FLOW has submitted formal comments to the State of Michigan finding deep and fundamental deficiencies in a state-approved groundwater monitoring plan fashioned by water-bottling giant Nestlé.
FLOW’s comments to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) are regarding Nestlé Permit 1701, PW 101, and the bottled-water giant’s proposed joint agreement April 2019 monitoring plan in White Pine Springs, Osceola Township.
The comments, addressed to EGLE director Liesl Clark, EGLE supervisor James Gamble, and EGLE section manager Michael Alexander, state that the plan’s failure to adequately address hydrological effects results in the perverse outcome that the Monitoring Plan will essentially mask, rather than reveal, the actual effects and adverse impacts of the pumping allowed by the permit at issue. As a result, the current plan does not comply with General Condition 5 of Permit 1701.
“Michigan waters are held by the State as sovereign,” FLOW Founder and President Jim Olson said, “meaning for all of its citizens, so by its very nature a monitoring plan must be fully transparent, independent, reliable, and accurate to collect data and understand existing hydrologic, geologic, and ecological conditions … Mere predictions based on Nestlé’s model without a vigorous monitoring plan subject to public participation and independent verification will not achieve the purpose of the law or Condition 5 of the permit.
FLOW submitted these comments, along with additional comments prepared by Robert Otwell, Ph.D., as part of its continuing scientific and legal review and comments on the above Nestlé Application, Permit 1701, and Conditions to Permit 1701.
In his comments, Otwell observed, “The plan indicates the first monitoring report will describe baseline conditions. The baseline conditions should be those collected in the early 2000s, before significant pumping had taken place. Recognition needs to be made that because of the on-going pumping of PW-101, monitoring data collected based on the proposed plan will have lower stream flows and lower groundwater levels than natural conditions.”
Nestlé won approval from former Gov. Rick Snyder’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in 2018 to more than double its pumping from 150 gallons per minute (gpm) to 400 gpm, or 576,000 gallons per day (gpd), in Osceola County just north of Evart, Michigan. Production Well PWB101, White Pine Springs Site, as it is known, is located between two cold water Muskegon River tributary creeks, Twin and Chippewa Creeks. When Nestlé applied for this pumping increase using the state’s computer water withdrawal assessment tool, it failed. Nestlé then requested and obtained a site-specific review by DEQ staff that showed only minimal declines in water levels in the summer of 2016. That led the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians to contest the permit.
By Janet Meissner Pritchard, FLOW interim legal director
Whose job is it to stop widespread pollution from failing septic systems?
Michigan remains the only state without statewide regulations governing the inspection of septic systems, leaving the job of protecting waters from septic systems to local governments. A 2012 decision of the Michigan Supreme Court makes clear that, in the face of widespread septic system failures in a region, Michigan courts can nevertheless step in to require a local government to comply with its duty to protect the waters of the state from sewage contamination when the local government has failed to do so.
In DEQ v. Worth Township, the Court held that a municipality can be held liable for, and is required to prevent, sewage discharge that originates within its borders, even when the discharge is from private septic systems. In this case, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)—now called the Department of Energy, Great Lakes and Environment (EGLE)—filed suit against Worth Township under Part 31 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), which provides for water resources protection. The Township is located in Sanilac County, just north of Sarnia in the thumb of Michigan’s lower peninsula.
Worth Township did not have a municipal sewerage system. Instead, private septic systems handled sewage waste. Surveys of water quality conducted by DEQ in 2003, 2006, and 2008 revealed and made known to the Township that surface waters were contaminated with both fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria from raw sewage of human origin, and that conditions were progressively worsening.
The source of the contamination was due to the widespread failure of old, undersized septic systems on private properties located within the Township along the shore of Lake Huron. Oversaturated drain fields caused raw sewage to be directed into ditches and streams leading into the lake. As a result of this contamination, this section of Lake Huron was included in Michigan’s list of impaired waters.
