Advocate coalition calls on Gov. Whitmer, legislative leaders to engage as time to access federal funds diminishes
The June request by an ad hoc collaboration of groups was relevant, reasonable, straightforward and with a sense of urgency.
Would the state of Michigan enter into an agreement with the U.S. EPA that provides funding to clean up decades-old contaminated sediment sites in the Detroit River. One of the most iconic yet polluted waterways in the Great Lakes region.
The EPA has funded ongoing work but needs a non-federal sponsor to complete the job by President Biden’s 2030 target date. Otherwise, federal money may no longer be available and the opportunity may be lost.
The request for $75 million to be budgeted was sent to elected officials in Michigan including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and key legislative leaders who chair committees that control appropriations, meaning the purse strings.
It came from 64 entities in Michigan in what’s known as a sign on letter. A letter where an organization, usually an environmental non-profit, seeks allies to sign the request in hopes that it will increase its gravitas and the likelihood of a response.
The interesting thing about the signatories of the letter is their diversity, meaning it wasn’t just from a group of non-profit environmentalists, which would have made it easy to compartmentalize and dismiss. It included the Great Lakes Water Authority, University of Michigan, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, the city of Detroit and four other communities who border the river and were willing to step out of their traditional lane.
For context, $75 million is not a lot of money for the state of Michigan. It recently budgeted billions of dollars to subsidize the highly-profitable auto industry’s transition to electric vehicles. And in a process that lacks transparency, in June legislators put $950 million into “no-bid pork projects,” as reported by Bridge Michigan. “Pork,” as in pet projects that get little if any scrutiny such as legislative hearings and public comment sessions.
So, how was the letter received by addressees Gov. Whitmer, state Sen. Sarah Anthony and Rep. Angela Witwer?
With silence. A member of the coalition, speaking on background, told me there was no response, which is baffling.
Common sense and political savvy would dictate some type of reply. If for no other reason than Whitmer, Anthony and Witwer are Democrats. And it wouldn’t take a political policy expert to suspect that many of the folks who signed the letter lean left politically.
Minimally, the politicians could have acknowledged receipt of the letter and promised to give it due consideration. Not reassuring but at least a response.
Or written something formulaic like how important the Great Lakes are and protecting them is a top priority. That’s a favorite Gov. Whitmer tactic, to sprinkle the value of the Great Lakes into speeches without saying anything substantive.
Or better yet, the politicians could have called a few of the folks who signed the letter, they’re not hard to find. Especially the representatives from Detroit and the other cities that signed the letter.
I recently wrote a story about cleanup of the contaminated sites like the Detroit River, one of many on the topic over the years. To do the issue justice, I requested an interview with the top official in the EPA’s Chicago Great Lakes office that oversees the work.
In a 30 minute phone conversation, Chris Korleski answered my questions and explained the work on the Detroit River so far, and the substantial challenges that remain. Sure, he hit often recycled agency talking points, but overall was direct and forthcoming in his responses.
By contrast, my emails to Gov. Whitmer’s office on the Detroit River went unanswered and emails and phone calls to the offices of Sen. Anthony and Rep. Witwer were treated similarly.
In November 2022 after the election where Whitmer easily won a second term and Democrats took control of the legislature, Whitmer said it was time to “step on the accelerator” and address fundamental issues like roads, civil rights, water and more.
The folks who signed the Detroit River letter aren’t Pollyanna's expecting the Michigan Democratic party intelligentsia to cater to them. They are concerned professionals and citizens pointing out an opportunity for Michigan to seize the moment that could be lost without the state’s involvement. An opportunity to lead, like neighboring conservation-focused Minnesota did when faced with a similar situation, as the advocates pointed out in the letter.
Instead, Michigan remains stuck in neutral when it comes to the Detroit River. Detroit, including those Downriver cities. will continue to be associated with the stigma of the Rust Belt era pollutants in the river.
And that’s a detriment to the state of Michigan too.
Chicago-based environmental journalist