The group that has kept Central Michigan University a key player in the health of the Great Lakes is growing in size and scope.
Alongside the endangered creatures and invasive species that keep the public's attention, there now are quieter — but equally important — interviews and number crunching.
environmental health, we have to say what that means in terms of jobs and
money." — Donald Uzarski, biology instructor and Institute for Great Lakes
The university's Institute for Great Lakes Research, conceived in 2009 and formally established in 2010, started with five representatives from the departments of earth and atmospheric sciences, geography and environmental studies, biology, and chemistry and biochemistry.
Today the institute boasts 26 faculty members from the four departments and an agenda that changes as Great Lakes issues evolve.
"When we sit in a room with lawmakers, we have to put a dollar sign on things," said Donald Uzarski, a biology professor who also directs the IGLR and the CMU Biological Station on Beaver Island.
Making a difference
Marcello Graziano, a department of geography and environmental studies faculty member, joined the IGLR as part of a collegewide effort to expand it and make an even bigger difference.
His specialty is economic geography, and he takes a hard look at numbers.
Uzarski sees the whole thing coming down to a struggle between commercial development and environmental health.
"With environmental health, we have to say what that means in terms of jobs and money," he said. "Marcello was recruited specifically to help us do that."
Graziano has a hand in researching two of the Great Lakes' most-discussed political and ecological issues.
One study aims to measure the economic and social impact of transporting crude oil within the Great Lakes watershed — a polarizing topic for years, especially since a 30-inch oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Inc., burst in July 2010 near Marshall, Michigan, contaminating the Kalamazoo River and Talmadge Creek. From 2010 to 2014, Enbridge recovered 1.2 million gallons of crude oil from the river.
Also controversial is the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline carrying oil under the Straits of Mackinac since 1953, with many people concerned about its age.
Another study looks at the social and economic impact of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative — a federal effort launched in 2010 to accelerate protection of the lakes. The Trump administration has called for defunding the GLRI.
Graziano leads the oil transportation research alongside CMU colleague Matthew Liesch, a geography and environmental studies faculty member.
He also leads CMU's role in the GLRI study, a joint undertaking of several U.S. states and Canada.
The flow of oil
Graziano said the first phase of the oil study is all about crunching numbers from sources such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. He said major differences in recordkeeping between the United States and Canada complicate interpreting the data.
One list showed that in 2016, the Great Lakes watershed was home to 676 establishments in industries related to crude oil transportation, employing 26,944 workers and generating $12.6 billion in sales.
According to Graziano, crude oil in the lakes region travels primarily through land-based pipelines and by rail, not via oil tankers or Line 5 — although the underwater pipeline's flow is significant.
The study, funded by the Great Lakes Commission with support of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, also tallied costs of $83 million from pipeline spills in the United States from 2012-15. The Kalamazoo River accident added $1.3 billion to the total from 2010-15.
The bottom line, Graziano said, is that there aren't a lot of non-refinery businesses working in oil transportation within the Great Lakes region.
The flow of dollars
The first phase of the GLRI research, also funded by the Mott Foundation, involved interviewing political, economic and business stakeholders, Graziano said.
The study focuses on four Great Lakes regions: Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin; Muskegon, Michigan; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and Buffalo, New York.
Phase I looks at job creation, the amount of money generated, the impact on Gross Domestic Product and demographic changes.