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1st Friday Focus on the Environment: Rep. Dingell on utility power outages and the need for more regulations on toxic spills

Debbie Dingell
Rep. Debbie Dingell
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ABOUT DEBBIE DINGELL

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell represents Michigan’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Natural Resources Committee, where she leads on critical issues including affordable and accessible health care, clean energy and water, domestic manufacturing and supply chain resilience, and protecting our wildlife and natural resources. Growing up in beautiful Michigan, Dingell, who chairs the Great Lakes Task Force, has always been an advocate for the outdoors and commits her work in Congress to protecting the environment for generations. Dingell is focused on bringing people together – in Congress and in her communities – to support Michigan’s families and the economy. This is most evident in her work to strengthen the American auto industry, maintaining America’s competitiveness and ensuring good-paying American jobs. In 2021, she worked together with the White House, the auto industry, the auto workers, and environmentalists to announce the Biden Administration’s goal of having 50% of new vehicles sold in 2030 be zero-emissions vehicles. Dingell also plays a major role in leading the fight against PFAS contamination, spearheading the PFAS Action Act with Republican college Rep. Fred Upton. Her collaborative workstyle also lends itself to bicameral work, most importantly on long-term care, as she authored the Better Care Better Jobs Act with Senator Bob Casey to strengthen and expand access to the long-term care system while also supporting the direct care workforce. As a fierce advocate for reform to our nation’s broken health care system, she is also the co-author of Medicare For All to finally guarantee care for all Americans.

Back home in Michigan, Dingell is known for working closely with state and local officials and community leaders to support hardworking families and address critical issues across Michigan’s 6th District. In 2021, her Honoring Abbas Family Legacy to Terminate (HALT) Drunk Driving Act, a bill she wrote after the Abbas family of Northville was killed by a drunk driver and which would require drunk driving prevention technology to be installed in new cars, was enacted into law. Dingell also worked quickly to secure federal flood relief funding and support to her communities amidst the 2021 summer floods that devastated thousands of Southeast Michigan families and businesses. Additionally, Dingell continued her husband John’s work to open the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and create a special outdoor space for Michiganders, while also protecting natural resources. As for the veteran community, Dingell meets with VFW posts and visits VA hospitals in the district and even improved the Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning (SAIL) rating in the Ann Arbor VA hospital.

Before being elected to Congress, Dingell – a self-proclaimed car girl – worked in the auto industry for over three decades, where she was President of the General Motors (GM) Foundation and a senior executive responsible for public affairs. She was also Chairman of the Wayne State University (WSU) Board of Governors and to this day continues to fight for affordable and accessible education in Congress. She chaired the Michigan Infant Mortality Task Force, the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan, the Early Childhood Investment Corporation, the Baby Your Baby public education campaign that reduced infant mortality rates in Michigan, and has served on the board of Michigan’s Children, a statewide independent voice advocating for public policies in the best interest of children of all ages.

An active civic and community leader, Dingell is a recognized national advocate for women and children. She successfully fought to have women included in federally funded health research and advocated for greater awareness of women’s health issues overall, including breast cancer and heart health. She is a founder and former chair of the National Women’s Health Resource Center and the Children's Inn at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Debbie is a respected voice in Michigan and has been named multiple times on Crain’s Detroit Business’ 100 Most Influential Women in Michigan list. You’ll always find her out and about in Michigan’s 6th District, likely perusing a farmers market or visiting a union hall – don’t hesitate to come talk to her and tell her what’s on your mind.

Debbie currently resides in Ann Arbor. She holds both a B.S.F.S. in Foreign Services and an M.S. in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University.

ABOUT LISA WOZNIAK:

Lisa Wozniak
Michigan League of Conservation Voters
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michiganlcv.org
Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak

Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a bachelor's degree and two ensuing master's degrees in social work and Education.

Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'

RESOURCES:

Michigan League of Conservation Voters

Rep. Debbie Dingell

NPR: "An update on the cleanup after the train derailment in Ohio"

NPR: "Hundreds of thousands are without power as major winter storm blasts the U.S."

TRANSCRIPTION:

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I like to welcome you to the March edition of WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. On the first Friday of each month, I partner with the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters to address important environmental issues--issues that impact our county, our state and nation. Lisa Wozniak, we had a different idea of what this show would be comprised of a few weeks ago, but, since then, we've had a couple of significant issues returned to focus. And they cannot be ignored.

