By Greg Schmid, Matt deHeus & Robert E. Martin
2016 was a year of extreme contrasts on the political front, with very little ground in the middle for us to stand safely and secure upon. For some the election of Donald Trump signaled a ray of hope; for others it signaled mass depression. But one thing is for certain: we are through the looking glass and regardless of your political persuasion, polarization of extremes on both sides of the spectrum has created an alternate universe where up is down, economic disparity is widening, and we’re all taking a ride on the merry-go-round where rationality seems to be in short supply.
2016 was the year people looked outside the mainstream for ways to fix the system. And while the topics and issues were numerous, here’s a few that caught our attention here at The Review.
Enbridge Line 5 Pipeline Protests in Michigan.
Environmentalist groups have been actively calling on the state to shut down Line 5 under the Strait of Mackinac. The protest movement started the 2010 pipeline spill into Talmage Creek in Marshall Michigan. That inland spill was contained, and was cleaned up over several years under EPA supervision, but a legion of protesters like MI CATS (Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands), Earth First!, and the Episcopalian Church have teamed up to mobilize the public against having any pipelines under the Great Lakes. Protesters now claim corollaries to the recently stopped pipeline project under the Missouri River, at Lake Oahe in North Dakota, which is a key source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Reservation nearby.
Line 5 has never experienced a major incident resulting in a release of oil or natural gas products into the Great Lakes. The pipeline company says the pipelines that were built in 1953 carry nearly 23 million gallons of oil and petroleum products a day and are safe. Line 5 is a 30-inch pipeline which carries light crude and natural gas produced in Canada through the United States from Superior, Wis., to Sarnia, Ontario; it splits into two 20-inch lines under the straits of Mackinac.
The company regularly uses a PIG (pipeline inspection gadget) to monitor the pipeline from the inside. The tool is like an MRI. The company reveals there are some spots of corrosion inside the pipeline, the pipeline has some dents, some minor cracks and mill anomalies (uneven wall thicknesses). Enbridge has detailed information about the pipeline and efforts to maintain pipeline safety at www.enbridge.com/michigan.
Over the past year protesters have planted yard signs all over northern Michigan and used bicycle and kayak vigils to draw attention to the pipeline. Others have chained themselves to Pipeline equipment, and one man even skateboarded deep inside the pipe and refused to come out. Others staged a loud protest at the private home of Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose staff decried the use of professional protesters to intimidate his family. The Attorney General had previously made clear the pipeline is a risk and is working hard with all groups involved to find a public policy solution that protects the Great Lakes. The National Wildlife Federation has started suit in US federal court.
The company installed four pipeline anchors this fall, and wants to put in 18 more next spring with government approval. This continuing process of installing supports for the existing pipeline is to ensure compliance with the pipeline easement which guarantees that there are no more than 75 feet between the supports that hold it in place above the lake bottom, which is a requirement of the pipeline easement.
The state of Michigan has launched independent studies that could affect the long-term future of the pipeline. One is a general risk analysis, and the other to provide evidence of alternatives to underwater pipelines. Enbridge has agreed to pay $3.6 million for the studies, overseen by the state.
Betsy Devos As Education Secretary
"Under her leadership we will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families," – President-elect Trump
Betsy Devos has spent decades advocating for competitive alternatives to government-run public education. Now she is poised to become the Education Secretary for the Trump administration, and this development has major implications for US education policy in favor of school vouchers, school choice, use of government funds for private and charter schools, and “common core” academic standards.
The stage is set for a major showdown over “common core”. The Gates foundation is fixated on testing, and opponents fear that billionaire philanthropists, multinational corporations, and Washington bureaucrats are eliminating local control of education, consolidating power over government education in lockstep with the for-profit textbook and testing companies that lobbied for common core and which stand to cash in on mandatory student evaluations. Common core advocates fear that states have no consistent mechanisms for holding private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling families accountable for student performance. Opponents prefer local control with parents and families having a say at their local school board. Other issues involve government funding of education, and whether those funds should support school choice and privatization options to foster competition, with teacher unions claiming such diversion of tax dollars away from government schools is destroying public education.
Here are some of the things Devos has actually said about education policy:
• School choice: “We think of the educational choice movement as involving many parts: vouchers and tax credits, certainly, but also virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and charter schools.”
• Common Core: “Certainly. I am not a supporter—period. I do support high standards, strong accountability, and local control. When Governors such as John Engler, Mike Huckabee, and Mike Pence were driving the conversation on voluntary high standards driven by local voices, it all made sense. Have organizations that I have been a part of supported Common Core? Of course. But that’s not my position. Sometimes it’s not just students who need to do their homework. However, along the way, it got turned into a federalized boondoggle. Above all, I believe every child, no matter their zip code or their parents’ jobs, deserves access to a quality education.”
• Home Schooling: “Homeschooling represents another perfectly valid educational option. We’ve seen more and more people opt for homeschooling, including in urban areas. What you’re seeing is parents who are fed up with their lack of power to do anything about where their kids are assigned to go to school. To the extent that homeschooling puts parents back in charge of their kids’ education, more power to them.”
