Michigan on the sidelines as momentum builds for cleanup of decades old toxic sediment
There’s an axiom that goes like this. If you want to know what’s important to an elected official, don’t listen to what they say, watch what they fund.
I’m reminded of the axiom based on recent goings on with Great Lakes issues.
The U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers announced last week that the cost to build a new Soo Lock to enhance shipping could double or even triple from the original $929 million estimate.
Michigan and the region have wanted the lock upgrade since the mid-1980’s.
Work on the new lock has been underway for some time as Congress already approved and funded the project, which included about $50 million that Michigan kicked in while former Gov. Rick Snyder was in office. That contribution was said to be the commitment the feds were looking for to get the project approved.
A federal project costing more than anticipated isn’t news, it’s basically expected. But not by the whopping amount that doubles or potentially triples its cost.
Asked to explain the increase, an Army Corps spokesperson cited “market conditions” as the culprit and said it was working on an update to Congress, according to Detroit News reporting.
Sources told me that while market conditions may have changed, economists who developed cost estimates were out of touch with the reality of the magnitude of the project. And now with the addition of federal infrastructure money in play, there’s too much federal money chasing not enough contractors. The perfect storm for higher costs.
Politicians from both political parties in Michigan who worked to secure the funding expressed the requisite outrage, but acknowledged they will have to find a way to fund the project.
That’s because the project is a priority for the state of Michigan, writ large. And priorities get funded.
Iconic river is a low priority
The other side of the coin is also true. When something isn’t a priority it doesn’t make the budget, even when cash is available like it is now.
A classic example is the cleanup of toxic sediment in the Detroit River that’s been there for decades, it hasn’t been a priority.
The river contains over 6 million cubic yards of sediment of which, the U.S. EPA estimates 3.5 million is toxic - as in PCBs, grease, metals and a lot of bacteria.
Since 2010 with the advent of federal Great Lakes restoration funding, $3.8 billion has been spent on an array of projects including on sites like the Detroit River. But very little spent on sediment remediation for the river that’s described as the heart of the Great Lakes.
But now comes President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill and Biden has promised $1 billion to clean up legacy toxic sites in the Great Lakes region. The cost for the Detroit River is at least $100 million and no surprise, it could be more according to the EPA.
But this is the federal government and that means bureaucracy. The mechanism for how to get that money hasn’t been revealed yet. And it’s likely that the current requirement for a state or local contribution will be required.
The state of Michigan would be the best source of the funding, it’s flush with cash these days and is reporting budget surpluses. But in a waffle of an answer on providing funding, a senior state executive called the Detroit River “iconic,” but dodged the question of the state kicking in from its own coffers.
You see, that’s because the Detroit River is not a priority for the state. Like it wasn’t a priority for the federal government from 2010-2022 when billions of dollars were available.
I shared that opinion with a source who is close to the issue recently at a conference about the health of the Detroit River. He bristled and said that’s not true. I replied, “ok, a low priority?” A pause and a blank stare followed and he shrugged his shoulders. I took that as a yes.
My take on Michigan is that it sees cleanup of these toxic sites like the Detroit River and its cousin the Rouge, as a federal responsibility. The state will provide staff support so it can say it’s in the game. But the river won’t be a priority, no matter that it’s arguably the most important waterway in the state.
It’s important because it’s shared with Canada, the country that’s financing the new Gordie Howe Bridge over the river that will connect Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. And because it’s the connecting point between the upper and lower lakes through which critical commodities pass that drive the regional and national economies.
And the Detroit River is important to the people of Detroit. Think Belle Isle, which the state likes to tout in its Pure Michigan ads, plus freighter watching and the Riverwalk. Not to mention people who fish from the banks of the river with PCBs lurking below. There’s no mention of that by Pure Michigan.
Michigan and other Great Lakes states are still regularly referred to as the Rust Belt, a tag the region has been unable to shake. But if you wanted to ditch that legacy moniker, one way would be to clean up the toxic mess that makes it still accurate.
At the Detroit River conference, University of Michigan - Dearborn Chancellor Domenico Grasso told the attendees that “we use ecological systems and services, but we don’t pay for them.”
