Tag: Kalkaska County

When State Government Favored Environmental Regulations Over “Fries with that Permit”

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources historically has played an important role in protecting the environment, particularly during the environmental awakening of the 1970s, when Seth Phillips got his start in state government. In this photo from 2018, an angler speaks with a DNR creel clerk. Photo: Courtesy of the Michigan DNR

By Seth Phillips

My career in environmental protection really began as a youngster. My parents had built a cottage “Up North” in the early 1960s, and I was fortunate to spend my summers on the shores of Lake Michigan, climbing and playing on the Sleeping Bear Dunes before anyone knew it existed and hiking in the north woods. Notwithstanding the big alewife die off that made one summer stink, I fell in love with the northern Michigan outdoors that so many have come to love.

Growing up in southeast Michigan, I was also very familiar with the industrial, urban side of our state. As the years passed, I began to understand the troubled relationship between these two sides of the Great Lakes state. While in college, and struggling to chart my path forward between the urban professional life I knew and was expected to follow, and the natural world I wanted to know better, I discovered the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources, to which I eagerly transferred, and graduated in 1974. My life-long journey to work for our environment had begun.

Starting in 1977, I spent 30 years working for the Michigan Departments of Natural Resources (DNR), Environmental Quality (DEQ, now EGLE) and Transportation (DOT), managing a wide variety of environmental programs, including cross-program planning, hazardous waste management, toxic waste cleanup, emergency response, solid waste management, recycling, field compliance, storm water management, and environmental policy for transportation. I was able to spend a lot of time on policy, legislation, and litigation support—all of which were very interesting and knowledge-expanding work. The dedication to the environment that I shared with all my co-workers never faltered.

But the world in which we worked changed a lot.

I started working as a state regulator in the late 1970s, at a time when there was a strong growth in environmental consciousness in society, and of course, a serious commitment in government to environmental improvement. William Milliken was Michigan’s Governor when I started, and he and the legislature were national leaders in addressing the many challenges our environment faced.

In particular, 1970 was a seminal year for environmental protection in Michigan and nationwide. In January of that year—50 years ago this month— Gov. Milliken unveiled a broad agenda of proposed environmental reforms. In March 1970, students and faculty at the University of Michigan held an environmental teach-in. The first Earth Day was held on April 22.

To work in these programs was great fun back then. New programs were also being enacted at the federal level, which meant money and better program tools. So many programs were new, and we had the freedom and funding to design how they worked and to implement the core values the programs were enacted to foster. 

Our direction was to implement the laws. There was little political interference, and there was broad support in the legislature as well as from the Governor. Michigan enacted new laws to manage hazardous waste, clean up toxic waste sites, end open dumping, build state-of-the-art landfills, and protect wetlands. I used to wake up early to get into work before others just so I could get started. Work was fun, my colleagues were great to work with, and many became life-long friends. Together we accomplished a lot. Michigan’s environment is much better today because of the work so many did back then.

But then the dark ages came. John Engler, a new governor not so friendly to our work, took office in 1991. He sought to gain control over us to stop us from allegedly harming his friends in the business world. But we weren’t anti-business. We were anti-polluter. Unfortunately, these categories were often one in the same.

Under Gov. Engler, the DNR was split into two departments with all the environmental programs moving to a new Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), whose director answered solely to the Governor. And all the fun went away. Upholding environmental standards became a discretionary function. Permit denials were simply outlawed. Inside the agency the morbid joke became, “Do you want fries with that permit?” Funding was cut, and staff was slashed and reorganized (in other words, moved from what they knew how to do to what they didn’t know how to do). Enforcement became almost non-existent. Similar changes happened at the federal level as well.

Michigan desperately needs a return to those heady days when protecting the environment meant more than just saying nice things about it. We keep finding new problems without the wherewithal to address them. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the current federal administration is doing enormous harm to our environmental future. Destruction can happen quickly. Restoration takes a very long time. And in the era of climate change, we don’t have a very long time left.

Seth Phillips retired from service for the state of Michigan in 2007 and is currently the Kalkaska County Drain Commissioner.

Kalkaska County Bid to End Point-of-Sale Septic Inspection Program Fails

Septic ordinance stands, as local Health Board delivers a victory for septic and groundwater protections

Seth Phillips seated in the middle of a panel at FLOW’s November 6 Septic Summit. Photo by Rick Kane

By Seth Phillips

Residents and wastewater users in Kalkaska County can rest easier at night. A bid to weaken septic and groundwater protections has failed.

