Business leaders get 'full plate' of ideas about beneficial reuse, sustainability

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By Cynthia Price
Legal News

The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF) has been pulling together leaders who want to do the right thing in accordance with the “triple bottom line” — economic vitality, environmental harmony, and social equity — since 1994. Along the way, it has won national, state, and local honors and spawned similar organizations  throughout the state.

Drawing in business people from such large companies as Steelcase, whose David Rinard has just stepped off the board, and such small companies as Thomas J. Newhouse Design and Sustainable Research Group,  WMSBF’s mission is to “promote business practices that demonstrate environmental stewardship, economic vitality, and social responsibility,” and a goal of facilitating their adoption and implementation.

Under the current leadership of Director Daniel Schoonmaker and a board drawn from a wide range of people, including everything from bloggers (Michigan Local Foodbeet) to a university provost (Chad Gunnoe of Aquinas College, who serves as secretary), WMSBF has grown to the point that the large University Club room hosting the June 23 luncheon was filled to capacity.

The organization offers members and visitors a monthly luncheon (and sometimes add-on tours or events), where they can find out about the latest in sustainability and have an opportunity to network and exchange ideas.

The Warner, Norcross and Judd-sponsored June luncheon allowed attendees to fill their plates literally and figuratively, with timely legislative information from expert Warner attorney Troy Cumings, and a peek into sustainability programs at Ford Motor Company.

Cumings, who works out of the Warner office in Lansing, spoke about the Beneficial Reuse legislation which Governor Snyder had just signed into law June 17.

Cumings was intimately involved with creating the content of the bill, now Public Act 187, as well as in the process of getting it passed.

He told the WMSBF audience that there had been a number of previous attempts to  address the problem of the large volumes of waste composed of byproducts from industrial processes, but most of them failed.

When Governor Snyder took office, he instituted the Office of Regulatory Reinvention and appointed a large task force to look into how to streamline regulations in the state while maintaining their effectiveness. As previously reported in the Grand Rapids Legal News, Cumings was also a key participant in that process.

One of the task force’s recommendations was to examine relaxing the prohibitions against beneficial reuse. Cumings said that at the beginning of this legislative session, there already was a bill introduced on the topic, but it was lacking in the detail so necessary to ensure that environmental protections are in place.

For the environmental community, the notion of beneficial reuse of industrial byproducts cuts both ways: while they find it critical to cut back on such products going into the landfills and to find ways to avoid exploiting virgin materials, there are always concerns about the potential for substances in the byproducts to cause ecological damage and endanger public health.

Indeed, people at the lunch asked about that potential, to which Cumings responded, “We did a lot of research to make sure the stuff we included for reuse is very low toxicity,  almost inert, and safe to use. Those types of materials are the highest volumes statewide.”

Cumings, far from naive about such matters, said after the presentation that before the bill went forward, there was a lot of discussion between stakeholders, and there were modifications based on environmentalists’ demands. Most specifically, he said, was the removal of coal fly ash, a controversial substance, from some reuses.

The Act reads: “For beneficial use 2, coal ash does not include coal fly ash...” and lists a couple of explanations.

Beneficial use 2 refers to a category that may be reused for construction fill (with many exceptions), road base/soil stabilizer, and road shoulder material.

Cumings went through the different types of beneficial use groups, which carry different regulatory implications.  Beneficial use 1 is material that will be bonded or encapsulated; beneficial use 3 is the application of allowed products “to land as a fertilizer or soil conditioner,” again with many exceptions; beneficial use 4 is, generally, use in treatment or landfilling processes; and beneficial use 5 “means blended with inert materials or with compost and used to manufacture soil.”

Questions from audience members concerned whether bad actors might store these byproducts on site claiming that they would beneficially reuse them in the future without intending to do so, as well as what would happen if concentrations of harmful substances required changes in the future,  but Cumings said not only are there safeguards written into the act, but also that agencies will be watching what happens and suggesting amendments if deemed necessary.

John Viera said he too operates on the principle of the triple bottom line in his position as sustainability director at Ford Motor Company, and he started out addressing environmental issues.

“If you look at our carbon footprint at Ford,” he said, “about 98 percent of that is associated with the CO2 coming from our tailpipes, so we think it’s important to implement fuel economy and look for ways to use cleaner sources. It kind of gets down to: what are the values we have as a company? Bill Ford has been a leader in that, coming out in 2005 when it wasn’t in vogue to be talking about climate change.”

After talking about some interesting technical aspects of projects Ford is working on, including in the Big Data arena, Viera added, “We also want to be a responsible company in terms of the social impact we have, especially in new markets like India and China. We asked ourselves,  how can we use our intellectual power and our connections to help outside of providing jobs?”

One of the answers was to help with high infant mortality rates by spreading knowledge to mothers, especially in remote areas. He showed a moving video about Ford’s success in carrying that out initiative.

The July 14 WMSBF luncheon program will be held at the MSU?Bioeconomy Institute in Holland, and features Jon Allan, Director of the state’s Office of the Great Lakes, speaking about progress on a Michigan vision for managing water quality and quantity, followed by a preview of the new Holland Energy Park. To register, visit www.wmsbf.org/July