That’s Michigan in a nutshell. It professes to value the river but not enough to invest money in its cleanup.
And this from my Twitter feed.
“The state of Michigan gives the city of Detroit a hard time every chance they get. It’s been that way for decades,” said a follower.
Now, the state has a chance to make amends. But it has to make its “iconic” river a priority. About $50 million like the state put up for a new Soo Lock sounds right.
It’s also the amount Michigan quietly budgeted recently to support a questionable potash mine. One that will suck up precious groundwater from the area already stressed by the state’s approval of water taking for bottled water.
Photo: The Detroit River with
Lake St. Clair to the north.
“Puffery” prevails over substance, bottled water company says in legal proceedings. But does the public care?
Companies making exaggerated claims about their products is nothing new. But when they do it about sustaining a natural resource, the stakes are raised. And how we react matters.
It was a rare occurrence.
In a legal proceeding the bottled water company, Blue Triton (ex-Nestle), said its sustainability claims like “water is at the very core of our sustainable efforts,” are simply aspirations.
It went further saying its sustainability statements were “non-actionable puffery,” according to reporting in The Intercept. Meaning, I presume, the company was puffing up its claims beyond what it’s actually doing, but that’s not illegal.
Puffery is, “exaggerated commendation especially for promotional purposes,” according to Merriam-Webster who then wrote, “hype.”
It should come as no surprise that companies hype their claims about the products they sell and the services they provide. Hasn’t that long-been understood, think caveat emptor? It’s like the fine print disclaimer, actual results may vary. The burden is on the consumer to make a discerning choice.
The surprise is that Blue Triton admitted to it. A court will sort that out but for me, there’s a bigger bottled water issue in play here. It’s as a collective, do we care?
By law, water is held in trust for the people by the state. That’s the Public Trust Doctrine. But a company extracting it, putting it in plastic bottles and selling it back to the public issue appears to be a settled practice, it’s ok. At least in Michigan.
The public, writ large, has weighed in on the issue and is onboard with the bottled water biz. If you doubt that just look at the size of the water aisle at your local big box store. Or at the carts carrying cases of water in plastic bottles headed for cars in the parking lot.
Is it of concern to the state of Michigan? Not really. Bottled water fights where grassroots activists effectively challenged the legality of the water taking is a memory from 20 years ago when Nestle was setting up shop in Michigan..
Since, there have been skirmishes between Nestle and activists but the administrations of both political parties have sided with the bottled water biz, saying they’re required to do so by law.
Change the law you may say but there’s been no political will to climb that mountain. It’s not a Gov. Gretchen Whitmer priority and other top officials like Liesl Clark, who runs Michigan’s environment agency and Attorney General Dana Nessel occasionally give it an obligatory mention. But nothing beyond rhetoric happens. And it’s not seriously on the radar of Michigan’s legislature.
So, case closed? Yes, for now.
Puffery will prevail over substance until the public rejects bottled water by weighing in with its pocketbooks. Or until politicians have an epiphany and say, “what were we thinking.”
And as long as puffery and political "see no evil" prevail, water and society will continue to be the loser.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is strident on closing the Line 5 oil pipeline to protect the Great Lakes. Turns a blind eye to Lake Michigan by moving to keep a nuclear power plant open.
The puzzling moves on environmental protection continue from the administration of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. She’s the progressive Democrat who ran for election on a strong environmental platform that was welcomed by the people of Michigan.
Recently Whitmer and the Republican controlled legislature agreed on a multi-billion dollar budget that included $1.7 billion for drinking water. That’s cause for applause. Most of the funding is found money leftover from federal Covid relief funding, so it won’t be available again. But it’s available now.
The drinking water portion is targeted at replacing lead service lines, eradicating PFAS and other water quality issues.
All good, right?
That puts Whitmer on track to keeping some of her water-related campaign promises. Well, except for the Benton Harbor water crisis where the USEPA had to intervene like it did in Flint in 2016 when Rick Snyder was governor.
But all that glittered in Michigan’s bi-partisan budget deal wasn’t gold. It included an undefined $50 million.
