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A century ago, Detroit’s “potato patch mayor” knew how to ride out hard times

pingree_statue_Detroit
Mike Russell

I'd been passing by the statue here in Detroit for days now without noticing it, but today something -- the gloomy weather, maybe -- made me slow down and read the inscription.

The citizens of Michigan erect this monument to the cherished memory of Hazen S. Pingree. A gallant soldier, an enterprising and successful citizen, four times elected mayor of Detroit, twice governor of Michigan. He was the first to warn the people of the great danger threatened by powerful private corporations. And the first to awake to the great inequalities in taxation and to initiate steps for reform. The idol of the people.

The idol of the people, huh? I had never heard of this guy. Growing up in metro Detroit, I had learned two things about Detroit's history: 1. Detroit used to be French, and 2. Henry Ford was a genius.

Hazen Pingree became mayor of Detroit in 1890, three years before the worst depression that America had ever experienced (until the 1930s, anyway). The railroads, which had used speculative financing to expand all over the country, began to collapse. So did banks -- hundreds of them.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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In Michigan, the drilling wars are infesting the Twitter stream

Michigan from Space
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

I've been in Michigan for the last few days, researching Detroit's water crisis. Yesterday, it became pretty obvious that my phone had figured out that we had arrived in the Mitten State:

energy

Why no, I was not aware that "energy development" contributes $15.8 billion to Michigan's economy each year! It's super thoughtful of you to bring this to my attention, because I often spend my Sunday mornings drinking coffee, doing the crossword, and trying to quantify the exact dollar value that a vague phrase gives to the equally slippery word "economy."

Twitter's pricing structure is a little mysterious, but the cost of a promoted tweet campaign like this is pretty modest -- a small sum debited from a budget each time the message is retweeted or favorited. So imparting this fun fact to me and the few thousand other Michiganders scrolling through our feeds on Sunday to see if any of our friends had more fun than we did last night probably only cost Energy Citizens a few bucks.

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Letter from Detroit: And now for a completely different kind of Canadian pipeline

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Ricardo Bernardo

I was loading boxes of water onto a truck in Detroit yesterday when I heard the news: A convoy from the Council of Canadians was coming over the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor, bearing gifts of water. "Really, Canada?" I thought. "We're practically in each other's backyards. Basically, the only thing separating us from you is water."

That's not the kind of water you can drink, though. And also: Protest is storytelling, just like the rest of politics. I had been interviewing some people downtown about Detroit's water crisis, and they were all going to see the water arrive, because why not? When we were done with the last water delivery, we walked down to the Spirit of Detroit sculpture, where the convoy would be arriving.

Campus Martius Park was packed with people celebrating Detroit's birthday, which I had not even thought of the city as having. I passed a huge banner, unfurled across the modernist facade of one of the tall buildings on Michigan Avenue. Decorated with neon confetti and party hats, it looked like the kind of banner you might buy for a little kid's birthday party, but on a colossal scale.

"Happy 313th birthday, Detroit!" it read. "You don't look a day over 300!"

Read more: Cities, Politics

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American idyll

North Dakota’s ag commissioner race oughta be on Broadway

amazing cowboy man
Tom Kelly

In the struggle over North America's energy boom, some tales are more suitable for Broadway musical treatment than others. But could there be another story more perfect for song and dance than that of the race for North Dakota agricultural commissioner?

The agricultural commissioner does pretty much what you expect -- handle permits for agricultural lands, which, in the case of North Dakota, is mostly ranchland. Since part of permitting grazing territory is making sure that said land remains safe for grazing, the agricultural commissioner also has sway over drilling permits and oversight -- a lot of sway.

Now that North Dakota is producing more oil than some OPEC members, and oil companies are planning to drill 35,000 new wells across North Dakota in the next 15 years, the race for this relatively homespun political office has suddenly become the stuff of political melodrama.

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Drilling in Pennsylvania has damaged the water supply 209 times in last seven years

frackwell_marcellusshale
WCN 24/7

Whether or not you think that's alright depends on your perspective. According to Patrick Creighton, those numbers are pretty good -- so many oil and natural gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past seven years that 209 problem wells is a mere 1 percent of the total. But Creighton happens to be the spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group composed of natural gas drillers. So there's that.

According to Steve Hvozdovich, 209 is a lot. "You are talking about somebody’s drinking water supply.” But then Hvozdovich works for the environmental group Clean Water Action. He would like clean drinking water.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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In Pennsylvania, Dr. Frack will see you now

fracking site
Daniel Foster

People who live near fracking sites have been complaining for years about headaches, nosebleeds, and birth defects. Now one such population, in Washington County, Penn., is getting some help in the form of free medical consultations -- but not from the usual suspects.

Washington County is a place known for its many picturesque bridges. It's also known for its "wet gas" -- an underground smorgasbord of methane, propane, butane, and ethane that hasn't seen daylight since the Devonian era. During the drilling process, most of this gas is captured, but a certain amount does leak into the atmosphere.

