. While the latter may have unlimited resources, we have our own stopping power: the power of people organizing for change.
3. President Biden’s transformational Build Back Better recovery plan
To top off a VERY busy week, on Wednesday President Joe Biden unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure investment entitled “Build Back Better”. Speaking in Pittsburgh, President Biden announced the transformational plan to reinvest in the nation’s infrastructure while taking meaningful steps to invest in communities that need it the most, address our drinking water crisis, create good, clean energy jobs, and move us forward to carbon neutrality.
This is a BIG deal, friends. Honestly, this is a once in a generation opportunity.
The Michigan LCV team has been working in close concert with our partners at national LCV and the Conservation Voters Movement to highlight and garner support for the plan, knowing that these investments will (1) serve as the bedrock for the much-needed build back from the COVID-19 pandemic and (2) stimulate the economy while acting proactively to address our drinking water crisis and the threat of climate change. Michigan LCV issued a statement Wednesday applauding the Biden/Harris administration for recognizing the incredible opportunity presented to us as the country begins to recover.
The $2 trillion investment will focus on rebuilding the country’s infrastructure (highways, bridges, ports, etc.), while also providing billions of dollars to improve the energy grid, invest in clean energy, and overhaul water systems and infrastructure, helping protect the health of our communities.
Also included in the “American Jobs Plan” are investments in research and development in clean energy, electrification of vehicles, and remediation of old mining projects and natural gas wells, and the creation of good-paying jobs for Americans across the country, while protecting communities from air and water pollution and subsequent health effects.
And, if that weren’t enough, the Biden administration is purposefully making investments in programs in low-income communities (urban and rural) and communities of color, recognizing that these are the communities that have historically been the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation.
This is an enormously important moment.
In a parallel move, Congressional leaders are set to introduce legislation that will invest $10 trillion in renewable energy and infrastructure to address climate change and justice over the next decade. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell is one of the lead sponsors of the Transform, Heal and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy (THRIVE) Act, once again demonstrating her deep commitment to addressing climate and environmental threats and injustices by investing in the future.
There are so many things to be excited about in President Biden’s plan, and in the leadership exemplified by many members of our congressional delegation. For more information about Build Back Better, I encourage you to read this comprehensive New York Times article.
There is a tremendous amount of work ahead of us to ensure that these bold plans and proposals are adopted. We invite you to roll up your sleeves and join the Michigan LCV team. We intend to be there every step of the way.
As always, thank you for your belief in our work. Until next week, be safe, be well….
PS Webinar/FB Live Event with Congresswoman Tlaib
Michigan LCV held a timely conversation with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib on Tuesday, the day before Michigan’s moratorium on water shutoffs expired. We discussed the impending expiration of the moratorium, the importance of access to clean, safe, affordable water, and what needs to be done to address water inequality in Michigan and across the country. It was an honor to discuss these pressing issues with Rep. Tlaib, who has exemplified–time and again–what it means to be a champion for our water. You can check out our conversation here.