As budgets go, $50 million is a lot of money to not have a stated purpose. Turns out, the undefined line item was a subsidy to a private mining company that’s intended to jump start a potash mine. A project that will allow the taking of 725 million gallons of groundwater annually from an already sensitive area.
Tapping groundwater for a mining project is not progressive. It’s regressive, as is subsidizing an extraction project. That’s something a moderate Republican like Snyder would do.
Whitmer has teamed up with President Joe Biden’s energy secretary and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, on another less than progressive project. It’s an effort to secure funding to keep an aged nuclear power plant that borders Lake Michigan from shutting down.
The Palisades nuclear plant in SW Michigan is now 50 years old which is about the expected life of a nuclear plant and is scheduled to be shut down this year. The Whitmer-Granholm deal could extend its life until 2031.
The idea is that keeping the plant running will help Michigan meet its climate change goals, a top priority for Biden and Whitmer. Whitmer says the move is also to save high-paying union jobs. That’s probably an election year pitch for union votes, a constituency that struggles with some Whitmer policies. Whitmer made no mention that developing renewable energy will create high-paying jobs too.
Here’s the real head-scratcher.
Whitmer has been dogged on shutting down the old Enbridge oil pipeline that threatens the iconic Straits of Mackinac. That’s the right move and a progressive, forward-looking step that keeps her true to a campaign pledge to protect the Great Lakes. The issue is tied-up in the courts now and has an uncertain ending.
But she’s willing to extend the life of an aged nuclear power plant that’s literally on the shores of Lake Michigan. Like oil pipelines when they fail, a nuclear power plant failure can have disastrous results. One only has to look at a photo of the 50 year old Palisades plant abutting Lake Michigan to question its continued existence.
If Whitmer wanted to let the Palisades plant close but needed political cover, she only had to look to California. California, the undisputed leader in embracing climate change going back 10 years and more to the administration of former Gov. Jerry Brown.
California’s last nuclear plant is scheduled to shut down in 2024. So far, California’s progressive governor, Gavin Newsom, is letting that happen in spite of Granholm’s plea to keep it open. The community around the plant wants it shut down.
Shooting environmental layups
Whitmer seems to have pegged her environmental credibility to shutting down Line 5 and splashing money around the state for projects like replacing lead service lines.
Both are worthy endeavors but embracing them is like shooting layups, it’s easy. Press releases about spending billions of dollars make for popular headlines but it isn’t the hard and necessary work like environmental justice.
Whitmer made environmental justice a priority but she has failed. See Benton Harbor where Whitmer’s chief of the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) struggled to answer the simple question about the safety of the city’s drinking water.
And EGLE embraced the Snyder administration’s decision on taking water for bottled water. A decision made worse by subsidizing the water-sucking potash mine which is in the same area.
Whitmer wants Michigan to be seen as a state that leads, it’s a continuing thread in her statements and press releases.
If that’s the case, she should follow California’s lead and let the Palisades nuclear plant close.
Billions of dollars are being spent on Covid-19 relief needs, but water affordability for poor and dis-invested communities doesn't make the cut.
“Michigan schools get creative in spending federal Covid-19 relief funds.”
It was the “creative” in the Detroit Free Press headline that caught my eye
The relief funds are $6 billion in federal money that President Joe Biden said should be targeted at getting schools open post-pandemic. Congress said a significant part of the funding should be dedicated to help recapture lost-learning. It’s up to the states to dole out the money.
In a nutshell, the funds were to help students cope with the effects of the pandemic.
But the Free Press story put a spotlight on school districts’ creativity in their spending requests. Upgrading athletic facilities, new security systems, better nutrition via a smoothie bar and the list goes on. Are those really pandemic related issues? I doubt it.
I’ve got no ax to grind with the school districts. Many are cash-strapped and they’re taking advantage of a one-off opportunity by accessing federal largesse, warranted or not. That doesn’t make it right but it comes under the, everyone does it justification. It’s how it works in the U.S.
But how is it that federal Covid-19 relief money can be spent on smoothie bars, and none is spent on helping people in poor and dis-invested communities pay their water bills?
