Today marks the beginning of a campaign to protect groundwater in Michigan and our surrounding states as the “Sixth Great Lake,” a lightning-bolt phrase promoted by Dave Dempsey, FLOW’s senior policy advisor and author of a sentinel groundwater report released by FLOW this week. In this second of a trilogy of reports published by FLOW as part of its “Campaign for Freshwater,” Mr. Dempsey, a highly regarded sage in Great Lakes and international water policy circles, has summoned citizens, leaders, communities: Now is time to reverse the course of an abysmal history of our state government’s deliberate collaboration with polluters to put private interests above the paramount public interest in water and public health.
Our Great Lakes and the tributary lakes, streams, and groundwater, are owned by each state as sovereign, in public trust our laws exclaim. Our waters of the state are public and held in trust to prevent diminishment and pollution of water and protect public health. This same legal principle is embodied in Michigan’s state constitution and water laws. In Article 4, Section 52, the constitution declares that the public interest in water and natural resources is paramount and that the “legislature shall provide” for their protection from pollution or impairment. In Article 4, Section 51, the constitution declared that the directly related public interest in health is paramount and directed that the “legislature shall provide” for the protection of public health. In 1970, our legislature responded to this constitutional mandate by passing the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, a law that imposes a legal duty on government and all of us alike to prevent the likely degradation of our water, air, and natural resources and the public trust duty to protect the public’s use and dependence on these resources.
After the tragic exposure and horrible health effects from toxic chemicals underneath “Love Canal”– Hooker Chemical’s sale of a bulldozed, covered-over hazardous waste dump for a residential subdivision, Michigan like the country and other states acted to halt the poisoning of our water, land, and citizens. In 1980, Congress passed the federal Superfund law that imposed strict liability on those who owned or controlled land on which hazardous chemicals had been or were being released. Michigan passed the Michigan Environmental Response Act (so called “Act 307″ or “MERA”) in 1982. Act 307 declared that all persons or companies who were “owners” of the land or “operators” in control of the land on which a release of toxic chemicals had to report and enter into consent orders to remediate the pollution of groundwater contaminated by the release.
This historic and remedial action by our country’s elected leaders established a legal principle and rallying-cry to stop the poisoning of the United States and our environment, and the tragic loss of life and health of our citizens. In Michigan and other Greet Lakes states also passed “polluters’ pay” laws that imposed strict liability for control or ownership of a facility from which a release of chemicals had been released. This was the mainstay of Michigan’s efforts to clean up hazardous substances from our lands and groundwater, that is until Michigan’s legislature passed and Governor Engler signed Act 451 (“Part 201) in 1994. Act 451 punctured holes in the law, and from 1994 until now our elected leaders and appointed officials have insidiously commandeered the dismantling of polluters’ pay law and dried up the budget to enforce what little of the law remained. Today, it should be called “Polluters Play.”
In 1995, under the watch of Governor Engler, the legislature revamped Act 307 to narrow liability of “owners or operators” from strict liability for owning or controlling a contaminated property to “owners or operators” who “at the time of the release” are shown to be “responsible for causing the release.” The state ended up with the burden of proof to showing causation, not those who own or are in control of the property, and cleanup standards were relaxed from a 1 in 100,000,000 cancer risk to a 1 in 100,000 risk. Pollution from pesticides and fertilizers in the production of food, crops, and concentrated farms were exempted as long as they managed runoff and groundwater discharges based on generally accepted farming practices.
From 1999 to 2014, cleanup standards were relaxed even more, where owners and operators obtained an approved plan to manage the contamination in place under “no-further action” plans and post-closure management monitoring, and land and water use restrictions that limited exposure of people to the hazardous substances in soil or groundwater. In short, polluters can isolate a land area and groundwater plume and monitor contaminant levels as they spread, adding more restrictions as necessary: This means groundwater use by the public or other landowners is lost until levels drop below clean up or unrestricted residential use standards. Then on top of this, cleanup standards were relaxed where the use of land or underlying contaminated groundwater were in an industrial or commercial zone where there was little chance of human exposure. At first these changes were supposed to help the redevelopment of “brownfield sites” (polluted property or groundwater) throughout the state to increase property tax revenues. But these standards were extended across the board to all polluters, tax revenues remained depressed while developers were reimbursed cleanup costs from tax incremental financing– as redevelopment occurs, value goes up so tax revenues go up, minus the tens of thousands or sometimes millions of cleanup costs to the developer until paid.
