Growing green: Marijuana presents water, air and energy issues

An issue catching the attention of air quality regulators is marijuana processing. Some solvents used to extract oils from the plant are absorbed into the atmosphere and pose potential environmental and health risks. Courtesy iStock

Michigan regulators are preparing for the environmental impact of the state’s recent legalization of recreational marijuana.

High demand and the new legal status will drive the growth of the state’s crop, Marijuana Business Daily reported last November.

Environmental concerns related to water and air quality are associated with the expanding production, said Jill Greenberg, a public information officer with the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

“The way the ballot (question) was written, there was no consideration for environmental impact. It all had to be picked up afterward,” said Robert Elmouchi, an environmental quality analyst with the agency’s Air Quality Division. He was referring to voter approval in the November 2018 election of legalized recreational use of marijuana.

“It is a very new industry and there are a lot more questions than answers right now,” he said.

The Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs is in charge of licensing growers.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the department in April to create a Marijuana Regulatory Agency to better regulate both the medical industry and the upcoming recreational industry.

“The agency is currently reviewing applications to grow for medical use, but there will be a separate licensing process for recreational ‘adult-use’ growing,” said David Harns, the department’s communications manager.

As of mid-May, the agency received 325 applications for licensing medical growers and approved 70, Harns said. No action yet has been taken on licensing recreational growers.

“The rules are still being written for the adult-use law,” he said.

Not everyone will be able to immediately apply for a recreational growing license once that’s done.

“For the first two years, the only people eligible to apply for recreational growing are medical license holders,” Harns said.

And regulation won’t stop once a grower is approved for a license.

Greenberg said the air and water divisions of the state’s environmental agency are examining the need to regulate recreational growing.

Even prior to legalization, the state had an environmental working group to evaluate potential environmental impacts, Elmouchi said.

“In 2017-18, our working group looked at the applicability of regulations from water, waste and air to determine if we need new regulations to address this industry,” he said.

The agency is researching how other states have prepared for potential environmental impacts.

The working group decided that for now, the existing regulations for air and water are appropriate for the marijuana industry, Elmouchi said.

But the industry’s environmental impact is unknown due to its newness and the lack of research, he said.

For instance, the emission of volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere is an air quality concern, he said. It could pose a threat to federal Environmental Protection Agency limits for creating ground-level ozone. Such restrictions now affect emissions from automobiles.

Another issue catching the attention of air quality regulators is marijuana processing. Some solvents used to extract oils from the plant are absorbed into the atmosphere and pose potential environmental and health risks, Elmouchi said.

Water pollution is another concern.

“All of the Water Resources Division programs have the potential to be impacted by the legalization of marijuana,” Greenberg said.

Growing and processing marijuana can be water intensive. The state estimates that it requires up to six gallons per plant, per day.

Michigan laws help protect against the significant water use that large-scale cannabis cultivation operations may require. The 2008 laws manage water withdrawals of more than 100,000 gallons per day, according to a 2017 marijuana working group report.

Other water concerns include improper discharge of waste. Greenberg said nutrient and chemical runoff from pesticides and fertilizers into wetlands and waterways pose a threat if not properly managed.

If any facilities directly discharge pollutants into surface waters, they must obtain a permit, Greenberg said. The agency hasn’t issued any discharge permits to growers.

Electricity use is another aspect calling for environmental attention.

“It’s a very utility-heavy business,” said Joe Neller, vice president of government affairs for Green Peak Innovations, a medical marijuana company in Dimondale. “We use a lot of electricity to run the lights during the cultivation process.

“What our company does to mitigate that is use LED lights, which use less electricity,” Neller said.

It also is partnering with the nearby Lansing Board of Water and Light to put up solar panels to offset electrical use.

“I think everyone in the industry is aware of these issues and is trying to find ways to address them and make the environmental impact less and move to a more sustainable model,” Neller said.

Some companies looking to join the commercial industry fear that extensive environmental regulations will hinder growers’ ability to enter the market.

“All states have pretty stringent regulations and, sometimes, that can be burdensome for businesses to be able to meet, but as an industry, we want to be able to move in the right direction in terms of corporate responsibility and sustainability,” said Morgan Fox, media relations director with the National Cannabis Industry Association.

The regulated industry is far superior when it comes to mitigating environmental impact than the illicit industry, Fox said.

“When you don’t have a legal market, you get illegal organizations on public land and throwing nonremedial chemicals into the environment with no oversight and no concern or incentive to make sure they are using safe products or protecting the surrounding environment,” Fox said.

States that legalize recreational marijuana allow the industry to develop better technology and explore more green growing options, she said.

Permitting and regulation may change as more data emerges. For instance, Elmouchi said growers may be able to forego an air permit if their emissions are insubstantial.

Neller said Green Peak Innovations has been working with state regulators who want to learn about its operations. “Part of the reason they came to our facility is because they are also learning. We are happy to help them become educated on what the operation looks like.”

Elmouchi said he agrees there is a growth curve for regulators.

As the marijuana industry continues to expand and change, so too will the state’s regulatory and educational programs, he said.

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