• Charter schools: “Charter schools are another choice—a very valid choice. As we work to help provide parents with more educational choices, it is always with the assumption that charter schools are part of the equation.”
Flint Water Crisis and the Legacy of Darnell Early
Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley made the decision in 2014 to switch Flint’s drinking water source to the Flint River, despite being informed that the Detroit water system would continue to support Flint indefinately. The move was intended to be an interim measure through 2016, when a new pipeline would let the city connect with the Karegnondi Water Authority, which drew its water from Lake Huron. The Flint River turned out to be so corrosive it ate away at the pipes in the city, causing lead to leach into the water supply. In January 2015 the federal government declared a state of emergency, which was in effect until this August 2016, when it was determined that lead levels were reduced.
The legal doctrines of sovereign immunity (which protects the state from suit) and official immunity (which in Michigan shields top government officials from personal liability, even in cases of gross negligence) resulted in comparatively few lawsuits being filed in the Flint case. Even so, litigation has included the following cases:
• Families filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Governor Rick Snyder and thirteen other city and state officials, including former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and ex-emergency financial manager Darnell Earley, alleging the officials acted recklessly and negligently, leading to serious injuries from lead poisoning, including autoimmune disorders, skin lesions, and "brain fog.”
• A class-action lawsuit against Snyder, the State of Michigan, the City of Flint, Earley, Walling, and Croft was filed by three Flint residents in Michigan Circuit Court in Genesee County. This suit targeted lower-level officials who (under Michigan law) may not have immunity from claims arising from gross negligence.
• Suit was filed in the Michigan Court of Claims against the governor and state agencies alleging violations of the state constitution. In Michigan, the Court of Claims is the only court with subject-matter jurisdiction over claims against the state and its subdivisions.
• A federal lawsuit seeks the replacement of all lead service lines in Flint at no cost to residents following claims city and state leaders violated federal laws designed to protect drinking water.
• A lawsuit was filed in Michigan Circuit Court behalf of four Genesee County residents who contracted Legionnaires' disease during the Flint water crisis, including one woman who died seven days after entering the emergency room with a headache. The suit names McLaren Regional Medical Center and several Michigan DEQ officials as defendants.
• A federal lawsuit by parents of a two-year-old girl diagnosed with high blood lead levels filed a lawsuit in federal court, naming as defendants the City of Flint, the State of Michigan, Snyder, Earley, and Walling.
• A class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven residents alleging that tens of thousands of residents have suffered physical and economic injuries and damages. It argues officials failed to take action over "dangerous levels of lead" in drinking water and "downplayed the severity of the contamination."
• A federal class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 500 county inmates against the Genesee County Sheriff's Department in regards to the water quality at the Genesee County Jail. The suit seeks an injunction that will order the sheriff's department to continue to serve inmates only bottled water and dry food that doesn't require water to prepare.
• City of Flint filed a notice of intent sue in the Court of Claims against the State of Michigan, the MDEQ and four MDEQ employees for their mishandling of the crisis. A week later, Mayor Weaver said she has no intentions to proceed with a lawsuit, and the move is to "protect the future interest of the city."
Medical Marijuana Dispensaries in Michigan
Michigan lawmakers passed comprehensive legislation this year to establish marijuana dispensaries in Michigan. Expect the first Medical Marijuana stores to open in May 2018, after the red tape gets sorted out. The city of Lansing is working on a model city ordinance that establishes and regulates locations for marijuana facilities. It is clear that the state government is also expecting the voters to legalize marijuana in November 2018, and wants to have a legal distribution system in place by that time. The main thrust of the new regulations is to take marijuana out of the black market and into the mainstream where consumers can expect it to be safety tested for contaminants.
Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and California passed measures legalizing recreational marijuana. Montana, North Dakota, Arkansas and Florida all voted to legalize medical marijuana.
Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) Executive Director Rob Kampia, Director of State Policies Karen O’Keefe, and Campaigns Analyst Heather Azzi are coming on a "listening tour" in Michigan to consider a November 2018 initiative and ask for input.
The number of U.S. citizens living in states that have legalized cannabis to some degree are now comprised of 67,744,539 adults protected for use; 123,979,853 adults & children semi-protected for medical use, and 97,930,905 adults & children semi-protected where cannabis CBO oil is legal for medical use. The total number of people in states with some kind of cannabis legalization is now 289,655,297. The total population in the United States is at 324,974,555.
Michigan Embracing Plastics at the Expense of the Environment
Changes could be coming for how retailers handle the use of plastic bags. That’s if Governor Rick Snyder signs a bill that won final approval in the legislature less than a month ago. The bill would prevent cities from instituting fees or banning plastic bags and other containers at stores in Michigan.
Lawmakers in favor of the legislation argue that having a statewide ban prevents a confusing array of laws from city to city. State Rep. Joseph Graves, R-Argentine Twp., is chair of a House committee that passed the bill. Graves said he and the committee viewed plastic bag fees, “more as a money grab by locals to get extra money that adds to your grocery bill every week.” But before the vote, state Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, spoke out against the bill. He said the legislation is too much interference in local government. “This is a bill that attacks local control which I think is something that really frustrates you when it’s your locality’s control that’s being attacked," he said.
