Great Lakes, water issues in the region subject to the exceptionalism myth too
I love a good, quiet Sunday morning read and this one in the Washington Post titled "In the shadow of its exceptionalism, America fails to invest in the basics," jumped off the page.
The article's essence can be boiled down to this. "Historic breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology.... coexist alongside monumental failures of infrastructure, public health and equitable access to basic human needs."
Think Mars Rover, but so many still get drinking water delivered via toxic lead pipes. The Flint water crisis, you get it.
My beat for 15 years has been the Great Lakes and the region's water, writ large. Since 2015 it has included environmental justice issues like Flint where the water was poisoned, and recently drinking water denied to people who can't afford to pay for it. How "exceptional" are we when it comes to our wealth of water? The water whose abundance was officially declared a "national treasure" by President George W. Bush.
I'm afraid not very.
It could be said that it was exceptional when the eight Great Lakes states passed the Great Lakes Compact that keeps them from being drained by shipping it to areas outside the basin. A wise and necessary action that required collaboration and grit. But we fail the exceptional test when there are people in Detroit, Chicago and other cities who are denied basic drinking water because of an inability to pay, and they may live only a mile from the source.
In Michigan, the Great Lakes state, there is right now a pitched battle over whether an aged oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac should be decommissioned. Anti-pipeline activists and the Michigan governor say its shelf life has expired and it is a tremendous threat to the Great Lakes, its economy and way of life. That's debatable but it's a solid argument and Michigan is taking the high road to protect the Great Lakes by erring on the side of caution. Better to act now than have to react in case of a catastrophic oil pipeline failure. I'll give Michigan an "exceptional" grade.
Michigan has 14,000 contaminated groundwater sites and 130,000 failing septic tank sites according to longtime Great Lakes policy expert, Dave Dempsey who currently tracks the issue for a non-profit group. Here's the kicker, this is a decades old problem and Michigan lacks effective laws to deal with this contamination. Groundwater supplies are vast and are often referred to as the 6th Great Lake. It's beyond unexceptional that Michigan hasn't figured out a way to protect it. Spare us the Pure Michigan ads.
There's more. Since the Cuyahoga River burned in the 1960's Lake Erie has been the poster-child for restoring the Great Lakes and there has been real progress. That's an accomplishment. But the lake is beset by a problem that is a direct threat to safe drinking water. Toxic algae blooms that result from nutrient runoff from farms. A fixable problem with a few regulations and some financial incentives to get farmers to change their ways. A typical carrot and stick approach. But regulating farmers is the third rail for politicians so the threat of another Toledo water crisis remains.
I'll stop, you get the picture.
Our perceived exceptionalism is ingrained in our culture, especially in recent years. We live in an era of 8th grade graduation ceremonies where kids are lavished with praise for "graduating" from, 8th grade. A ceremony former President Barack Obama eschewed saying, and I'll tidy it up, 8th grade isn't a goal.
And there's the hyper-use of "amazing." Everyday I get announcements about conferences, workshops, seminars, speeches and new job announcements with an "amazing" reference. What if that conference and its speakers were simply knowledgeable or had a unique perspective? That'd work for me, I don't need faux amazing. And don't get me started on the overuse of "bold" by politicians and their supporters to describe something average that should have been addressed long ago.
Let's find a way to remove the threat to the Great Lakes from that oil pipeline, stop the pollution to the 6th Great Lake and guarantee basic drinking water as a right, no matter one's financial status.
That could qualify as exceptional and future generations may find it, amazing.
Chicago-based environmental journalist