Groundwater Contamination: Clean It, Don’t Treat as a Long-Term Trash Can

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Polluters should pay to clean Up their contamination in Michigan. Take action now. Contact your State Representative and Senator and urge them to support House Bill 4314 and Senate Bill 58.

By Dave Dempsey

Imagine if state government, because of toxic contamination, cordoned off parts of Michigan rivers, lakes, and Great Lakes bays, forbidding public use for swimming, fishing, and boating for generations to come.

The people of Michigan wouldn’t stand for it.

But state law actually encourages a comparable policy for our groundwater, which supplies drinking water for 45% of Michigan residents. Parties that pollute soils and groundwater are not required to clean it all up. Instead, they can leave it in place, while prohibiting others from drilling drinking water wells or coming on-site. This saves the polluter money—but costs the public dearly.

In more than 2,000 locations around Michigan, so-called “institutional controls”—municipal ordinances or deed restrictions that prohibit use of groundwater on-site—substitute indefinitely prolonged contamination for a former state policy of requiring cleanup. This is turning out to be an even worse deal for Michigan than originally believed. And in our new groundwater report, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake, we call for a change in state law to protect our groundwater and public health. Click here for a Key Facts sheet.

One of the most notorious places where this failed policy has cost the public is in the Ann Arbor area. There, a corporation dumped tons of carcinogenic 1,4 dioxane into the groundwater over a period of decades. Michigan law does not require them to restore the groundwater to drinking water standards. Instead, private and municipal drinking water wells have been closed in a growing “prohibition zone,” as the contamination continues to spread towards the Huron River, the main drinking water supply for Michigan’s 5th most populous city.

Health threats from leaving groundwater contamination in place have been immediate at times. Authorities have supported temporary relocation of residents of condos in Petoskey and residences and offices in a Grand Rapids neighborhood because of gases from groundwater contaminants polluting indoor air.

In Petoskey, trichloroethylene, (TCE), a cancer-causing solvent still present in high concentrations in the groundwater and soil under a former manufacturing site, was found in indoor air at levels as high as 35 times above a federal screening standard in 2017. Government agencies suggested that some residents temporarily leave the condos, which had been built on the manufacturing site. Known as vapor intrusion, this phenomenon is an increasing health issue in Michigan.  In 2018, the former director of the state Department of Environmental Quality (now the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy) said there may be as many as 4,000 vapor intrusion sites in Michigan.

The policy of leaving contamination in place was put in place in 1995 by former Gov. John Engler and the Legislature on the grounds that it was a pragmatic response to past contamination, on the premise that requiring full cleanup was not cost-effective. That was before emerging science identified health risks such as vapor intrusion that hadn’t been included in the cost equation. And it makes no sense to permit those who contaminate groundwater in the future to turn their back on the problem. In doing so, the state will be saying that polluters henceforth are welcome to foul groundwater and deny its public use.

Government’s job is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the people it serves. But current Michigan cleanup law handcuffs agencies, elevating private interests above the public interest.

Michigan’s groundwater, the drinking water source for 45% of the state’s population, is too important to treat as a long-term trash can. It’s time to reform the lawand require contamination cleanup.

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