GREAT LAKES BAY Regional Recap:
The biggest news story in the region this year is likely the proposed merger of Dow Chemical with DuPont. The plan described to investors is for the two to merge, and then split into three standalone specialty companies focused in Agriculture, Specialty Products and Materials Sciences. The new companies would be headquartered in either Midland or Wilmington, Delaware. The proposed deal faces regulatory hurdles in Europe and the US, so many details have yet to be worked out. The companies have indicated that the deal will probably not be fully consummated until 2018.
One change that was completed in 2016 was Dow Chemical taking full ownership of Dow Corning, which had previously been held as a joint venture with Corning. This followed a similar transaction in which Dow Corning acquired the full rights to the Hemlock Semiconductor joint venture with Shin-Etsu Handotai. Dow Corning has long been one of the largest employers in Bay County. It remains to be seen how this integration affects Bay County employment, especially Dow Corning’s role as a cornerstone tenant in the Uptown at River’s Edge development.
The Uptown at River’s Edge project is now near full occupancy. Tenants such as McClaren Health and Chemical Bank now occupy office space near food and retail establishments like the Fix coffee shop, the Uptown Grill and the Real Seafood Company. A Courtyard BY Marriott Hotel is now open and onsite condos occupied by new residents. .
The City of Bay City collaborated with the Downtown Development Authority to undertake a major resurfacing project in the Washington Street Business District in early Summer. This project was paired with many building owners making significant cosmetic improvements to their buildings. Developer Jennifer Acosta undertook a portfolio of projects in which underutilized commercial buildings downtown have been redeveloped into residential and retail space.
Bay City commissioned a major study of the local housing market as part of the larger master planning project. The study indicated what many already knew – there is an excess of housing stock available in the area, which has depressed values. Many of these units are now in disrepair and have contributed to the deterioration of several neighborhoods within the City limits. The plan, going forward, will be to increase the number of demolitions, reducing the stock of marginal housing in the area, while also creating space for new building and development. The City will be cooperating with the Bay County Land Bank Authority to accomplish many of these goals.
Bay County, for the most part, held form in the 2016 Election Cycle, with Democrats winning most races, including four of the five seats on the County Commission, with Republican Vaughn Begick in District 3 being the lone exception.
One big change in County Government actually occurred in the August primary, when political veteran Jim Barcia unseated incumbent Tom Hickner in a hotly contested race for Bay County Executive. There was no Republican challenger in the November General Election to Barcia, who previously has served in the State and US House of Representatives..
One project that captured the current spirit of economic development in Bay City was the redevelopment of a historic Lafayette Street Church by VooDoo Tattoo in Bay City’s South End. In what may be a first for a tattoo parlor anywhere, the project resulted in VooDoo Tattoo being awarded a Cornerstone Award by the Bay City Chamber of Commerce. The willingness of the “traditional” business community to embrace a new generation of entrepreneurs and the willingness of these entrepreneurs to commit to their own neighborhoods will be key in the City’s revitalization.
On the National Front
Senator Elizabeth Warren continued her vigil against Big Banking interests by leading the charge against Wells Fargo when it was revealed the bank pedaled phony accounts to bilk customers out of millions of dollars, which in turn led to the dismissal of then CEO John Stumpf.
Now Warren is lobbying heavily against the 21st Century Cures Act. For two years, Congress has been working on legislation to advance medical innovation in the United States. From the beginning, Warren has argued that any "cures" bill must include substantial new funding for medical research, or it’s not going to cure anything.
After a bi-partisan bill was advanced containing provisions for mental health, genetic privacy for patients, and a proposal to improve foster care, in the final days the bill was hijacked by Big Pharma. Democrats and Republicans had agreed that a medical innovation bill would not go forward without substantially more money for NIH. But the Cures deal has only a tiny fig leaf of funding for NIH.
According to Warren, 21st Century Cures doesn’t reduce crushing drug prices. It doesn’t really expand the invention of new cures. And it doesn’t increase access to lifesaving therapies. But one thing it does do is legalize fraud. “It’s against the law for drug companies to market drugs for uses not approved by the FDA. You can’t sell a headache pill as a cure for cancer. Drug companies have paid billions in penalties for "off-label marketing." Instead of following the law, they’ve cozied up to Congress to have the Cures bill shoot holes in it,” she warns.
“It also covers up bribery,” she continues. “Currently, drug companies have to disclose the buckets of money, gifts, giveaways, and free trips they give doctors and hospitals as kickbacks to use certain drugs. Once again, drug companies cozied up to Congress to gut that disclosure rule – allowing any gift related to “medical education” to be exempt.”
There’s more: Medicare cuts, making life harder for people with disabilities, raiding money from the Affordable Care Act, even a gun provision – but not even a 1% increase in funding for NIH. This bill has been so loaded with stink bombs that you can smell it all over Capitol Hill,” she concludes.