Tag: Sixth Great Lake

SepticSmart: Can Michigan Move from Last to First?

Editor’s note: During SepticSmart Week, which runs through Friday, FLOW is sharing updates on efforts to protect fresh water and public health from uncontrolled septic system waste, as part of an annual educational campaign that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a decade ago, with the State of Michigan, other states, communities, and organizations, including FLOW, as partners and participants. (If you are unsure about what a septic system is or how it works, start here).

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the latest articles, videos, and fact sheets. In case you missed it, here is additional coverage this week from FLOW.


For a long time, Michigan was regarded as an environmental leader among the states.  We were the first state to ban the pesticide DDT, the first in the Great Lakes region to limit phosphorus pollution to protect sensitive waters like Lake Erie, and the first to create a trust fund from oil and gas revenues to buy public recreational and scenic land.

But there’s a big gap in Michigan’s body of environmental law.

We are the only state without a sanitary code that applies to septic systems—despite knowing that pollution from failing septic systems is detected in scores of rivers and lakes across Michigan.

Click here to learn how a conventional septic system works. (Click image to see larger version).

The link is clear, said microbiologist Dr. Joan Rose of Michigan State University. She led a study that sampled 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula, looking for E. coli and the human-specific source tracking marker bacteria called B-theta.

The results were clear, Rose said. “The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria in the water. If we want to keep E. coli and other pathogens out of our waterways, we need to address the problem of septic systems that may be failing to adequately treat our wastewater.”

Closing the gap should be an urgent priority for Michigan policymakers. State law needs to require periodic pumping and inspection of septic systems and replacement of those found to be failing.

But Michigan shouldn’t be satisfied with a law that does just the basics. We should add money to a new state low-interest loan program assisting homeowners with the cost of replacing those failing systems. And we should bump up public education so that more Michigan residents know about the problem and solutions.

If we’re going to be an environmental leader again, we can no longer refrain from sanitary code legislation.


Learn More about Why Michigan Must Move from Last to First on Control of Septic Waste

Here is today’s SepticSmart guidance from NatureChange, FLOW, and partners: 

Michigan’s Lack of Septic Maintenance Requirements Threatens Public Health (One-minute trailer)

Flushing the Future-The Challenge of Failing Septic Systems (16-minute video)

 

Get SepticSmart to Stop Pollution, Save Money

Image courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


Editor’s note: During SepticSmart Week, which runs through Friday, FLOW is sharing updates on efforts to protect fresh water and public health from uncontrolled septic system waste, as part of an annual educational campaign that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a decade ago, with the State of Michigan, other states, communities, and organizations, including FLOW, as partners and participants. Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the latest articles, videos, and fact sheets. In case you missed it, here is additional coverage this week from FLOW: SepticSmart Week: Progress on Protecting Public Health and Fresh Water and SepticSmart: Leelanau County Board Wisely Votes to Protect Fresh Water and Public Health from Septic Pollution.


Michiganders who rely on septic systems to treat and discharge their sewage don’t need to wait for a state law requiring them to maintain those systems. Their voluntary acts and practices can help prevent further groundwater and surface water pollution from failing and malfunctioning septic systems, and save them money and headaches too.

Most importantly, owners of homes with septic systems should have tanks pumped and examined at least once every three years. If the inspection yields evidence of a failing system, the tank should be replaced. Replacing failing systems is expensive – but the cost of not doing so includes risking the health of the household if a drinking water well is in the path of the slowly moving waste. It also puts neighbors and recreational users of contaminated streams at risk from fecal bacteria and household chemicals.

The State of Michigan is launching a $35 million low-interest loan program to assist homeowners in defraying the cost of septic system replacement.

U.S. EPA–Top 10 Ways to be a Good Septic System Owner (Click for larger version).

Top 10 Ways to Be a Good Septic Owner

Other SepticSmart quick tips on protecting your septic system from failure:

  • Have your system inspected every three years by a qualified professional or according to your local health department’s recommendations.
  • Have your septic tank pumped, when necessary, generally every three to five years.
  • Avoid pouring harsh products (e.g., oils, grease, chemicals, paint, medications) down the drain.
  • Make efficient use of water and do not operate several water-intensive appliances at the same time. Doing otherwise can lead to a septic system backup into your house.
  • Keep the surface over a septic system drain field clear. Roots and heavy objects can disrupt the treatment of waste in the septic system.
  • For the full list of Top 10 Ways to Be a Good Septic Owner, click here or on the image.

