Why should we clean up contaminated groundwater instead of sealing it off?
Because what we can’t see can come back to hurt us.
Almost 40 years ago, contamination in Charlevoix’s groundwater forced the city to switch to Lake Michigan as its drinking water source. Traditionally, the state policy was to require cleanup of polluted groundwater to protect it for future uses. But in a major precedent, the state and the Environmental Protection Agency decided to let the contamination go on the belief that it would cleanse itself over time and because it was assumed nobody would be drinking the groundwater.
This is one of scores of examples across Michigan where letting things go has left behind problems—and bills—for future generations. Today’s generations.
In FLOW’s 2018 groundwater report, the Sixth Great Lake, we called for a change in state law to require cleanup of groundwater except where it is technically infeasible. Now legislation has been introduced to do exactly that.
It’s time we treat groundwater as priceless, not worthless.
President Nixon signs NEPA into law on January 1, 1970. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One of the first new laws of the 1970s reflecting the public’s concern about cleaning up the environment was the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). On the first day of the new decade—January 1, 1970—President Richard Nixon signed the legislation into law. A milestone in the protection of America’s environment, NEPA has been nicknamed the “Magna Carta” of American environmental law. On its 50th anniversary, it’s important to remember why NEPA has been so important—especially now that the Trump Administration is proposing to weaken it via regulation.
First, what did NEPA do? Former U.S. EPA Deputy Administrator Alvin Alm called NEPA “short, simple, and comprehensive. It established a national policy to protect the environment, created a Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and required that environmental impact statements be prepared for major federal actions having a significant effect on the environment.”
That third requirement—the environmental impact statement, or EIS—was, indeed, short and simple, but it turned out to be revolutionary. For the first time, federal agencies had to “look before you leap.” They could not undertake or authorize projects having a significant effect on the environment without first considering alternatives having less impact.
This was a more profound change than it might seem. Using the law as leverage, third parties—often citizen associations and environmental groups—were able to go to court and force federal agencies to think twice about, or back down from, environmentally destructive actions that in prior years would have moved swiftly ahead. At the same time, many federal agencies began good-faith reforms to take environmental impacts into account.
Alm called NEPA’s early results “dramatic. The Atomic Energy Commission’s nuclear licensing process was stopped dead in its tracks for more than a year … Outer Continental Shelf oil drilling was held up until a proper environmental impact statement was prepared. Controversy over the Alaska Oil Pipeline was brought to a close only when Congress decreed the environmental impact statement process was completed.”
A measure of NEPA’s success, Alm added, was that by the late 1980s federal agencies routinely considered environmental impacts in their decision making, and often redesigned projects to avoid or minimize those impacts.
As the 50th anniversary of this internationally recognized law arrived, President Donald Trump and federal agencies proposed eviscerating NEPA. Under the guise of “modernizing” NEPA rules, the Trump changes would make it easier for major polluting infrastructure projects, like petroleum pipelines, to move quickly through the federal permit process.
Project proponents would not have to consider—or disclose—the implications for greenhouse gas emissions or other forms of pollution. The rule would allow infrastructure projects to be built without consideration of stronger storms, sea-level rise, and other impacts of climate change, worsening the vulnerability of communities across the country.
Mitch Jones, the climate and energy program director for Food & Water Watch’s policy program, said Trump’s “intention to remove climate considerations from all new infrastructure decisions is akin to lighting the fuse on a bomb and standing idly by as it burns down.”
How would this be done? Primarily by eliminating a requirement that federal agencies must consider climate change impacts of major federal actions. This makes absolutely no sense. As evidence of climate change mounts—from unprecedented major runaway brushfires to torrential, year-in-a-day downpours—the Trump changes would effectively bar the federal government from even looking at the issue. It’s climate denial and a reward for polluting industries in one rule change.
When it took effect, NEPA was a response to decades of environmental deterioration. The changes it inspired helped save taxpayers billions of dollars in avoided costs from environmental boondoggles. The Trump changes would take us back to the days before 1970 in addressing climate concerns.
Before the proposed Trump changes take effect, there will be a 60-day public comment period. Below is information on how you can speak out.
You may submit comments, identified by docket number CEQ– 2019–0003, by any of the following methods:
Mail: Council on Environmental Quality, 730 Jackson Place NW, Washington, DC 20503.
CEQ must receive comments by March 10, 2020.
Instructions: All submissions received must include the agency name and docket number for this rulemaking. All comments received will be posted without change to this website, including any personal information provided. Do not submit electronically any information you consider to be private, Confidential Business Information (CBI), or other information whose disclosure is restricted by statute.
Docket: For access to the docket to read background documents or comments received, visit this site. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Edward A. Boling, Associate Director for the National Environmental Policy Act, or Viktoria Z. Seale, Chief of Staff and General Counsel, 202–395–5750, NEPA- Update@ceq.eop.gov.
Green liquid oozing from a retaining wall along I-696 on Dec. 20, 2019. Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Transportation
By Dave Dempsey
It’s disappointing that it took creeping green ooze to awaken state officials in Lansing to a monumental environmental problem — thousands of hazardous groundwater contamination sites across the state. But that’s exactly what has happened.
When a stream of green liquid began to flow onto a metro Detroit freeway in December 2019, alarm bells clanged. It soon turned out that the ooze contained, among other contaminants, hexavalent chromium, which is associated with cancer, as well as kidney and liver damage. Fortunately, homes and businesses in the area have municipal drinking water supplies instead of private wells, so the immediate health impact on people has been minimal.
The now-defunct Madison Heights electro-plating facility believed responsible for the ooze had 5,000 containers of haphazardly stored toxic waste when government inspectors arrived in 2016. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a $1.5 million emergency cleanup but did not address contaminated soils under the building. That’s the source of the I-696 ooze.
Although the owner of the company reported last week for a one-year prison term, state officials missed the opportunity to deal with the mess before it became a crisis when they failed to take decisive enforcement action against the firm after inspections found major problems beginning in 1996. Instead, they wrote letters and notices of violation for 20 years. Now another expensive cleanup is underway.
Until 1995, state policy dictated the full cleanup of contaminated groundwater in most instances, and from 1990 to 1995 state law also assigned strict liability for owners of contaminated sites. But the Michigan Legislature dramatically weakened both protections, allowing contaminants to be contained rather than cleaned up in many instances, and making it much more difficult to hold polluters accountable for the costs of cleanup. The public has been burdened with much of that cost.
A state that likes to think of itself as “Pure Michigan” has a far-from-pure groundwater resource, even though 45% of the state’s population gets its drinking water from wells. This intolerable condition cannot continue.
It’s unclear how many messes it will take before policymakers wake up. But their action can’t wait. Had a fire broken out at the Madison Heights facility, and firefighters who responded sprayed water on the blaze, it might have resulted in an explosion like one that killed 173 people, including 104 firefighters, in China in 2015.
The antidote to green ooze is better business stewardship, tougher environmental enforcement, and a polluter pay law. It’s time for Michigan to get its groundwater act together.
Don’t do it in the river! Get your septic system checked, and push your elected leaders for a statewide inspection code. Click here for a (humorous) video of what happens when septic waste reaches our beloved rivers.
By Dave Dempsey
Most Michiganders don’t know that September 16-20 is Septic Smart Week — and that an estimated 130,000 septic systems in our state are failing. In many cases that means sewage and associated microorganisms are reaching groundwater, lakes and streams.
As FLOW described in our fall 2018 report on groundwater contamination in Michigan, our state is the only of the 50 states that lacks a statewide sanitary code requiring regular inspection and maintenance of small, mainly domestic septic systems. Some counties, townships, cities and villages are enacting local ordinances in place of statewide requirements.
Septic systems are small-scale wastewater treatment options, used when a home or complex cannot easily be connected to a municipal sewer system. Raw sewage and wastewater (e.g., bath water and dishwater) are first pumped from the home into the septic tank. This is an underground, sealed, concrete tank where the household waste is treated. Here, solid waste sinks to the bottom of the tank and materials such as oil form a layer of scum on top. Bacteria in the tank break down the solid waste, while the wastewater migrates out of the septic tank and into the drain field. Perforated pipes distribute the liquid wastewater throughout the drain field. Once out of the pipes, the wastewater effluent seeps through a gravel layer, then through the soil. Both filter the wastewater before it flows into the groundwater or nearby surface water.
Leaking or malfunctioning septic systems allow organic wastewater compounds like nitrate and E. coli to percolate through the soil and enter the groundwater. Leakage and effluent runoff are also major contributors to E. coli levels in surface water. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ, now EGLE) has identified 196 rivers, lakes, and beaches with E. coli levels over the EPA limit. Between 2013 and 2014, an estimated 5.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage were pumped into surface water in Michigan. A 2015 study headed by Dr. Joan Rose, co-director of Michigan State University’s Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment and Center for Water Sciences, sampled 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula, for E. coli and the human-specific source tracking marker bacteria called B-theta. The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria were found in the water.
Human wastes are not the only pollutants that failing septic tanks are releasing to groundwater and surface water. So-called emerging contaminants like pharmaceutical residues and endocrine disruptors are found in household wastes whether they discharge to publicly-owned sewage systems or septic tanks. Little groundwater monitoring is done to identify these substances in groundwater.
In a 2017 journal article in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 20 different studies on septic systems, identifying 45 contaminants, including pharmaceuticals, personal care product ingredients, chemicals in cleaning products, flame retardants, hormones (both natural and synthetic), and other common substances such as caffeine. The analysis found that septic systems are somewhat effective at removing chemicals such as acetaminophen, caffeine, and alkyphenols, a common group of ingredients used in cleaning products. But some chemicals remain largely untreated, including TCEP, a carcinogenic flame retardant, an anti-epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole. “In high density areas where you have a large number of homes with their own septic systems, these systems are likely the primary source of emerging contaminants in the groundwater,” said Laurel Schaider, the study’s lead author.
Eleven Michigan counties have ordinances that require septic tank inspection at the time property is sold. Within the first six years of implementing their ordinances, two Michigan counties found 1,000 failed septic tanks and 300 homes without any septic system.
Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy adviser.
Septic Smart Information
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is promoting Septic Smart Week with a variety of information tools. Those include posters, tips and a new homebuyer’s guide. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) also offers helpful information.
This trailer for a video documentary produced by Joe VanderMeulen of NatureChange and sponsored by FLOW, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC), Leelanau Clean Water, and the Benzie Conservation District underscores the serious health risks posed by a hidden pollution source fouling groundwater, lakes, streams and drinking water across Michigan. Click here for the full video.