Gary Wilson's thoughts on Great Lakes issues and occasionally, other things
Michigan: The Potash Mining State
Controversial mining project to receive $50 million in taxpayer funding; will tap two million gallons of groundwater daily from already sensitive area
I’m old enough to remember when the motto on Michigan’s license plates declared the state a “Water Wonderland,” justifiably so given that it’s basically surrounded by the Great Lakes and is home to countless inland lakes.
“Up North’s” Black Lake was a vacation spot when I was a kid and those license plates were affixed to my parent’s Ford.
A subsequent version of the original plate that proclaimed Michigan a “Water-Winter Wonderland” is on the cusp of making a comeback based on demand, according to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
But Benson may want to stop the presses given recent events. Perhaps a better motto would be “The Potash Mining State.”
The mega-budget bill just signed by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer contains a line-item, a fragmented sentence actually, that says “Michigan one-time grant” of $50 million. There was no further explanation which, of course, leads to inquiries about where $50 million is going.
In the run up to passage of the budget bill, the buzz was the undefined $50 million would support a potash mine near Mecosta. Potash is an agricultural fertilizer and Michigan is the home to a lot of it.
The mining company is in the final stages of receiving the necessary permits in a process that started under the administration of former Gov. Rick Snyder, and is wrapping up under Gov. Whitmer.
But here’s the kicker, to extract all of that potash requires withdrawal of groundwater, a lot. Two million gallons a day. That’s approximately five times the amount of groundwater that Snyder and Whitmer have allowed Nestle (now Blue Triton) to take for bottled water from the same geographical area, according to Detroit Free Press reporting.
That's water held in trust for the people by the state.
It gets worse. The wastewater, brine, will be sent back underground for storage. Sure, we’re told the process is safe and regulations will be enforced but we’ve heard that story before.
I asked Whitmer’s office what justified the $50 million in taxpayer dollars and withdrawal of all that groundwater that helps make Michigan the “Water Wonderland,” or Pure Michigan, the current way the state presents itself.
Spokesperson Robert Leddy responded saying Michigan needs to diversify its economy to stay competitive in the world and cited Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a justification for the potash mine.
Russia, now a rogue country, is a large producer of potash. Not mentioned by Leddy is that Canada, a really friendly country that borders Michigan and the U.S., is by far the world’s largest producer of potash.
Canada is also a large trading partner with Michigan and the U.S. Plus, Canada is financing the new bridge under construction between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit. That’s a big infrastructure deal inked in a time when infrastructure wasn’t happening. It’s hard to imagine that the U.S. and Canada couldn’t strike a deal for potash.
And Leddy said the environment would be protected because Michigan’s Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) “will be there every step of the way to ensure compliance.”
Worth noting is that EGLE’s track record for protecting water is checkered, at best, given that it gave Nestle the green light to take more groundwater from the Mecosta area. That was in spite of overwhelming public comment in opposition to the increased withdrawals.
And EGLE’s oversight failure of Benton Harbor’s water issues led to an intervention by the U.S. EPA, a move that put Michigan back in the national spotlight on a water issue. Plus, there are civil rights complaints against the agency over air quality in environmental justice communities. The potash mine also requires air permits.
Leddy’s complete statement is below as are links to Detroit Free Press and Bridge Michigan reporting, and a press release from the potash mining company.
Like most issues, Michigan’s decision to approve the potash mine and pony up $50 million in taxpayer money is more complicated than can quickly be explained here.
What isn’t complicated to understand is that Michigan is casual with management of its groundwater, often referred to as the sixth Great Lake.
And why is Michigan, in a supposed forward-looking era with a supposed forward-looking administration supporting a new extraction venture anyway? When I hear extraction, I think legacy commodities like oil and coal, neither of which reflect the future.
In a follow up statement, Leddy said the budget legislation the governor signed “will go a long way toward making our state a national leader on the environment.”
I get it. Leddy took license to put the governor’s action in the most favorable light. It’s how it works in politics, especially in an election year no matter which party is in power.
Sadly for the Water Wonderland state, the facts indicate Michigan is heading in the wrong direction on protecting its vast water reserves.
No matter which party is in power.
Statement of Gov. Whitmer spokesperson Robert Leddy.
“Governor Whitmer has been focused on growing and diversifying Michigan’s economy in a way that makes our state competitive with the rest of the world. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine causing unprecedented disruptions to the global supply chain, it’s crucial that we work to protect our state’s economic security by bringing critical industries, like Potash, back home where Michiganders can do the job better and more reliably. The Michigan Potash and Salt Company are adding their names to a growing list of companies who will call our state home, creating hundreds of new jobs and investing more than $1 billion to grow our economy.
“As with every investment, businesses must do their part by following all permitting or regulatory requirements to be good stewards of our state’s natural resources, and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy will be there every step of the way to ensure compliance.
Detroit Free Press reporting on the potash mine.
Bridge Michigan reporting on the potash mine.
Press release from Michigan Potash and Salt Co,
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Chicago-based environmental journalist