There has been some research into the risks of living in a natural gas drilling area, but not the kind of long-term, systematic study that would prove or disprove a connection between the gas and the health issues.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Detroit will stop shutting off people’s water — for now

water-protest
Light Brigading

Monday morning, the Detroit Water and Sewerage District (DWSD) announced that it would stop shutting off people's water, at least for now. What was it, in this infrastructural showdown I wrote about last week, that caused the change of heart? Was it the condemnation from the U.N.? The protestors blocking utility shut-off trucks? The giant march on Friday, featuring Mark Ruffalo and a megaphone? The children holding signs that read "We need water to brush our teeth”?

The DWSD isn't saying. Here's what it is saying: "We are pausing for 15 days to refocus our efforts on trying to identify people who we have missed in the process who may qualify for the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program." That's according to DWSD spokesperson Bill Johnson in a phone interview this morning.

The Water Assistance Program is a long-defunct but recently revived program that allows Detroit residents who are below the federal poverty line to keep their water running as long as they agree to pay a fraction of the overall bill each month. The program was suspended in 2012 when all of the people who managed it at the Detroit Department of Human Services were laid off. The program continued to accumulate money, Johnson says, but there was no one around to help pass it out. This June, DWSD signed a contract with THAW -- a nonprofit that helps Michigan residents with their heating bills -- to restart the Water Assistance Program.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Washington state just lopped up to $2,500 off the cost of solar panels. Here’s how.

solar panel rainbow
Steve Jurvetson

All new technology, no matter how innovative, arrives in a world of pre-existing laws and regulations. But not all technology catches the same breaks. A company like Lyft or Uber can do its thing right out there in the open for a surprisingly long time, despite being -- essentially -- appified versions of such already-illegal innovations as dollar vans and jitneys.

By comparison, solar energy, despite having made leaps and bounds both technologically and finance-wise, can't show up at the block party without bringing down a lawsuit, a law, or some kind of extra fee.

Yet those impediments, intentional and unintentional, are beginning to remove themselves. A decision this week by the Building Code Council in Washington state is a prime example.

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This crusty activist gave up on playing by the rules. What are they gonna do, arrest him?

Alec Johnson
Tar Sands Blockade

It’s been over a year since Alec Johnson was arrested for locking himself to an excavator sitting on a pipeline easement in Atoka, Oklahoma. He’s still waiting to go to trial. Rural Oklahoma communities only hold jury trials once or twice a year, and every time a new court date comes up, Johnson gets bumped – priority goes to anyone charged with a felony or presently cooling their heels in jail, which Johnson is not.

A lot has changed in that year. The protest around U.S. energy policy and climate change has shifted fronts – coal terminals, oil-by-rail, divestment, solar, and a massive climate rally planned for this September. Keystone XL South (now renamed the Gulf Coast pipeline) is up and running and being monitored by an ad hoc group of volunteers. Keystone XL is on hold until after the November U.S. elections -- possibly for good, though Johnson has his doubts. “In my experience, the ruling class pretty much gets what they want when they want,” he says.

Johnson has been arrested seven times, though there’s a gap of several decades in the sequence. The majority of his arrests happened in the mid-'70s, outside of the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Johnson was a member of a direct-action group called the Clamshell Alliance, and getting arrested was a whole different business then. “I got the shit kicked out of me,” he said. “They had their badge numbers taped over. A lot of white people that doesn’t happen to, but it happened to me.”

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Four things you should know about Detroit’s water crisis

detroit-water-red-pipe
iStockphoto

This May, the Detroit Water and Sewerage District (DWSD) sent out 46,000 shutoff notices to customers who were behind in their water bills. It was the latest calamity to befall a city that had seen its water rates rise 119 percent in the last decade.

As a city that has lost nearly two-thirds of its population in the last 60 years, Detroit has a lot of water infrastructure to maintain, and not much money to maintain it.

Since the shutoffs began (about 17,000 households and small businesses have lost service to date), residents have fought back hard. They've blocked trucks that are being sent out to shut off water accounts. They've called out DWSD for focusing on shutting off water to private homes that don't even owe that much, while ignoring golf courses that owe amounts in the hundreds of thousands. (DWSD responded that it had focused on residential customers because shutting off water to a large-scale user was more technically complicated than most of its employees can handle.) They've accused DWSD of dropping low-income customers as a way of making the system more appealing to potential buyers. (Whether or not that's true, Detroit emergency manager Kevin Orr has spoken openly about selling DWSD to a private company.) They've organized brigades of volunteers to bring water in to people who've had their accounts shut off. They even got the United Nations to condemn the way that DWSD is handing the situation.

But what's happening in Detroit isn't just Detroit's problem. It has larger implications for the rest of us. Here's what you need to know.