Based on the initial testing done by DEQ, the state agency and the Township in 2004 entered into an agreement wherein the Township agreed to construct a municipal sewerage system by 2008. The Township did not construct such a system, citing lack of funds. DEQ filed suit, seeking injunctive relief under part 31 of NREPA, MCL 324.3101 et seq. to compel the Township to take measures to prevent the discharge of raw sewage into the waters of the state. The trial court found in favor of DEQ and ordered the Township to pay a $60,000 fine and attorney fees and to take corrective measures.
While the order did not specifically require the Township to install a municipal sewerage system to remedy the widespread failure of private septic systems, the parties agreed that the most practical and comprehensive method for restraining the discharge would be to construct a sewerage system. The Court of Appeals reversed the order, holding that a municipality cannot be required to prevent the discharge of sewage from private properties. DEQ, in turn, appealed to Michigan’s Supreme Court.
The state Supreme Court ruled that a municipality can be required to prevent the discharge of raw sewage that originates from within its borders, even when that sewage is discharged by private parties onto private property, and not by the municipality itself. The Court’s reasoning turned on its interpretation of MCL 324.3109, which sets forth the statutory framework regarding violations of NREPA involving unlawful discharges into state waters. MCL324.3109(2) provides specific language with regard to violations by governmental entities: “discharge of any raw sewage … directly or indirectly, into any of the waters of the state shall be considered prima facie evidence of a violation of this part by the municipality in which the discharge originated unless the discharge is permitted by an order or rule of [DEQ].”
The Court reasoned that the phrase “shall be considered prima facie evidence of a violation of this part by the municipality in which the discharge originated” is at the core of the dispute. The Court of Appeals had interpreted this phrase to mean that, when raw sewage originating within the municipality’s borders is discharged into state waters, this statutory language creates a rebuttable presumption that the municipality itself discharged the sewage and, if the municipality proves that it did not cause the discharge, it avoids responsibility.
But, applying several standard rules of statutory interpretation, the Supreme Court rejected the Appellate Court’s reasoning and instead determined that the Legislature intended to place responsibility for a discharge of raw sewage on the municipality in which the discharge originated and to give that municipality the burden of showing that the discharged raw sewage does not rise to the “is or may become injurious” standard in order to avoid being subject to penalties or orders for injunctive relief, as provided for in MCL 324.3115.
The Worth case not only clarifies that Michigan law places responsibility for sewage discharges into state waters on local municipalities, it also demonstrates that Michigan courts are able and willing to order injunctive relief to enforce the duty of a municipality to prevent such discharges.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Worth, in 2014 the Michigan legislature modified MCL 324.3109 to provide that a municipality is not liable for sewage discharge where the discharge is from three or fewer private septic systems. While this amendment limits a municipality’s strict liability where the problem emanates from just a few septic systems, it does nothing to overrule the reasoning of the Court in Worth or the application of the Court’s holding in cases where the failure of septic systems is widespread, as was the situation in Worth Township.
As argued by many participants at FLOW’s septic summit, the state legislature should enact a statewide sanitary code to protect the paramount public interest in groundwater and surface waters, setting environmentally protective standards for inspection and maintenance of on-site sewage (septic) systems, as every other state has done. The Worth case demonstrates, however, that even in the absence of state law authorizing EGLE to enforce state standards for septic systems, the regulatory agency can turn to state courts to enforce municipalities’ responsibilities to protect against the discharge of human sewage to state waters under existing state law, just as DEQ did in Worth.
The same kind of claims can also be brought against municipalities by private citizens or organizations, through a private right of action under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). The Attorney General could also prosecute a claim of public nuisance against a responsible municipality, as referenced in MCL 324.3109(6).
In some cases, stronger oversight and maintenance of existing private septic systems will be sufficient to remedy the problem. But sometimes, particularly in regions becoming more densely populated, drain fields to which private septic systems direct sewage waste can become oversaturated and contaminate state waters. In such cases, as in Worth Township, building a municipal sewerage system may be the most practical and comprehensive method for restraining the discharge. Building a municipal sewerage system is a substantial and expensive undertaking. To help financially constrained municipalities undertake such remedies, Michigan must find ways to fill its funding shortfall to meet the state’s water infrastructure needs. An amount of between $800 million to $1 billion is needed each year to address the state’s water infrastructure needs.
