Tag: polluter pay law

Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Crisis to Protect Drinking Water, the Economy, and the Great Lakes

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

For over three years, FLOW has analyzed and reported on one of the biggest gaps in Michigan’s environmental protection safety net—groundwater protection. Now, during National Groundwater Awareness Week 2021, we are reaffirming and expanding upon our call for stronger state groundwater protection policies and actions. 

Today we’re also releasing our new report, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake. Click here for a Key Facts sheet.

The stakes are too high not to act. Groundwater supplies 45% of Michigan’s population with drinking water—much of that from 1.25 million private wells that are not routinely monitored. For those who drink from these wells, groundwater contamination is an often-invisible threat.

Groundwater contamination is widespread. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) says there are more than 14,000 contamination sites whose cleanups are unfunded, underfunded, or on hold. At the current rate of funding, it will take decades to clean up all of these sites—while more polluted parcels are added to the list.

One obvious reason for inadequate groundwater protection is that groundwater is out of sight. Problems caused by improper management of wastes in Michigan typically aren’t diagnosed until drinking water wells are polluted, contamination seeps from groundwater into lakes and streams, or pollution vaporizes into buildings, including residences.

Another reason for failures in Michigan groundwater protection is fragmented government authority. No groundwater focal point exists in state government. Several programs within EGLE touch on groundwater pollution prevention and cleanup, while other agencies, including the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, deal with aspects of groundwater stewardship. Some states address this problem by establishing overarching groundwater policies and coordinating mechanisms.

Our state and national groundwater problems are nothing new. Some contaminated sites were created a century ago, and significant taxpayer-funded groundwater cleanups have been going on for almost 50 years in Michigan. This makes inadequate groundwater policies all the more inexcusable.

We do appreciate the limited progress that has been made in Michigan since our 2018 groundwater report, including that:

  • Michigan has become one of the few states to adopt health-protective drinking water standards for PFAS, a toxic contaminant found in groundwater across Michigan.
  • The Legislature approved substantial contamination cleanup funding from the Renew Michigan Fund.
  • Governor Whitmer has proposed a $35 million fund to assist homeowners in replacing failing septic systems.

These actions, while helpful, fall far short of what is needed to safeguard our groundwater. Our new report, Deep Threats, proposes a host of reforms ranging from polluter liability, protective cleanup standards, penalties for groundwater damages, empowerment of citizens to seek relief when their groundwater is contaminated, and ultimately, a holistic Groundwater Protection Act.

Michigan prides itself as the Great Lakes State. But it cannot fulfill that destiny unless and until it conserves and protects its groundwater now and for future generations.

The Case of the Green Ooze

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.

The green ooze is a symbol of a much bigger problem — thousands of groundwater contamination sites across the state where little or no cleanup has taken place. Many of these sites do threaten drinking water supplies or direct contact hazards — and there is little public money available to clean them up.

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.

Responding to negative headlines over the green ooze, Governor Whitmer last week called for the restoration of Michigan’s polluter pay law and other actions to address the problem of lingering groundwater contamination. But the Legislature is in no hurry to comply.

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.

Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy adviser.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor