Tag: contamination

Water is on the Ballot, Too

Now that the primary election is behind us, Michiganders will pay increasing attention to this fall’s all-important electoral choices.  FLOW is contacting the nominees for Governor, Attorney General, and northwest Michigan House and Senate seats this week to inform them of the water and public trust issues we think they should tackle.  We are looking for them to provide voters their views on these issues before the November election.

Here are the key challenges we believe the Great Lakes State faces in protecting its public trust assets:

Shut down Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac.  These antiquated 65-year-old pipelines convey almost 23 million gallons per day of petroleum products along the public bottomlands of the Straits.  They pose an unacceptable risk of a spill that could cause ecological devastation and deliver a more than $6 billion blow to Michigan’s economy.  The Legislature should amend Public Act 10 (1953) to require any utility easement authorized under this Act to reapply under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and public trust laws governing occupancy of our public waters and bottomlands.

End Nestlé’s profiteering off public water and secure public water benefits.  At a cost of $200 per year in state fees, Nestle is making hundreds of millions of dollars in profit annually by pumping, bottling and selling groundwater that would otherwise feed wetlands and streams.  In effect, Nestle is selling back to the public its own water at a markup of more than 2000%.  The Legislature should subject all private capture and sale of municipal water and groundwater to state regulation, impose royalties to benefit public water needs, and prohibit withdrawals that have unacceptable impacts on sensitive water resources.  

Prevent and remediate Michigan’s groundwater contamination.  About 45% of Michigan’s population drinks water from groundwater supplies. Unfortunately, there are 6000 legacy groundwater contamination sites for which there is no state cleanup funding, an estimated 130,000 failing septic systems, thousands of private water wells contaminated with dangerous nitrate, thousands of sites that pose a risk of indoor toxic vapor intrusion, and a staggering number of potential sites (estimated at 11,000) where groundwater is contaminated with PFAS compounds.  The Legislature should enact laws to address ongoing threats to groundwater quality and create a fund of at least $500 million to clean up legacy contamination sites.

Assure access to clean, safe, affordable water for all Michigan citizens.  It is simply wrong that in a water-abundant state, thousands of households are priced out of access to basic water services in communities like Flint and Detroit.  The Legislature should provide seed money and mandate public utility water pricing that assures all citizens can afford basic domestic water services.

We also expect them to address funding for drinking water and sewage treatment infrastructure; bringing the public back into state environmental decision making; and supporting Blue Communities.  For a copy of our full list of concerns, click here.

When we cast votes in November, we should remember that more than candidates are on the ballot.  In a very real way, so are water and the public trust.


 

Public Trust Tuesday: A Spreading Stain

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This 1500-year-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands, that by their nature cannot be privately owned.  Rather, this commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.  We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.


New York’s Love Canal was once an instantly recognizable label to most Americans.  In 1980, after toxic waste from an old chemical dump began to ooze up in the yards of a housing development built atop the dump, authorities evacuated the neighborhood.  Love Canal became a national symbol of chemical mismanagement, and the impetus for the Superfund cleanup program.

Michigan officials looking for toxic waste dumps and spill sites affecting groundwater found them everywhere.  That, coupled with public concern about everything from health effects to depressed property values, prompted the Legislature and voters to kick in more than $1 billion in state funds for groundwater cleanup.

And then something happened.

In 1995, state policy changed.  Instead of striving to remove all contamination, Michigan went to a risk-based approach – meaning contamination could remain in the ground if means could be put to work to limit the exposure of human beings to these poisons.  These means could be everything from a concrete cap atop contaminated soil to a local ordinance prohibiting the drilling of new wells into contaminated groundwater. 

That saved businesses legally responsible for the contamination considerable money, but it also fostered the spread of contaminants in groundwater in many locations – often groundwater once used for drinking water.

Some areas with spreading contamination have recently attracted media attention, including sites associated with Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Wolverine Worldwide and Mancelona.

The Michigan DEQ estimates that contaminated groundwater is coming out of the ground and discharging to lakes, streams or wetlands at approximately 1,000 locations in Michigan.  It’s as if 1,000 new (and sloppy) chemical plants were sited in Michigan and were allowed to have lax or no controls on the pollution they are sending into our common waters.

The public trust doctrine holds that certain natural resources like navigable waters are preserved in perpetuity for public use and enjoyment, and that government has a duty to safeguard these uses as a trustee on behalf of the public.  By allowing contaminated groundwater to spread and pollute surface water, the State of Michigan has failed to fulfill its public trust obligations.  It’s not only a breach of the public trust in water, it’s a potentially grave threat to the health of our citizens.