Lisa Wozniak: You are absolutely right, Dave. We've seen a train derailment create a toxic spill in Ohio. And shortly after that, another derailment in Van Buren Township right down the road from where we sit. Fortunately, that one did not result in a toxic spill. Southeast Michigan has also endured one of the most significant ice storms over the past three decades, hitting Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County particularly hard. These issues are, not surprisingly, top of mind for the public, and lawmakers are certainly taking note as well. That includes our guest this morning. Debbie Dingell is the Democrat from Ann Arbor, representing the Sixth District in the House of Representatives. And, Representative Dingell, thank you so much for joining us today.

Debbie Dingell: It's good to be with you. And we've had a long few weeks in Michigan.

David Fair: And it's not over. But, Representative Dingell, the EPA and other environmental regulators are now involved in the investigation and cleanup of the spill in Ohio--again, ongoing. How on Earth Norfolk Southern was allowed to make its own assessment early on and then determine there was no real public health threat when we now know different. What allows for that?

Debbie Dingell: I think that it depends upon everybody's approach. And when people get engaged, I think here in Michigan, we have learned how to engage the EPA with EGLE very quickly. When I learned last week that the toxic waste from Ohio may be headed towards Michigan, I immediately called the governor. And I think, in Michigan, we all know how to work together very quickly. In Ohio, I don't believe the governor immediately asked for federal involvement. The National Traffic Safety Board was investigating it. Michael Regan came out to Ohio ten, 12 days ago and said EPA is going to stay on the site and take over. It did take over a week ago today, last Friday. And, quite frankly, thankfully, they did take over the site because waste that was headed for Michigan was deterred to other sites, and Michigan will not be getting any more of that hazardous waste. But how states handle issues, matters, and how local and federal, state, and local officials handle it does impact how sites and crisises are handled.

Lisa Wozniak: So, we have two sites here not far from Washtenaw County, and those are the two sites that you are referencing. Romulus is a deep injection well, Belleville has a landfill. Those are the two sites that the toxins were shipped to. Did shipments actually arrive in those two places?

Debbie Dingell: We've been looking for clarification from EPA. The liquid waste may have been detoured--still trying to get an exact answer from that. And, actually, it's Van Buren. Van Buren is actually the one that has the contract. Some contaminated soil was received at that site. I do not believe any more contaminated soil at this time from Ohio will be coming there. But, Lisa, I think it's very important we have a discussion about these sites that had a long, storied past and history. Romulus has had a much longer discussion. 30 years. The man that I was married to objected to it when they initially began looking at the permitting. I think communities sometimes don't really recognize or know that there is hazardous waste that's been sent to these sites on a regular basis. This one, because it was the toxic waste from Ohio, got more attention. But I think we really need to have a national discussion about how hazardous waste is disposed of and use this as an opportunity to discuss whether we should be putting this kind of waste in populated areas.

David Fair: Along those lines, Norfolk Southern is an Atlanta-based company. Obviously, it's business has it crossing state lines around the country and therefore falls under the purview of a number of federal agencies. That includes the EPA and Department of Transportation. What can you do at the federal level to better ensure safety and response measures are in place when it comes to both transporting and then storing these toxic materials?

Debbie Dingell: Well, I think you're going to definitively see. We have a Republican House, but I've already spoken with the chair of my committee and chairs of other committees. Republicans are equally as concerned. It's a Republican member that represents the district that derailment occurred in. He's chair of the subcommittee--of MI Energy and Commerce Committee. We're going to be asking questions and saying should there be more regulations that are put into place and all of this. You know, one of the things I've learned, David, since being a member, we've had too many chemical spills in our area. Let's just be honest. In the Sixth District deal, 12th, you know, we've had Flat Rock. We're still dealing with the plume, We've had hexachromium, PFAS, and the list goes on.

David Fair: Furthermore, the taxpayers end up picking up the bill because there's no polluter pay legislation.

Debbie Dingell: None in Michigan. None, which is one of the reasons that I felt it's important that we finally got people of the four communities that the plume is impacting to request that the plume be put on the national priorities list, which would give the federal government authority to make polluters pay. I'm using this, again, to say the state legislators, you should be doing polluters pay. But I think we've got to have a discussion about what rights do local citizens have as these kinds of contracts are being signed out. So, state government has to certify these sites that they are safe and needs to be insuring that they stay safe, and there aren't violations. And the EPA does as well. And I think, you know, sometimes people go on automatic pilot, don't pay attention. Right now, we need to not be an automatic pilot. We've had, in our area, we should be outraged. We've had too many chemical spills. And I ask the question, "Why are we even producing some of these chemicals anymore when there are substitutes for them?" And I hope that this triggers a very needed, necessary conversation.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment with my co-host, Lisa Wozniak, from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And our guest today is Sixth District Congressional Representative Debbie Dingell of Ann Arbor.