Different solutions may be required for different circumstances. Solutions could include a strong septic system ordinance or code, more frequent and stricter inspections of private septic systems, or the installation of a new sewerage system. But the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in Worth makes one thing clear: If municipalities do not step up to address failing septic systems, they might have to answer for it in court.
Meeting a January 31 deadline for public comment, FLOW urged state officials to adopt standards protecting the health of Michigan residents from PFAS chemicals detected in drinking water supplies serving 1.9 million residents.
FLOW also appreciates the 42 people who responded to a FLOW alert and submitted their own PFAS comments to the state.
Joining a broad coalition of environmental, public health and grassroots citizen organizations, FLOW told the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to adopt the proposed science-based standards. They would put Michigan among the leading states moving ahead to protect residents from these long-lasting toxic chemicals.
“It is imperative for Michigan to promulgate the proposed rules as soon as practicable,” FLOW wrote. “Testing continues to turn up new sites of PFAS contamination in Michigan, many of them exposing citizens to substantial health risks. Federal rules are likely years away and may not provide the level of protection that the people of Michigan want and need for public health and the environment. We applaud Governor Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) for your initiative to address the problem head-on.”
David Long, head of Environmental Solutions LLC, wrote last week in a blog post on FLOW’s website, “Studies show evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to PFAS chemicals. PFAS chemicals persist in the body for a long time and can accumulate. In laboratory animals, researchers found that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological effects.
“Consistently elevated cholesterol levels have been found in people with detectable levels of PFOA or PFOS. Lower infant birth weights, immune system effects, cancer (PFOA), and thyroid disruption (PFOS) have also been associated, albeit less frequently, with PFOA or PFOS.”
In addition to supporting the general outline of the standards, FLOW urged EGLE to:
Require a review of the rules in two years to take into account emerging science;
Require frequent monitoring of public water supplies to learn more about seasonal patterns and sources of PFAS;
Strengthen protection of infants and children.
Governor Whitmer has said she hopes the rules can be made final by summer.
Once upon a time, state environmental agencies operated for decades under the same name, providing continuity and tradition — but perhaps failing to meet evolving needs.
The Michigan Department of Conservation operated for nearly 50 years, beginning in 1921, a period of rapid growth in the state forest and park system and the gradual adoption of pollution control measures by commissions and boards. That changed in 1970 when, by executive order, then-Governor William Milliken united natural resources and environmental programs under one roof and called it the Department of Natural Resources. This structure, in turn, lasted a quarter century.
In 1995, then-Governor John Engler divided the natural resources and environmental programs again into a Department of Environmental Quality and DNR. In 2009, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm united them under the banner of the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. And in 2011, then-Governor Rick Snyder cleaved them again in two.
This month — on Earth Day, April 22 — the latest reorganization takes effect. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has created a Department of the Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to coexist with the DNR. It’s the most ambitious of all the natural resource agency reorganizations.
The order says, “State government needs a principal department focused on improving the quality of Michigan’s air, land, and water, protecting public health, and encouraging the use of clean energy. That department should serve as a full-time guardian of the Great Lakes, our freshwater, and our public water supplies.” It is unprecedented for energy to be a major priority of the state’s environmental agency.
The order contains several unique features and innovations:
An Environmental Justice Public Advocate to, among other things,“accept and investigate complaints and concerns related to environmental justice within the state of Michigan.”
A Clean Water Public Advocate to handle complaints and “assist in the development, and monitor the implementation, of state and federal laws, rules, and regulations relating to drinking water quality.”
An Office of Climate and Energy to “provide insight and recommendations to state government and local units of government on how to mitigate climate impact and adapt to climate changes.”
These three focal points respond to specific environmental disasters and neglect of the previous administration, most notably the Flint drinking water tragedy, but they should have statewide impact, redirecting the new agency toward its most critical challenges.
Any new agency must establish new traditions and provide a face to the world. The old DNR was seen as both strong on resource protection and occasionally arrogant in its relations with the public. It’s to be hoped that the new EGLE (along with a reinvigorated DNR) emphasizes the former and shuns the latter. If it does, the Governor will have done the state, and future generations, a considerable favor.