Wildlife Mitigation Mixed Bag

December 10, 2007
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LANSING — For 20 years, the Wildlife Habitat Council, a nationwide environmental conservation group, has helped businesses become eco-friendly. But in some cases, a WHC-certified firm may not be an all-green environmental steward.

The group is involved in 50 programs in Michigan and more than 1,000 sites worldwide. Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., DTE Energy Co. and Consumers Energy are the main members the council works with in the state.

Brad Cardwell, communication manager for WHC in Silver Spring, Md., said his group looks to “create solutions that balance the demands of economic growth with the requirements of a healthy, biodiverse and sustainable environment.”

To qualify for certification, a wildlife biologist from WHC must visit the site to assess opportunities and prepare a report with recommendations for projects that could benefit the company and wildlife, he said.

The company must maintain a Wildlife at Work or a Corporate Lands for Learning program for a year before it can apply for the Wildlife Habitat Certification/International Accreditation Program.

“It’s employees themselves that are running these programs,” said Vanessa Kauffman, director of marketing and communications for WHC.

Wildlife at Work is a voluntary, employee-run program to enhance wildlife habitats.

For example, an employee-run Green Team at DTE’s St. Clair Power Plant in East China Township identifies and implements projects on the plant’s 1,700-acre property.

The team has incorporated a rotational mowing schedule to “naturalize” the property. Natural vegetation is permitted to grow as much as possible, and mowing is limited around wastewater basins. As a result, the team has noticed increased waterfowl nesting. For another project, the team worked with local Boy Scouts to build and install nesting structures for bluebirds, mallards and wood ducks.

The program gets the company, its employees and the community involved, Kauffman said.

“It’s a real morale booster and can be cost-saving, as well,” she said.

General Motors has two newly certified facilities this year in Warren and Bay City, bringing GM to a total 875 certified acres at 12 sites in the United States and Canada.

“Manufacturing plants don’t have to be surrounded by stubby grass and barren cement,” said Ray Tessier, global director for GM Environmental Services in Detroit.

However, some environmentalists say participating companies should do more.

DTE is currently being sued on allegations that the firm is polluting the St. Clair River with mercury and violating Canada’s Fisheries Act. Scott Edwards, legal director for Waterkeeper Alliance of Irvington, N.Y., a global coalition of 150 grassroots environmental groups, is the plaintiff in the case pending in Sarnia, Ont.

Doug Chapman, a Canadian attorney helping Edwards in the case, said the judge at the first hearing said there’s a lot of evidence against DTE, but refused to advance the case because the alleged pollution originated in Michigan before it entered Canada’s waters.

The next step was to apply for an order from a higher court to force the lower court to hear the case. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 16.

“My hope is that this prosecution will result in significant reductions in DTE Energy’s mercury emissions and a cleaner and safer St. Clair River,” Edwards said.

Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper in Toronto and an environmental lawyer aiding Edwards in the case, said a 2004 30-day test of a pollution control technology, called carbon sorbent injection, reduced mercury emissions by 93 percent at the plant. After the test period, DTE “pulled the abatement technology out,” removing the environment’s protection against mercury, said Mattson.

“They’re not willing to spend the money,” he said.

He said he’s not surprised DTE is a participant in WHC’s program.

“Everyone’s doing something (about the environment) these days. The question is if they’re doing everything they can,” he said.

Roberta Urbani, an environmental planner in DTE’s Environmental Initiatives Department, wouldn’t comment on ongoing litigation, but said such pilot projects are run under special conditions and don’t always pan out the way people assume they will.

And Eileen Dixon, a press officer with DTE, said her firm hasn’t received notification from Canadian authorities of any lawsuit or court action.

“So, as far as we know, there is no suit pending against us,” she said.

“That said, the allegations that the Waterkeeper Alliance has made regarding our Belle River and St. Clair power plants are just absolutely baffling, and frankly, absurd. The plants operate in full compliance with all state and federal emissions regulations.”

The only information she’s seen on the allegations has been in media reports, she said.

As for the pilot project’s technology, Dixon said it was a short-term test at DTE’s St. Clair and Monroe plants. It requires longer-term testing and it’s “not the inexpensive panacea” that some people think, she said, and DTE is investing $1 billion in technologies that have been proven to help the environment.

Hugh McDiarmid Jr., communications director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said promoting companies as environmentally friendly by doing small initiatives, while masking the reality of the bigger problems they cause, is called “green-washing.”

McDiarmid said his group supports companies that provide wildlife areas on their properties because it’s better than merely mowing or paving them over.

But, he said, if you’re judging an industry, you “have to look at it in its totality.” Ultimately, a facility can have wildlife habitats, but if it’s polluting more in other areas, it can do more harm than good, he said.

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