Lisa Wozniak: Well, following last Wednesday's ice storm, we saw the lack of investment in our energy infrastructure play out in the absolute worst ways. It took nearly a week for utilities to restore power, and impacts on customers were tremendous. Michigan utility customers pay some of the highest rates in the nation, while our two companies, DTE and Consumers, continue to make tremendous profits and win approval on an annual basis, it seems, to raise customers rates. What is your takeaway of the impacts and the utility's readiness to deal with the storm itself and its aftermath?

Debbie Dingell: Well, clearly, the companies weren't ready because it's taken a week. And, as you know, I've talked to you over the weekend. I had a farmer with 150 sheep that I really worried was almost suicidal, couldn't get water, had nothing to take care of them. The number of seniors I had that were on oxygen and didn't have generators, senior centers, the number of working men and women who threw out refrigerators and freezers full of food. People had no place to go. They couldn't afford to go to a hotel. I was a case worker for a solid week, and the stories I heard just made me want to cry at the beginning of the week. All of my colleagues, John James, Lisa McClain, Tim Walberg, as well as Haley, Rashida, Cheri, have all spoken in the southeast Michigan area, which was the most heavily impacted. We are asking together in a very bipartisan way. At the beginning of the week, we're like, "How much longer this is going to take? When is everybody else going to get their power on? How are they going to get compensated for what some of the costs of this has been?" And we know that this is going to happen again. How are we prepared? I think you're going to see a lot of tough questioning. Are they hiring people to replace people when they retire? Nobody's happy right now. And this should not be in a partisan way handled in any way, shape or form. I think both federal and state legislators are going to ask questions, too. And I hope that people are going to really look at rate increase requests as well because people are not getting what they paid for.

David Fair: While you're having those conversations, there are other alternative conversations taking place. The group, Ann Arbor for Public Power, is advocating for a municipal utility for city residents and separating from DTE. A feasibility study on that matter is underway. And following last week's storm, former state representative and current Washtenaw County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi says he plans to introduce the idea of studying a potential countywide utility. Would you be on board with those ideas?

Debbie Dingell: I want to look at the feasibility studies. I think status quo is obviously concerning. And I lost my power a month ago, and I still quite don't understand why that happened before we had an ice storm. So, you know, people are not just being impacted on ice storms. And people lose it in the summer when we get heavy heat periods. But I think we need to know what the cost of both the city and the county is going to be. My understanding is the cost of building out a brand new infrastructure would be very high, or they would have to somehow buy the existing infrastructure. So, I need to know what the costs of that are going to be. And whatever we do, I'm very sensitive to not increasing the cost to consumers right now. So, these feasibility studies are very important. We need to understand costs and reliability and whatever happens.

Lisa Wozniak: So, from a broad perspective on cleaning up and preventing toxic pollution and making sure our communities are safe and healthy, as you and I both know, state and federal protections play an absolutely essential role in doing just that, whether it from incidents like the derailment in Ohio or from the massive energy infrastructure failures as experienced in this past week. The last presidential administration weakened clean air and land and water protections. They disinvested in energy and water infrastructure. I'd love to hear from you. Do you see opportunities for the Biden administration's EPA and other agencies to lean in, to strengthen protections and to even further invest in infrastructure?

Debbie Dingell: We have to do it. The bipartisan infrastructure bill provided money to invest in very needed infrastructure updates. And when people think of infrastructure, they tend to think of roads and bridges. But strengthening our grid is among dollars that are included in both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the inflation reduction bill. We need to be looking at that, and we have to be looking at that. We also need to look at provisions that weaken some of the laws that allowed this. You know, I was trying not to be skeptical. I was encouraged when our new Republican Party chair and some of the Republican legislators went to the Romulus injection well last Sunday and were protesting. If we can all work together in a bipartisan manner to strengthen our laws, maybe we can get them to support polluter pay. I would think that they don't want to increase the cost to taxpayers. I think polluters should have to pay for when they have toxic waste or caused this kind of damage. But we really need to make some changes. And, unfortunately, it takes incidences like the train derailment, potential hazardous waste coming to our area, to get people's attention again or to take a week-long a power outage and the kind of psychological and physical and financial wear-and-tear on people to say, "Hey, enough's enough!" But let's use this in a constructive way to bring everybody to the table and get change. that will change the future. That's what I'm focused on.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with Representative Debbie Dingell on WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment.

Lisa Wozniak: As we continue to deal with the ramifications of this last massive storm and watch bizarre storms hit all over the country, we know with certainty that there has to be greater emphasis on climate adaptation for this time of the year. The Great Lakes have set a record low for ice coverage. We're experiencing warmer weather and less snow than usual. And even with the progress made in addressing climate change, we know the planet is going to be warmer until we stop burning fossil fuels, and that's only a part of the solution. Do you think we are well behind where we should be when it comes to planning for life in an era of significant climate change? And, if so, how do we begin to catch up?

Debbie Dingell: Well, I mean, there was some good news this year that we are actually reducing some of our emission output by some of the efforts that we have undertaken. But we are behind. But we've got to be very intentional and very thoughtful. I mean, the carbon transportation industry accounts for 30% of the carbon emissions in this country. You see all of the OEMs in Michigan leading the way globally and moving to the electric vehicle. And I'm very proud of the work I've done in bringing the environmentalists together with the unions and the OEMs and setting goals and targets. But we also need to understand that what we've just seen with what happened in a weather storm to our power grid, think about all those vehicles that have been dependent upon that grid to power their vehicles. We would have had a problem. We've got to upgrade our power grid. And a lot of people can't afford electric vehicles right now. We need to make them more affordable. And 50% of the homes in this country don't have garages. Now, we need to not ignore that. We've got to adapt. Policies are going to address those kinds of issues, too. And, by the way, electricity isn't the only answer or the EVs. Hydrogen is another issue that we should be looking at. We have to look at other sources. We need to be looking at ways that are real and practical that people can afford but recognize global climate is real and that we have to change how and what we are doing things.

David Fair: You mentioned that over the past week in the wake of the ice storm, in many cases, you were serving as case worker to members of your constituency. Ultimately, it's your job to listen to those people and take their concerns to Washington as the advocate. What direct message have the members of your district given you in the wake of the Ohio derailment and the winter ice storm that has proven so devastating, what message do they expect you to work on in Congress?

Debbie Dingell: Well, I think there's two different issues. I think, as it comes to not having power, I think people are very upset and want the utility companies to answer questions why they're paying so much and suffering such unreliability. And what's it going to take to fix our power grid? And there is an anxiety about the need to upgrade it. And what would have happened as we move to a greater dependency on the electrical grid. So, I've already been focused on that. We'll continue to focus on that. And we'll be looking at real legislation to pass to support this. With regard to...you know, I've objected to the waste sites since I've been in Congress and long before I ever got there. What I want to do, David, is what I do, which is to try to bring everybody to a table and say, "How did this happen? How did this get permitted? Should they be permitted? When are these permits up? Should we be storing hazardous waste in populated areas? Obviously, hazardous waste has to go someplace. But are there other places better suited for it in this country? And how do we encourage manufacturers to use less of these toxic materials to begin with, so that we don't have to find ways to dispose of it?" Look at PFAS. Ten years ago, nobody wanted to have the conversation. And, you know, we've drawn a great deal of attention to it. It's a forever chemical. It's in 98% of our bodies. People dismissed us when we first started on this. Now, one by one, companies are stopping to use it in production. Fast food restaurants will not use it in their storage--their material that they wrap it and store foods in--anymore. You make progress, and you make it by raising awareness, working with everybody, and trying to find the solutions to the problems.

David Fair: Well, thank you so much for making time today to share your insights and perspective. We do appreciate it.

Debbie Dingell: Thank you, David. Thank you, Lisa. Thanks for what you all do every single day.

David Fair: That is Debbie Dingell, an Ann Arbor Democrat representing Michigan's Sixth Congressional District and our guest on WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. Thanks also goes to my First Fridays partner, Lisa Wozniak. She's the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and she joins me the first Friday of every month. We'll see you in April, Lisa

Lisa Wozniak: I look forward to it.

David Fair: I'm David Fair, and you can find more information on today's topics and conversation and visit the first Friday Focus on the Environment Archive on our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Lisa Wozniak is Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
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