In the past few years under Governor Snyder’s watch, things have turned even darker. Owners of land or facilities with groundwater levels in excess of legal contaminant standards or cleanup standards are allowed to “vent” to nearby surface water streams. This means, high levels of contaminants can remain in the groundwater until migration enters a stream without violating water quality standards. Because of the larger volume of flow moving quickly downstream, “dilution is the solution.”
For many citizens in Michigan, this legacy to our water and public health is and will continue to be shocking as we discover more and more toxic sites, like the growing PFAs crisis first discovered in Parchment, Michigan that shut down a town’s drinking water supply. Shamefully, it is not and won’t be shocking to the majority of our legislators and leaders who commandeered these changes to let polluters off the hook or narrow the range or amount of costs they would have had to pay to clean up groundwater so that it was no longer polluted. As pointed out by Mr. Dempsey in FLOW’s report, Michigan still has over 6,000 unfunded sites that exceed cleanup standards and more than 8,000 sites from leaking underground tanks. Thousands of so-called post-closure hazardous sites are managed by agreements and land or water use restrictions to reduce human exposure. This means this toxic groundwater legacy continues to spread and displace these waters from available for public or private use. Worse, this legacy endangers the health and well-being of tens of thousands of citizens and hundreds of communities.
There is a disturbing sidebar in FLOW’s report, captioned as a “Spreading Stain.” The sidebar captures both the magnitude and gravity of our current groundwater crisis– a legacy of pollution, nitrates, and now PFAs–in Michigan and the Great Lakes Basin. In the town of Mancelona, up slope from Antrim County’s Chain-o-Lakes, the Jordan River Valley and Schuss Mountain Ski Resort, from the 1940s through the 1960s, an auto parts manufacturer used a solvent known as TCE (trichloroethylene) to degrease its stamping machinery. The used solvent was dumped on the ground or discharged into lagoons. By the time, the company was out of business and the EPA and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality discovered the contamination, the plume had spread out 6 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. It endangers streams and the drinking water of the residents of the town and resort. But what is often lost on our leaders and the public is the fact that 13 trillion gallons of groundwater are no longer available for use by the town, the resort, businesses, and property owners. To put this in perspective, Dempsey notes this is ten times the loss of the 2 billion gallons a day from the Chicago diversion of Lake Michigan to the Mississippi.
Multiply this by the thousands of contaminated groundwater sites in Michigan, and the picture is clear: The public waters of the state and Great Lakes basin have been sacrificed and subordinated by private interests. This massive loss of water is even memorialized by the state’s requirement that private polluters and towns zone or restrict use of use of groundwater within the area of a toxic plume, rather than clean it up. Water quality and quantity issues are inseparable. How is the state has joined the Great Lakes Compact that bans diversion of millions of gallons of water, but has been complicit in allowing the loss of trillions of gallons of groundwater by aiding the spread of toxic pollution?
How ironic. Our courts have declared water as sovereign and public, but the state allows large volumes and areas of groundwater to be placed off limits to benefit private polluters. Could the state have designated 1,000 acres of our public forests and state parks as a toxic waste dump for private use? Our constitution mandates that our legislators and leaders shall protect the paramount waters of the state and public health. Since 1995, legislators have enacted and governors have signed a parade of laws and regulations that have destroyed groundwater, poisoned drinking water, and endangered public health.
Our constitution mandates that our legislators and leaders shall protect the paramount waters of the state and public health. Since 1995, legislators have enacted and governors have signed a parade of laws and regulations that have destroyed groundwater, poisoned drinking water, and endangered public health.
Maybe we should start by restoring the “polluters’ pay” law, but this time call it “polluters and politicians pay.” The law would read, “the owners or operators or legislators who voted for the laws that violated the constitutional legislative mandates to protect water and public health are strictly liable for the cost of cleanup and damage from the release of toxic pollutants.” Let’s restore the paramount (“above all”) protection of water and health required by the common law of public trust and the state constitution.