U.S. Senator Carl Levin discusses climate and energy issues with Sarah Green, Michigan Tech University Department of Chemistry chair, following Sen. Levin's visit to a Small Business Roundtable Meeting on Aug. 20 at the Franklin Square Best Western Inn Shelden Grill in Houghton. Also pictured is Ed Lahti, local inventor. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)
By Michele Bourdieu
HOUGHTON -- U.S. Senator Carl Levin was a guest speaker at the Aug. 20 Small Business Roundtable Meeting with the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance (KEDA) in Houghton. The purpose of the visit, according to Phil Musser, KEDA executive director, was to talk about small business issues. The Senator also spoke briefly to the media and individual constituents after the meeting.
Sen. Levin is on the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee and is a strong advocate for Michigan small business interests.
"His membership on that committee means that he has impact on small business issues," Musser said. "We want to be able to communicate with him what our priorities are. One of those priorities (which he mentioned in his talk) is called Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)."
Through the SBIR program, government agencies set aside some of their money for small business research to help commercialize products of interest to that agency, Musser explained.
"This is very important money for young companies who don't have a lot of money to do research or commercialize," Musser noted. "I estimate that companies in this community have received 75 or more SBIRs. Those range in size from $50,000 to $750,000."
Musser said these grants are important for helping young companies get their products into the marketplace.
"Senator Levin has been one of those who helped start that program and is a strong supporter of it. It comes up periodically for renewal and he supports full funding of the SBIR program," Musser added.
Musser said Bill and Ellen Campbell's Nitrate Elimination Co., Inc., (NECi) in Lake Linden, founded in 1993, is a good example of SBIR money helping a new company market its products.
According to Ellen Campbell, NECi vice-president, NECi sells its easy-to-use nitrate test kits for environmental testing and agriculture throughout the US. NECi's enzyme-based nitrate analysis method can be used in everything ranging from testing home well water to automated nitrate analysis in the lab. In addition, their products for very accurate nitrate testing in laboratories are sold internationally.
NECi also recently received a new $90,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture's SBIR program for developing a greener, enzyme-based method for detection of phosphate.
"Our agricultural customers have told us that they are more likely to test their soil and runoff if they can check nitrate and phosphate at the same time," Ellen Campbell explained.
In addition, since part of the company's development funds came from the SBIR program, the Campbells are able to sell their products at a better price.
"The SBIR program has been the key to our survival and our ability to remain in the UP," Ellen Campbell said. "Our company is pioneering the use of purified enzymes for analytical chemistry. Many lab tests require the use of hazardous or toxic chemicals. We are working to replace these chemical methods with enzyme-based methods. This is a new concept -- enzyme-based methods are rarely used outside the medical lab."
Along with many local business owners, representatives of departments at Michigan Technological University, many of whom are KEDA members, attended the meeting with Sen. Levin.
After the meeting, Sarah Green, chair of Michigan Tech's Department of Chemistry, spoke to Sen. Levin about her concern that the Senate pass the climate bill.
"He said he agrees it's important," Green said.
Green noted her disappointment in the present energy bill, which, Levin told her, has a chance to pass in the Senate.
"It's going to take pieces of the original climate bill and call it the energy bill," she said. "At this point any bill that makes steps toward reducing our carbon footprint is a step forward. That bill has many good elements, but Levin (and others) say only some parts may still come to the floor this year. Nobody yet knows what parts it will contain. They are calling it an 'energy bill' instead of 'clean energy jobs.'"
Green added she believes the Senate needs to pass some version of the House bill.
"They haven't even taken it up, so I don't know if it has a number yet," Green noted. "It's known as the 'clean energy jobs bill.'"*
Green said she also spoke with Levin about standards for vehicle emission. Levin's view, she noted, is that states (like California) shouldn't be allowed to set higher standards than a national federal standard for vehicle emissions.
Since the press was not allowed at the meeting but only given the final 15 minutes to interview Sen. Levin, Keweenaw Now asked him about two issues -- Afghanistan and Kennecott-Rio Tinto's sulfide mine.
Sen. Levin said he made a reference to Afghanistan in his talk at the KEDA meeting, but didn't talk about it in detail to the group.
Asked whether he thought the U.S. would have to accept the Taliban having a role in the Afghan government at the expense of human rights, Levin replied that the Taliban is very unpopular and can be defeated.
"They (the Taliban) can be defeated, but they can only be defeated by the Afghan people and their army, which has got a lot of respect," Levin said, "and I believe our mission should be to build up that army -- to transition responsibility for Afghan security to the Afghan Army. They've got to take responsibility for their security. They have the respect of the people ... They're fighters. The people hate the Taliban, so if you put those ingredients together they can defeat the Taliban. It's got to be our supporting their effort. It can't be our being in the lead."**
On the mining issue, Sen. Levin said he wasn't very familiar with the Eagle Project mine; however, his Upper Peninsula Regional Representative Amy Berglund told Keweenaw Now Levin's staff is aware of Rio Tinto-Kennecott and other mining companies now active in the Upper Peninsula. She said they are open to receiving information on the mining from concerned citizens.
*See the Web site ClimateProgress.org for more information on the "energy bill."
** See our April 3, 2010, article, "Local soldier describes humanitarian mission in Afghanistan."