WMEAC: Reflecting on 50 Years of Environmental Advocacy in West Michigan


By Elyse Wild

Last month, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) celebrated 50 years of providing dynamic educational opportunities and groundbreaking environmental advocacy in our community.

Established in 1968, WMEAC sprung from the growing concern of citizens over unchecked pesticide use and water quality standards. The organization’s victories on behalf of the environment are vast: WMEAC’s efforts and partnerships on a local and national level have led to the end of most uses of DDT in the United States; the passing of the National Environmental Protection Act along with Michigan’s globally recognized Environmental Protection Act; the passing of strict landfill guidelines from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and much more. WMEAC’s success and continued vigilance confirm what iconic American anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In a special Q&A, WMEAC Executive Director Bill Wood shares with us some of the council’s proudest achievements, what environmental challenges we face today and how each of us can wage a positive impact in our daily lives.

Women’s LifeStyle Magazine: The West Michigan Environmental Action Council has been around for 50 years. How has it evolved along with culture and technology?

Bill Wood: When we started, WMEAC was a grassroots organization that had no paid positions. All of the work was being done by people in their spare time. We had a group of concerned citizens who were inspired by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and by seeing some of the cost West Michigan was beginning to bear through unfettered industry. The original goal was much more one of speaking truth to power. People were saying, “Can we create a State Department of Environmental Quality? Can we sue on behalf of citizens who are finding their water supplies polluted or facing air pollution?” It was very grassroots and policy-oriented. The mission was finding allies locally and in Lansing who would champion sound environmental policy based on science.

We’ve stayed relevant with regard to policy, but are we trying to bring suits against the state? No, we don’t do that at this time. That version of environmental advocacy is in the rearview for us now. We still we still have a presence in Lansing, and we send people—either staff or some of our members and volunteers— to discuss issues that are relevant to West Michigan or the entire state with elected officials, but we’re not concerned with legal representation now.

There are a few things we do the same and a few things we do differently. We still crank out a monthly paper newsletter, but we do an e-newsletter that comes out much more frequently. We are a membership organization with 1,000 members. If we included all of our donors as members, that would be a higher number. Our Facebook has just over 15, 000 followers. That’s a pretty significant jump from 1,000; it’s really exciting. Those are all potential advocates for the environment. We have to ask, “How do we reach them? What does it mean to have 15,000 followers? How do we motivate people to do things like calling elected officials or showing up at a city council meeting to advocate for sound environmental policy?”

“The combination of Facebook and email blasts have changed the way we can be advocates in the digital age.”

We have an e-mail list that is about 4,000 names long. If we want to send something out that calls for targeted action, we can send out an email in the morning and by the afternoon have people calling their elected officials to talk about a particular piece of legislation. We don’t necessarily get that direct of a response on Facebook; but Facebook gets a dialogue going, fosters community involvement and brings attention to serious issues like vapor intrusion in Southeast Grand Rapids, PFAS in Rockford or Line 5. Through this action network, which is something they probably would have loved to have had 50 years ago, we can send a very direct message and get a very direct response from people on a particular issue. It’s a very important tool.

In 2016 , we had a pretty good battle in regards to our energy policy here. By using that action network, we were able to give people talking points on particular elements of the energy bill. It’s really cool to be able to do that in real time because they move pretty fast in Lansing, especially when they have something that isn’t very popular, and they try to get a vote before anybody can know what’s going on. The combination of Facebook and email blasts have changed the way we can be advocates in the digital age.

WLM: WMEAC events reflect a membership that is very diverse in terms of age.

BW: Having a difference in age is important; it inspires older folks to keep going because they see that young people aren’t just playing on their phones or playing video games. In turn, younger people can learn and hear about these battles from the older members; they can learn what to do, and sometimes, what not to do. That’s a very important lesson. That intergenerational aspect is pretty critical to the environmental movement. I’m really proud of the fact that we have such an active group of people across the board.

WMEAC’s first executive director Roger Conner is interviewed by WMEAC volunteer Natalie Henley at The Blue Tie Ball.

WLM: What do you think some of WMEAC’s greatest achievements are from the past 50 years?

I don’t want WMEAC to take credit for every aspect of these achievements because it takes a coalition of people and groups to get things done, but we have been involved in some very critical things.

The Bottle Bill is something WMEAC had a significant role in getting passed. Whether you love it or hate it, every time you buy a 12 pack of beer and you pay an extra 10 cents, WMEAC had a lot to do with that. It’s probably time to revise it and extend it to plastic water bottles because it only covers carbonated beverages. Michigan has one of the best recycling rates in the nation when it comes to bottle deposits: it’s over 90 percent. On material we don’t have a deposit on, we are lagging behind most of the other Midwestern states. I’d love to see us explore it further and figure out how we can be better recyclers.

WMEAC also helped with legislation on the Pigeon River Country in the ’70s. Shell was going to do some exploratory drilling in the Pigeon River Basin, and we were instrumental in blocking them from getting a chance to get in there and tear it apart. It was a pretty big battle that WMEAC waged for a while. Being able to keep a piece of Michigan wild and unspoiled is a big win.