Have your septic tank pumped, when necessary, generally every three to five years. Source: U.S. EPA. (Click for larger version).

If all homeowners with septic systems follow these tips and others, their potential bill for system replacement will be lower, and Michigan’s public waters will be cleaner.

Scientific studies have found human fecal contamination affecting 100% of our river systems in the Lower Peninsula and that substandard, failing, or nonexistent septic systems are the primary driver of human fecal bacteria found in our rivers and streams.

FLOW’s action on septic system pollution began with our 2018 groundwater report, The Sixth Great Lake, which emphasized that in addition to releasing an estimated 9.4 billion gallons of poorly or untreated sewage into the soil and environment each year, failing septic systems release household chemicals that residents pour down their drains. Our report called for a uniform statewide sanitary code in Michigan.

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for daily updates. To get you started, here is today’s tip from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reminding all of us to Protect It and Inspect It!

 

SepticSmart: Leelanau County Board Wisely Votes to Protect Fresh Water and Public Health from Septic Pollution

Image courtesy of Leelanau.gov.


Editor’s note: This opinion article by FLOW Legal Advisor Skip Pruss was originally published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle on Sept. 4, 2022. During SepticSmart Week, which runs through Friday, FLOW is sharing updates on efforts to protect fresh water and public health from uncontrolled septic system waste, as part of an annual educational campaign that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a decade ago, with the State of Michigan, other states, communities, and organizations, including FLOW, as partners and participants. Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the latest articles, videos, and fact sheets. In case you missed it, here is additional coverage this week from FLOW: SepticSmart Week: Progress on Protecting Public Health and Fresh Water and Get SepticSmart to Stop Pollution, Save Money.


By Skip Pruss, FLOW Legal Advisor

In August, the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners voted to task the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department with drafting an ordinance requiring the inspection of septic systems upon the transfer or sale of a home. The bipartisan vote endorsing this ordinance came after years of rancorous debate and unsuccessful attempts at passage.

Skip Pruss, FLOW Legal Advisor

The vote was a hopeful sign of progress, demonstrating an understanding that malfunctioning septic systems can affect surface water and groundwater locally and statewide, potentially burdening communities with avoidable harmful economic, health and environmental outcomes.

Scientific studies have found human fecal contamination affecting 100% of our river systems in the Lower Peninsula and that substandard, failing, or nonexistent septic systems are the primary driver of human fecal bacteria found in our rivers and streams. A study this year found that as many as 27 percent of all septic systems in Michigan households may be failing.

Scientific studies have found human fecal contamination affecting 100% of our river systems in the Lower Peninsula and that as many as 27 percent of all septic systems in Michigan households may be failing.

The Great Lakes surrounding Michigan hold 95 percent of all fresh surface water in the United States and 84 percent of all fresh surface water in North America. Leelanau County, a peninsula within a peninsula, has the most freshwater shoreline of any county in the Lower Peninsula.

Remarkably, Michigan, seated at the very heart of the Great Lakes, is the only state without a state law setting minimum standards for the construction, maintenance and inspection of septic systems. Counties and local governments have had to step up, enacting local ordinances in recognition that a septic system inspection requirement would help identify failing systems, protect groundwater, reduce contaminated wastewater migration to our beautiful lakes and protect property values.

Remarkably, Michigan, seated at the very heart of the Great Lakes, is the only state without a state law setting minimum standards for the construction, maintenance and inspection of septic systems. Counties and local governments have had to step up, enacting local ordinances.

The good news is that, despite daily indications of bitter polarization in our politics, our community’s concern for safeguarding our Great Lakes is a deeply shared value, an important area of common ground that bridges the political divide — as affirmed by the vote of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners. The State of Michigan and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also have proclaimed Sept. 19-23 to be SepticSmart Week and are providing outreach materials encouraging homeowners and communities to inspect and maintain their septic systems.

For Love of Water (FLOW), the Traverse City-based law and policy center, has focused on the protection of groundwater and its relationship to Great Lakes water quality. FLOW’s recent work includes creating and moderating the Michigan Groundwater Table, an 18-month collaboration among local government organizations, state agencies, environmental and justice organizations and Michigan’s universities to identify key groundwater-protection strategies and make recommendations for their implementation (See related storymap here).

FLOW continues to focus on the protection of groundwater and its relationship to Great Lakes water quality.

Among the findings of the Groundwater Table is that septic system performance writ large is, in fact, an infrastructure issue.

With the influx of state and federal funding targeted at water infrastructure support, this may be a particularly opportune time to revisit statewide solutions, including provisions for low-income assistance to address substandard systems.

Meanwhile, hats off to the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners for recognizing that protection of this extraordinary, globally unique natural endowment that is our Great Lakes is an environmental, economic and public health imperative.

About the author: Skip Pruss is a legal adviser with FLOW and formerly directed the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth. You can reach him at pruss@5lakesenergy.com.


Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for daily updates. To get you started, here is today’s tip from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reminding all of us: Don’t Strain Your Drain! 

SepticSmart Week: Progress on Protecting Public Health and Fresh Water

Graphic courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


Editor’s note: During SepticSmart Week, which runs through Friday, FLOW is sharing updates on efforts to protect fresh water and public health from uncontrolled septic system waste, as part of an annual educational campaign that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a decade ago, with the State of Michigan, other states, communities, and organizations, including FLOW, as partners and participants. 

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the latest articles, videos, and fact sheets. In case you missed it, here is additional coverage this week from FLOW for:


U.S. EPA–Top 10 Ways to be a Good Septic System Owner (Click on image for larger version).

Michigan’s lack of a statewide sanitary code ranks the state dead last in preventing pollution from failing septic systems. With an estimated 130,000 failing or malfunctioning septic systems in the state, the status quo is a threat to public health and Pure Michigan. That’s why FLOW has been taking action with you and key stakeholders during the last few years to educate and empower the public and key stakeholders and pursue solutions.

This week presents another key opportunity to make a difference. Join FLOW starting today through Friday for SepticSmart Week, an annual educational campaign that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a decade ago, with the State of Michigan, other states, communities, and organizations, including FLOW, as partners and participants.

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for daily updates.

State of Michigan’s 2022  Proclamation on SepticSmart Week 2022 (Click on image for larger version).

Each day this week, FLOW will release SepticSmart Week content, including original articles and videos providing facts, tips, and inspiration to help you be part of the solution to this shared challenge of not only septic system pollution, but also the broader challenge of surface and groundwater contamination in Michigan. (If you are unsure about what a septic system is or how it works, start here).

Slow, But Perceptible Progress on a Septic Code

FLOW’s action on septic system pollution began with our 2018 groundwater report, The Sixth Great Lake, which emphasized that in addition to releasing an estimated 9.4 billion gallons of poorly or untreated sewage into the soil and environment each year, failing septic systems release household chemicals that residents pour down their drains. Our report called for a uniform statewide sanitary code in Michigan.

In November 2019, FLOW and our partners and allies hosted a Michigan Septic Summit, attended by over 150 public health experts, scientists, local government representatives, nonprofit organizations, and interested citizens. We noted that the Summit “underscored a growing resolve in the state to do something meaningful about septic system pollution. Historically, when Michigan’s various interests have come together in good faith to solve an environmental problem, they have succeeded.”

The Michigan Septic Summit “underscored a growing resolve in the state to do something meaningful about septic system pollution. Historically, when Michigan’s various interests have come together in good faith to solve an environmental problem, they have succeeded.”

Since then we have continued to educate and empower the public and key stakeholders with the information and impetus to take action on septic system policy in order to protect public health, local communities, lakes, and ecosystems—especially groundwater, the source of drinking water for 45% of Michigan’s population.

The Michigan Groundwater Table Builds Consensus on Need for Protection

FLOW in January 2021 created and for a year convened the Michigan Groundwater Table, composed of 22 knowledgeable and influential stakeholders from local government, academia, and regulatory agencies.

The Groundwater Table’s work culminated with FLOW hosting a livestream event—Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible on World Water Day & Every Day—last March and then in June with our release of a report, Building Consensus: Securing Protection of Michigan’s Groundwater, and accompanying story map. The report contains consensus findings about the status of Michigan’s groundwater and also recommendations on how to improve its protection. The Groundwater Table agreed it should be a priority to develop a statewide initiative to enable inspection and repair of septic systems, including funding to empower local health agencies to conduct periodic inspections and facilitate compliance and to assist homeowners in replacing failing systems.

FLOW continues to educate and empower the public on the need for a statewide septic system policy in order to protect public health, local communities, lakes, and ecosystems—especially groundwater, the source of drinking water for 45% of Michigan’s population.

Progress on statewide septic policy in Michigan has been slow, but it is perceptible and continues. Acting on a recommendation from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and with the backing of FLOW and many other environmental groups, the Michigan Legislature this year approved $35 million in low-interest loans to help homeowners pay for replacing failing septic systems. It’s a down payment on a problem that will require much more investment to fix.

Contact State Representative Jeff Yaroch, a Republican from Macomb County, to express your support Michigan House Bill 6101, which would create a statewide septic code.

Additional progress is the tentative scheduling in Lansing of a September 28, 2022, meeting of the Michigan House Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Committee to consider a proposed statewide sanitary code. Although House leadership to date has not signaled an intent to pass the legislation–Michigan House Bill 6101–this year, its introduction and potential consideration is a recognition that the problem is not going away—and that state level action is vital. Contact the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Jeff Yaroch, a Republican from Macomb County, to express your support for a statewide septic code.

FLOW continues to work with the public and partners—community leaders, scientists, public health experts, academics, environmental advocates, realtors, and state and local lawmakers—to seek solutions to unregulated, polluting septic systems. Public education is vital to solving the longstanding problem. 

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for daily updates. To get you started, here is today’s tip from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reminding all of us to “Think at the Sink!”

 

Our Drinking Water Lacks the Protection It Deserves

Acclaimed author and FLOW Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey stands on the shore of Lake Michigan’s West Grand Traverse Bay.


Editor’s note: This opinion article was originally published on April 2, 2022, in the Lansing State Journal.

By Dave Dempsey

A natural resource on which nearly half the population of Michigan depends every day is one that most of us rarely think about: Groundwater, and it’s especially critical in mid-Michigan. The tri-county area depends almost exclusively on groundwater as a drinking water source—both from public wells managed by the Lansing Board of Water and Light and the City of East Lansing, and thousands of private wells in outlying areas.

Some 45 percent of Michigan’s population gets drinking water from underground, but because it is out of sight it is often out of mind. Its invisible nature has made groundwater vulnerable to neglect and mismanagement. Michigan is pocked with more than 14,000 groundwater contamination sites, including one of the nation’s largest, a 13 trillion-gallon plume contaminated by the toxic chemical TCE (trichloroethylene). Due to funding limitations, the state is addressing only two percent of these polluted sites this year.

Groundwater is vital globally, too. The salty oceans are not drinkable and constitute approximately 97 percent of all the world’s water. About two percent of all water is fresh water frozen at the poles or in glaciers. Of the remaining one percent, almost all of it is groundwater, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

If Michigan’s groundwater were visible, it would be hard to miss. If combined, all the groundwater in the Great Lakes Basin is approximately equal in volume to Lake Huron—a sixth Great Lake of sorts.

But groundwater is not an underground pool. Instead, it fills the pores and fractures in underground materials such as sand, gravel and other rock—much the same way that water fills a sponge. And it lacks the protection it deserves.

Although 1.25 million private water wells supply drinking water to more than two million Michiganders, there is no regular safety testing of that water. Thousands of these wells are contaminated with nitrates. Michigan is the last holdout among the 50 states in protecting groundwater and public health from 130,000 failing septic systems that discharge human waste.

My organization, For Love of Water, is a nonprofit law and policy center based in Traverse City. Last month we sponsored a webinar on Michigan’s groundwater challenges and opportunities on World Water Day, where scientists and public officials spoke of the urgent need to educate Michiganders about the importance of groundwater.

Learning about groundwater is the necessary first step toward action, and protective action is what Michigan needs to safeguard its groundwater for current and future generations.

Dave Dempsey is senior advisor at FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. He is the author of several books on Michigan’s environment. Learn more about FLOW’s groundwater-protection program, including our latest report and fact sheet.

Groundwater Threats: Michigan Should Act with Urgency to Pass a State Law to Control TCE

Photo courtesy of the Ohio Department of Health.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in FLOW’s 2021 Report: Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency. 

By Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

The many chemical contaminants in Michigan’s groundwater, coupled with the lack of environmentally sustainable federal and state chemical policies, continue to put Michigan at risk. An example is trichloroethylene (TCE), a cancer-causing manufactured chemical that has contaminated groundwater at more than 300 locations in Michigan.

In 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the country to outlaw many remaining uses of TCE.

FLOW’s 2021 Deep Threats groundwater report

 Michigan should follow suit.

Commonly used as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts during manufacturing processes or to make additional chemicals, TCE has also been used to extract greases, oils, fats, waxes, and tars by the textile industry; in dry cleaning operations; and in consumer products such as adhesives, paint removers, stain removers, lubricants, paints, varnishes, pesticides, and cold metal cleaners.

TCE released into the environment can pollute soil, groundwater, and the air. TCE’s high mobility in soil often results in groundwater contamination. TCE is slow to degrade and time-consuming to mitigate when it contaminates soil and groundwater. When spilled on the ground, TCE can travel through soil and water and contaminate drinking water supplies, including public and private wells.

In 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the country to outlaw many remaining uses of TCE. Michigan should follow suit.

It can also evaporate. TCE vapors can enter buildings through cracks in the foundation, pipes, and sump and drain systems, thus contaminating indoor air. This phenomenon is known as vapor intrusion. At several Michigan locations where housing and office structures were built on contamination sites, TCE was left in soils rather than being excavated and removed, and has vaporized into these buildings through foundations and basements. In some cases, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has temporarily evacuated occupants of the buildings because of the danger of air inhalation of TCE.

TCE has been characterized as carcinogenic to humans through all routes of exposure and poses a significant human health hazard. Exposure to large amounts of the chemical may lead to coma, nerve damage, or death. TCE is known to interfere with early life development and lead to developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, and neurotoxicity. This chemical has also been linked to damage to eyesight, hearing, the liver, the kidney, balance, heartbeat, blood, nervous system, and respiratory system. 

In the workplace, exposure to TCE may cause scleroderma, a systemic autoimmune disease, and, in men, it has been observed to result in decreases to sex drive, sperm quality, and reproductive hormone levels. TCE has been linked to Parkinson’s disease. There is controversy over a decision made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Trump Administration to reverse findings that TCE exposure to human embryos causes heart defects.

Dumped in shallow, sandy pits decades ago, TCE has contaminated 13 trillion gallons of groundwater in Mancelona, Michigan, making the Wickes Manufacturing plume the largest TCE plume in the United States. By contrast, the entire Grand Traverse Bay contains about 10 trillion gallons of water.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1977 banned the use of TCE in food, cosmetic, and drug products in the United States. In Canada, TCE is no longer manufactured, and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act of 1999 is intended to significantly reduce the use and release of TCE as a solvent degreaser into the environment. Several other countries, including Sweden and Germany, have regulations to control the use, and subsequent risks, of TCE.

In November 2020 a U.S. EPA study found that 52 of 54 uses of TCE still permitted present unreasonable risk to worker and consumer health. The EPA has two years to finalize a rule to reduce the risks posed by the 52 uses.

State action also has a place in efforts to protect human health from TCE. On May 16, 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the U.S. to ban high-risk uses of TCE. In effect, beginning June 1, 2022, any facility that is required to have an air emissions permit by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency may not use TCE.

This ban was enacted largely due to the work of the Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group (NCCG) of White Bear Township, Minnesota, which sought the ban after the Water Gremlin, a local fishing sinker manufacturer, had admitted to leaking elevated levels of TCE for nearly 17 years.

Dumped in shallow, sandy pits decades ago, TCE has contaminated 13 trillion gallons of groundwater in Mancelona, Michigan, making the Wickes Manufacturing plume the largest TCE plume in the United States. By contrast, the entire Grand Traverse Bay contains about 10 trillion gallons of water. Taxpayers have spent more than $27 million to provide safe drinking water to Mancelona residents of  properties whose private wells have been contaminated by TCE.

Several case studies have been performed to analyze the effectiveness of TCE alternatives in the United States. One example is a Schick facility in Verona, Virginia, that manufactures a variety of steel blades and uses TCE in both cleaning and degreasing operations. The company made TCE elimination a priority. The resulting process modifications reduced occupational and public risk and resulted in an approximate cost reduction of $250,000 from reduced energy use and material and hazardous waste disposal costs. Several companies in Michigan have also made the switch to TCE-free degreasing products.

Given the uncertainty of federal policy, Michigan should not wait to take action to limit most TCE uses, just as Michigan did not wait for the EPA to set enforceable standards for toxic PFAS in drinking water. Because it has a paramount interest in protecting the health of its residents, Michigan should act with urgency to pass a state law to control TCE.

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.

Michigan’s Great Lakes and Freshwater: Much to Protect

Sometimes Michiganders take for granted the abundance of water that surrounds us and flows beneath us. In the midst of Michigan Great Lakes and Fresh Water Week (August 8-16), reflecting on that endowment is timely.

We often forget that a large proportion of Michigan is underwater. Considering only the land area of Michigan, it’s the 22nd largest state; add in the more than 38,000 square miles of land underwater that belongs to Michigan in four of the five Great Lakes, and Michigan vaults to 11th place. In fact, Michigan has more land underwater than Indiana has above water. These lands and the waters over them are protected by the public trust doctrine and are to be protected in a manner that does not impair public uses.

The sheer size of Lake Superior is also not to be taken for granted. The largest lake by surface area in the world, Superior is as large as the other four Great Lakes—plus three additional Lake Eries.

Groundwater is often overlooked because we see it only when we use it. But it supplies 45% of Michigan’s population with drinking water, and the volume of groundwater in the Great Lakes basin is equivalent to that of Lake Huron—making it, in FLOW’s analogy, the Sixth Great Lake.

Michigan has over 36,000 miles of streams and rivers, 11,000 inland lakes, and approximately 6.5 million acres of wetlands (down from approximately 10.7 million acres before European settlement began).

Finally, Michigan has about 3,300 miles of Great Lakes shoreline. (For comparison, the flight distance from Detroit to Los Angeles is approximately 2,000 miles.)

Michigan Great Lakes and Fresh Water Week is designed to encourage the public to take direct action to protect our waters. What will you do?

Groundwater Should be Treated as Priceless, Not Worthless

The soil underneath Barbara Godwin-Chulick’s home in downtown Charlevoix is contaminated with toxic PCE. Photo courtesy of Interlochen Public Radio.

By Dave Dempsey

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.

Now, Michigan Radio reports, that contamination is threatening health and property values.

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.

Michigan Groundwater Policy: A History

Over 100 Years of Contamination

Groundwater contamination in Michigan reaches back over a century. For example, the Antrim Iron Works in Mancelona in 1910 began discharging residues of chemicals recovered from its charcoal production process to an on-site depression that gradually released wastes to groundwater. Although the plant closed in 1944, extensive contamination lingered for generations. By 1960, a plume of groundwater contamination at the site was estimated to be three miles long and a half-mile wide. Placed on the national Superfund list in 1982, the Tar Lake site remains contaminated despite excavation of some soils and pumping of groundwater. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined additional soil excavation and expanded groundwater treatment was required.

Despite lessons learned from widespread contamination of surface water in the mid-20thCentury, policies of Michigan and many other states failed to expand groundwater protections. In a 1963 report, the U.S. Geological Survey noted, “Pollution of rivers and streams, especially in southern Michigan, has placed many communities and other water users in the ironic position of having available adequate quantities of surface water, but of a quality unfit for most uses. Similar pollution of ground water must be avoided.” Instead, as federal and state laws forced cleanup of surface waters, groundwater contamination accelerated.

The staff of the Michigan Water Resources Commission was sufficiently concerned in 1958 to propose a regulation requiring “all toxic and offensive wastes…shall be rendered innocuous by adequate treatment or by sufficient dilution before being permitted to enter the ground.” To support the proposal, the staff provided a list of 16 groundwater pollution sites. Despite this, the Commission tabled the proposed rule.

The emergency evacuation of the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York in 1978 because of buried chemical wastes brought public attention to the crisis of contaminated groundwater. Congress passed the federal Superfund law, intended to fund cleanup of the worst sites, in 1980, enabling states to inventory and request cleanup assistance. Michigan submitted a list of over 80 sites, the second most of any state. But the full inventory was staggering. The tally included 63 sites that were fouling drinking water supplies, 649 sites of known or suspected groundwater contamination, and an estimated 50,000 sites with contamination potential. The more state authorities looked, the more contamination they found.

The passage of a solid waste management law in 1978 and a hazardous waste management law in 1979 curbed two of the principal threats to groundwater – landfills and spills of hazardous waste materials. In 1980, the department of natural resources finally promulgated the groundwater discharge rules the water resources commission had set aside in 1958. Regulations affecting petroleum storage in underground storage tanks that took effect in the late 1980s closed another loophole in groundwater protection. But it was too late to prevent many unnecessary health risks, an enormous cleanup bill to taxpayers, and a legacy of groundwater abuse that persists in widespread contamination.

Contaminated Sites and Sacrifice Zones

In 1995, Governor John Engler and the Legislature delivered another blow to groundwater. They removed from state law the presumption that polluted groundwater should be cleaned. One result is a long list of “sacrifice zones,” or sites where groundwater use is restricted or prohibited. In many locations, rather than attempting to clean up contaminated groundwater, the parties who own or seek to redevelop contaminated sites are allowed to leave the contaminants in place and instead work with the state to restrict access to it. An analogous policy for surface water would be to bar use of or access to polluted rivers and lakes – something the public would likely not tolerate.

State law sanctions two types of contaminated site exposure controls — restrictive covenants, which run with an individual property and bar certain uses of contaminated property, and institutional controls. Controls typically restrict uses on multiple properties and can affect large zones of groundwater. They include local ordinances or state laws and regulations that limit or prohibit the use of contaminated groundwater, prohibit the raising of livestock, prohibit development in certain locations, or restrict property to certain uses.

As of mid-February 2018, DEQ records showed 3,394 land use restrictions at contaminated sites across the state. Nearly 2,000 additional restrictions were on a list to be plotted and mapped. Of the 3,394 restrictions already recorded, 2,355 were restrictions on groundwater use. Some of the groundwater areas affected are several square miles in size. In effect, for the near future, the state has written off these areas of groundwater. Continuation of this approach will foreclose the use of significant groundwater resources by future generations.

Applicable Laws

Today, rather than protecting groundwater as a whole – or water throughout the hydrological cycle – Michigan law emphasizes regulation of categories of pollution sources that affect groundwater. This backward approach to resource protection blinds the state to the overall condition of Michigan’s groundwater – and artificially divides groundwater from the rest of the water cycle. The result is a degraded resource.

Federal laws do not fill the breach. The Clean Water Act does not generally apply to groundwater. The Safe Drinking Water Act provides some funding to states to assist communities in assessing threats to community water supplies, including groundwater supplies and to develop wellhead protection plans. But it does not provide a policy or regulate many groundwater contamination sources.

State law does lay down some groundwater protections. Michigan water quality protections in theory extend to groundwater. As defined in state statute, “Waters of the state” means groundwaters, lakes, rivers, streams, and all other watercourses and waters, including the Great Lakes within Michigan’s boundaries.

Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), Part 327, declares that groundwater and surface water are one single hydrologic system. Groundwater can recharge surface water, and surface water on occasion loses water to and recharges groundwater. The waters of the state should be considered one resource for any groundwater protection regulation or standard. 

Part 327 recognizes water in the Great Lakes basin and in Michigan is held in public trust for the benefit of citizens. This principle should govern every water statute, and any statute regulating activities that protect groundwater, to assure that contaminants do not impair the public trust in connected wetlands, creeks, streams, and lakes, and Great Lakes.

Because land use directly affects groundwater quality, land uses should be managed to protect groundwater quantity and quality, connected surface waters, and the public trust at least in hydrologically connected public trust streams and lakes.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Despite these legal provisions, in practice, Michigan treats groundwater and surface water differently. Drinking water standards apply to water drawn from subsurface sources and cleanup standards apply to contaminated groundwater, but ambient water quality standards do not apply. 

As an out-of-sight, out-of-mind resource, groundwater protection depends on our laws reflecting the science of our interconnected surface and groundwaters. Our laws need to catch up to science so we don’t continue to abuse this precious resource.