Giving Thanks for the Cleanup Folks


Photo: Kim Ethridge at the former Oil Site petroleum storage and distributor in Royal Oak removing contamination in soil and groundwater, November 19, 2020. Photo courtesy of EGLE

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

 

By Dave Dempsey

A private company that tidies up after domestic disasters (home fires, floods and more) has been all over television recently with ads that boast their work is so good that when they’re done, the property will look “like it never even happened.”

In Michigan’s state government there are talented professionals who would like to be able to say the same about the messes they try to clean upthe estimated 24,000 known contamination sites that degrade the state’s groundwater, soils, rivers, and lakes and even threaten people in their own homes. Working in what’s called the “Remediation and Redevelopment Division” of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), they work to pinpoint contamination sources, calculate health and environmental risks, work with (or in conflict with) polluters to resolve issues, and oversee the difficult work of removing toxins from the environment.

But unlike the company buying all those TV ads, the Remediation and Redevelopment Division (RRD) folks often must rely on taxpayer dollars to get the job done. There are many more contaminated sites than there is public funding to clean them up. And there are state laws and rules that sometimes require the cleanup folks to leave the contamination where it is, and simply prevent people from coming in contact with it through drinking water or other physical exposure.

This is undoubtedly frustrating for many of them, yet they persist, doing sometimes thankless work that still results in a tangibly cleaner environment.

RRD’s vision statement is the result of 26-year-old state policies that abandon the goal of full cleanup in favor of the notion that toxins can remain in place as long as people do not come in contact with them.

I had the opportunity to speak to many of those employees via a virtual in-service training on August 16. While I gave them some of the history that led to the need for their program, I also learned a few things about the challenges they face.

RRD’s vision statement is: “Create a future where Michigan’s contaminated properties are reliably managed, revitalized, and the environment is protected.” While laudable, it also illuminates one of the program’s constraints: instead of envisioning that contaminated properties are cleaned up, it talks of making sure they are “reliably managed.” In part, that is a reflection of limited public dollars to deal with the overwhelming number of sites. But it is also the result of 26-year-old state policies that abandon the goal of full cleanup in favor of the notion that toxins can remain in place as long as people do not come in contact with them.

In spite of that policy, RRD employees make critical contributions to Michigan’s economy as well as public health. They oversee the removal or control of contaminants on sites that can sometimes be returned to vibrant use, such as waterfronts in Detroit and Traverse City. And in thousands of places, they have kept people from drinking or otherwise physically contacting hazardous chemicals.

We’ve come a long way as a state since the earliest contamination occurred at the close of the 19th century—a way that is both good and bad. Industrial carelessness with chemicals like TCE, DDT, PCBs, and many more has lessened, due to both better stewardship and strict laws. And the state cleanup program that began more than 40 years ago and is now headed by RRD has addressed thousands of sites.

“Our mission has an importance that rises above the usual frantic business of society. It has an almost spiritual nature to it. Who else will respond to the trauma inflicted upon earth and its inhabitants?”

But there are still open sores on the land, and beneath it. When groundwater is tainted, it often puts those who rely on it at risk, and 45% of Michigan’s population gets its drinking water from private or public wells. When pollutants beneath residential or commercial structures vaporize, they can pose acute health risks to those who live or work there. Protecting Michigan’s people and environment from these threats is a vital public service.

To prepare for my presentation, I asked Andy Hogarth, the retired head of RRD, to articulate his version of the program’s purpose. He offered powerful words: “Our mission has an importance that rises above the usual frantic business of society. It has an almost spiritual nature to it. Who else will respond to the trauma inflicted upon earth and its inhabitants?”

Andy’s words should remind us that the cleanup folks in RRD, and indeed most of the staff of EGLE, are not stereotypical bureaucrats. They care about remedying the mistakes of the past, and leaving us all with a better future. They do so under enormous constraints of political pressure, restrictive state law and policy, limited funding, and ever-evolving science. All the people of Michigan owe them thanks.

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