Battle Creek

Voices of Youth: Plans for a sustainable Battle Creek

Editor's Note:  This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's Voices of Youth Battle Creek program which is supported by the BINDA Foundation, City of Battle Creek, Battle Creek Community Foundation, and the Michigan Afterschool Partnership. This series features stories created by Calhoun County youth in partnership with professional mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth.

Note: All photos were taken by VOY's Pablo Camargo Tang to depict scenes of nature around Battle Creek. Please see Pablo's Artist Statement below.

BATTLE CREEK, MI — All the time, we hear about climate change. It is a common topic in the news, social media, politics, and popular culture. It is often said that the global ocean levels will rise enough to flood New York City in the next 60 years, or that more and more species are becoming extinct, as seen when the last male northern white rhino died in Sudan a few years ago. 

Many times, news breaks of celebrities — or even politicians — that publicly deny climate change despite the abundant scientific evidence that supports its existence. This skepticism is not only among influential individuals but also 'typical' Americans. According to a recent Yale study, 16% of Americans don’t believe in climate change. 

One of the reasons denialism is so prevalent could be attributed to the way climate change is approached. Many people feel that climate change does not affect them personally, which causes them to feel alienated and care less about it. When climate change is mainly thought of as something global, it can feel like it is very far away. 

So then one might understandably think, why should I change my lifestyle if it doesn’t affect me personally? Contrary to most people’s beliefs, however, there are plenty of environmental effects that are seen at a local scale. From pollution to ecosystem destruction, Battle Creek suffers from the effects of climate change and modern American society, as city officials acknowledge. 

Patty Hoch-Melluish, Environmental and Storm Services Manager of the City of Battle Creek mentions illicit discharges as one of the main problems Battle Creek faces regarding water pollution. “Once in a while, we’ll see what’s called an illicit discharge, which is something flowing into our surface waters through our stormwater system. That’s just some sort of form of pollution coming through that is supposed to be going to the wastewater treatment plant, not coming through the storm sewer line.”

An example of an exceptionally impactful incident was the Kalamazoo River oil spill in 2010 when more than a million gallons of crude oil were released into the river. A more recent incident is the Battle Creek's Wastewater Treatment Plant Spill in 2018 when 26,600 gallons of partially treated sludge and raw sludge were released into the Kalamazoo River. These two events significantly polluted the river, decreasing the quality of life in the city and impacting the local natural environment. 

Another issue Battle Creek’s environment faces is the presence of invasive species in the ecosystem. Kathy Antaya, a member of the Sustainable Battle Creek Committee, says, “The city is focusing on forest and environment management, so they’re now paying attention to the invasive species that we have growing up and down the Kalamazoo River that runs right through town. The uninformed individuals see nothing but these large green trees, but what they don’t know is that they are Norway maples and Silver maples, which… should not be growing in Michigan.”

Antaya described the many problems that come with these invasive species. According to her, these species grow at a really fast pace, possess very invasive roots, and have weak branches that easily break, causing risks for homeowners and the electrical company. Additionally, these invasive trees steal natural resources from the native vegetation, which oftentimes results in a disruption of the natural cycles of the ecosystem. 

Despite the many environmental challenges that Battle Creek faces, the city is constantly working toward a more environmentally friendly and sustainable Battle Creek. In 2007, the City Commission established the Environmental Policy Study Committee, which later updated its purpose and was renamed the Sustainable BC Committee. 

Antaya says, “The goal of that committee was to increase sustainable activities within the city government itself, so it wasn’t necessarily a community-wide effort, but it was focused on the programs and people that worked for the city of Battle Creek.”

In 2019, the Sustainable BC Committee, City of Battle Creek Planning, and City of Battle Creek put together an Environmental Sustainability Plan, which serves as a framework for the city administration and determines how energy, water, and land usage is managed. Additionally, this plan outlines the city’s goals regarding internal transportation, waste, and management. 

Since the  Sustainable Battle Creek Committee was first established, the Department of Public Works has started many programs that seek to advance sustainability in the city. “We have Styrofoam recycling, electronics recycling, curbside recycling…. They weren’t created by our committee, but they were all instigated, informed, and embellished by our committee to push them forward,” says Antaya.

Antaya also mentions the importance of one of the committee’s greatest accomplishments: adding environmental sustainability as part of the job duties of the city workers — everyone from the city manager to the ground superintendent. Assigning this responsibility as part of the job reviews makes sustainability a priority for all city workers, ensuring the city’s environment is always on their minds. 

Among its most recent steps toward sustainability, the city will release a complete greenhouse emissions inventory, which will allow the city to modify its sustainability plan to reduce its emissions. To collect this data, the city had to recur to various sources, as Hoch-Melluish says, “We had to get our data from Consumers and Simco, the gas company. We got airport data, transit data, vehicle usage data, some Google analytics… and wastewater treatment plant energy usage.” 

“We have a lot of opportunities for volunteers throughout the year to help with our events. We’re always encouraging people to get involved, and I’m hoping more people choose to recycle," says Hoch-Melluish. "We have a municipal recycling program for our residents: if they’re a renter or homeowner and have a municipal garbage account, they can get recycling for no additional charge... Pick up your trash, recycle, and don’t dump chemicals on the ground. Those are the kinds of things we are trying to educate people on.”

Pablo Camargo Tang is a senior at Lakeview High School and the Battle Creek Area Math and Science Center. In the future, he plans to pursue a career in physics research. Pablo enjoys walking in nature, reading, and taking photographs. 

Artist Statement: Pablo Camargo Tang created this mixed-media article, which combines photography and written language. He believes climate change is one of the most pressing issues that humanity currently faces. In this piece, Pablo wanted to inform and visually show the reader different ways Battle Creek is approaching sustainability.

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