I’m really proud of our Teach for the Watershed program. We have over 2,000 middle school students who are learning about science in the stream and finding out things like what kind of animals are there and what sort of critical impact streams have. All GRPS students have the chance to do the program. We’re on our tenth year with Teach for the Watershed, and we get a lot of requests for the program. We’ve just taken it to Muskegon thanks to a grant through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We’re hoping that this will help get students more prepared for science as they enter high school.

We produced a climate resiliency report for Grand Rapids in 2014, which is available on our website. Grand Rapids was way ahead of the curve in-terms of a mid-sized city getting a climate resiliency report and starting to take targeted action such as building up the flood walls downtown or adding green infrastructure to manage high precipitation events. Those things happened because they were recommended in the climate resiliency report that WMEAC wrote along with the city. Having Grand Rapids already doing climate resiliency preparedness to mitigate climate change is a big deal; I’m proud of that because as a city we are acknowledging the fact that climate change is going to bring some changes to West Michigan that will affect us.

WLM: What are some of the greatest environmental challenges West Michigan faces today and how is WMEAC meeting those challenges on behalf of the community?

Clean water and clean air are, unfortunately, always a challenge. Our Metropolitan Statistical Area just got an “F” in terms of ozone days from the American Lung Association. A lot of that pollution comes from other states: particulate matter blows in from manufacturing in certain parts of Lake Michigan like Northwest Indiana, Chicago and Milwaukee. It’s not always our fault, but nonetheless, getting ourselves away from burning coal and using natural gas and going toward reusable energy is essential. Natural gas brings with it hydraulic fracturing, and that brings up all kinds of issues as far as water safety is concerned.

“We may be surrounded by water, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have to fight for equal access for people who are vulnerable and don’t have a ton of political power.”

Of course, if we are talking about clean water, we have to talk about things like Flint, Line 5 and threats to clean water and access to it. A lot of people in Flint don’t have water; that is a justice issue and an environmental issue; it’s an issue of access to methods of change. Can you have a government that really represents you if you have lead in your water and nobody seems to care about it? While Flint isn’t necessarily West Michigan, who’s to say that it couldn’t happen here? That’s something we’ve got to be on the lookout for. Flint affects all of us. We have to be vigilant. Whether it’s privatized or government-run water, if people can cut corners, it’s going to happen.

Clean water and clean air are the two biggest environmental issues we have. The Great Lakes Compact was signed by all of the Great Lake states as well as the Canadian province of Ontario. It states that we won’t ship water out of the Great Lakes for private use, and if an area is further than 50 miles away, there has to be an agreement between the states for a community to get water and it has to be for public use. Just last week, however, there was a court order that in my opinion violates the Great Lakes Compact: A private entity (Foxconn) that is further than 50 miles away is going to be allowed to pull a significant amount of water from Lake Michigan for private production. It’s going to go through Racine County, Wisconsin, which is technically not inside the Great Lakes Basin. That’s problematic; that’s going to set a serious legal precedent that private businesses can pull water from Lake Michigan for whatever they’re doing. It seems bad now, and it’s really going to be a serious issue 50 or 100 years from now. We may be surrounded by water, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have to fight for equal access for people who are vulnerable and don’t have a ton of political power.

WLM: How can people get involved with WMEAC, and what are the small things people can do in their daily lives to contribute to environmental wellness?

One of the easiest ways to get involved with WMEAC is to go to our website and sign up as a volunteer. We have everything from small, one-off volunteer opportunities to larger volunteer opportunities. At the moment, we need mentors for the Teach for the Watershed Program to spend a short period of time with the students. We also have the Mayor’s River Cleanup, which is a great day where people can come out and help get the river clean. It’s on September 8 this year. We love that people come out for that and it’s a great gateway into further involvement and activism with WMEAC. If somebody wants to know more about environmental policy or about how we plan an event like the Blue Tie Ball, we have committees people can volunteer to join.

To answer your second point, there are a lot of things people can do to have an impact. A lot of times when I talk to people, they feel like they can’t make a difference, but you always can; whether it’s becoming more of an advocate and learning from us, the League of Conservation Voters or another group on how to talk to our elected officials. In your daily life, you can look around your property and consult with the city on where you might plant some trees. The city would love to see more trees going along the street because a better tree canopy would help control stormwater and improve our air.

There is also a really great city program called Adopt a Basin. You find the nearest storm basin to your house and become responsible for it; you monitor it and keep junk out of it because all of that stuff ends up washing up into the river. It’s such a cool thing for families or a church group to do together.

You can also make personal choices that have an impact, such as cutting down on buying particular items like bottled water, juice boxes or single serve packages. Try to think more about the packaging you use; be vigilant about what you recycle; compost at your office or your home. Those are all things you can do. You can learn more on our website and at various classes and workshops we hold, which are listed on our website calendar.

WLM: Is there anything else you would like to add?
BW: An individual can make a big difference. It’s important not ever to feel like you can’t make a change as one person.

To get involved, visit wmeac.org.  

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