The November 22 meeting of the District 10 Health Board yielded what appears to be the final chapter of the year-long effort to prevent Kalkaska County from ending the point-of-sale septic inspection program contained in the District 10 Health Department Sanitary Code. Ending the program would have required the approval of the Boards of Commissioners of all 10 counties in the health district. On October 22, the Manistee County Board of Commissioners (also part of District 10) voted not to allow Kalkaska County to end this program, which means the program continues as it was enacted.

In an angry response, the Kalkaska County Board of Commissioners subsequently rescinded its prior vote to approve program improvements that Manistee County was seeking to add to its point-of-sale program. At the November 22 health board meeting, the health department’s legal council announced it had determined that Kalkaska’s vote to change its earlier decision approving Manistee’s changes was valid. Hence, the point-of-sale program continues in both counties as it was originally enacted. Any further effort to change the program requires starting the entire amendment process all over again.

Todays’ Traverse City Record-Eagle reports that a year’s worth of public hearings, debate and government action resulted in no changes for Kalkaska and Manistee Counties.

Could Kalkaska County leave District 10? 

At the November 22 health board meeting, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) explained the requirements for a county to leave a district health department under the state Public Health Code. Kalkaska County has discussed this possibility in light of the results of the voting on the septic program.  However, two formal opinions from the state Attorney General prohibit a county from unilaterally leaving a district health department without the approval of all other counties in the district.  Furthermore, the District 10 bylaws require any county wishing to leave to give a two-year notice before doing so. 

The MDHHS also presented a detailed list of all the mandatory programs the new county health department would be required to undertake. The county would have to obtain state approval of a plan to implement all these services before leaving. Kalkaska County would be required to hire a health director, a medical director and fund a broad array of services for which it currently has no budgeted funding.

Given all this information, it would appear—absent litigation—that the Kalkaska County point of sale septic inspection program has been preserved … for now.

Manistee Lake Association member Seth Phillips spoke in favor of local septic ordinances at FLOW’s Septic Summit on November 6.

Proposal to Abolish Required Septic System Inspections Threatens Kalkaska Waters


With an estimated 130,000 septic systems leaking E. coli and other pollutants into Michigan groundwater, lakes, and streams, you would hardly think it time to relax inspection requirements.

But that’s exactly what Kalkaska County is considering this spring – and this has some local residents and environmental experts concerned.

Kalkaska County has a sanitary code that requires inspections of septic systems when residential properties sell. There are no such statewide requirements, making Michigan the only state without them and leaving the job of protecting waters from septic systems up to local government.

“This proposal [to kill the inspection requirement] is wrong,” says Kalkaska county resident Seth Phillips, who adds the answer to any problems with the District 10 sanitary code’s point-of-sale requirement for septic system inspections is to improve it, not rescind it.

“We know that bad septic systems pollute and pose a threat to our drinking water and our lakes and streams. We need to work together to protect our water for all of us and for future generations,” Phillips says.

A study by Michigan State University found that septic systems in Michigan are not preventing E. coli and other fecal bacteria from reaching our water supplies. Sampling 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 research found a clear correlation: The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source-tracking bacteria in the water.

Failing septic systems expose water not only to pathogen pollution from 31 million gallons a day of raw sewage statewide, but also to the release of chemical, pharmaceutical, and other wastes resulting from domestic use.

Point-of-sale inspection ordinances make sense. A study coordinated by Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council found that one third of the aging septic systems in Antrim County have not been replaced.

“Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council has been researching this topic for several years,” says Grenetta Thomassey, the Council’s Watershed Director. “One thing that has been very clear is that Time of Transfer or Point of Sale septic system inspection programs find things wrong with septic systems and require them to be fixed. It may not be perfect; some failing systems are not inspected because the property is not being sold or transferred. However, it’s obvious from the annual reports that problems are being found and corrected, and this is a step in the right direction and helps protect our water resources.”

A report on the Kalkaska County point-of-sale program found that between April 2017 and March 2018, 335 inspections were performed in the County. Forty-five systems were in compliance with the sanitary code, while three were found to be failing. The other 287 were identified with some level of concern. So, 87% of the inspected systems during the period presented some level of issue for owners to address or be aware of. 

In a letter to Kalkaska County Commissioners, FLOW urged the officials not to eliminate the requirement.

“Requiring inspection and correction of failing on-site septic systems at the time of property sale is a reasonable method of protecting the public’s waters without unduly burdening property owners,” wrote FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “It assures that the vast majority of systems will be inspected at some time to assure they are providing proper stewardship of our shared waters. Eliminating this ordinance will remove the only protection now in place to protect the public health and environment from the threats posed by inadequate septic systems.”

The District 10 Health Board will hold a public hearing on the proposed change on Friday, April 26 at the District 10 office in Cadillac, 521 Cobb Street, at 9 a.m.