If there was ever a need for access to clean water, it’s during this ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
But as the states and the feds toss billions of dollars around like they’re nickels, cities like Detroit, Benton Harbor and others lack water affordability plans. Plans that remove the threat of ongoing shutoffs. What could be a better use Covid-19 relief and wellness funding?
But water affordability never seems to make the top of any politician’s agenda in Michigan.
While the Free Press story was about questionable use of federal funds, the state of Michigan is a bad actor too.
In its recent multi-billion dollar budget bill was an undefined grant of $50 million.Turns out it was for a private corporation to help jump-start a potash mine. An unnecessary venture that will take a couple million gallons of groundwater a day from an already sensitive area. (Scroll down for more on the mine.)
So as it always is, the neediest people are at the end of the funding line. The mining company will get its water while people in dis-invested communities struggle to pay water bills. And a school district will get a smoothie bar. And I'm not hearing outrage.
That’s where we are, and who we are.
Non-profit groups ticked at Biden for restoration funding cut. Quibble over slight in spite on $1 billion windfall.
According to folklore, hyper-wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller was once asked how much money is enough. “Just a little bit more,” Rockefeller responded.
That sounds like the current reaction of Great Lakes advocates who are disappointed at President Joe Biden’s proposed budget that makes a slight cut to the sacred Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). That’s the federal program designed to restore the Great Lakes from the ravages of the peak industrial era.
GLRI was initiated by President George W. Bush (the son) and first-funded by Congress after President Barack Obama pushed for it in his first budget. President Donald Trump tried to cut all of its funding but Congress said no.
Biden is continuing the funding but is taking a different approach.
It’s true, Biden’s budget would reduce GLRI funding from $348 million annually to $340 million. But the lead non-profit group on all things GLRI, the Healing Our Waters Coalition, called the cut a “head scratcher” saying “it really doesn’t make sense” to cut what it sees as a “marquee” program.
And in fact, the advocates want an increase for GLRI to $400 million and are lobbying Congress for that amount.
But the crying-poor advocates seem to have forgotten that Biden put $1 billion for GLRI in the big infrastructure bill that recently passed. Funding for GLRI has waxed and waned within a tight range since 2011, but this $1 billion infusion is unprecedented and it’s in addition to the annual funding.
The good news is that the $1 billion windfall will be targeted at cleaning up long neglected toxic sediment sites like the Detroit River. In spite of the $3.8 billion GLRI has received since 2010, the Detroit River still contains almost all of the estimated 3.5 million cubic yards of sediment it had in 2010.
It’s reasonable to ask, where did all that money go? The answer, to 6,000 projects big and small spread over eight states, 15 federal agencies and multiple state and local organizations. The program is classic overreach, a mile wide and an inch deep.
Biden’s focus on the toxic sites, intentional or not, will hopefully bring some rigor and financial discipline to GLRI.
Rather than using their time and access to members of Congress to quibble about a budget cut that amounts to a rounding error, here, a few ways advocates could better use their time and expertise.
Stop using GLRI money to fix Lake Erie’s algae problems. The program has spent $100 million between 2010 and 2020 on Lake Erie with few if any results. I know of no credible source who thinks Lake Erie’s problem can be remedied with money. And publicly tell Congress what everyone knows but few are reluctant to say; nutrient pollution from farms needs to be regulated in some form so Lake Erie can shed the summer toxic algae bloom syndrome.
Tell Congress the truth. GLRI needs a reset, not a tweak every few years. Not every federal agency deserves funding. Not every pet project is worthy. If you were trying to design a federal program for inefficiency, GLRI could be the template.
Demand transparency and accountability. A recent study revealed that success of a GLRI project is largely determined by the project manager. Sort of like grading your own test and telling the teacher you got an “A.” And, the study said, the public does not have access to necessary data that could help evaluate the success of projects.
I’ve followed the work of the Great Lakes restoration advocates since 2006. It’s a smart, determined and dedicated group and arguably, GLRI wouldn’t have happened without its advocacy against the odds.
But like any organization, it occasionally needs critical self-examination. It should get out of the echo chamber and ask itself the hard questions. Make decisions that won’t please everyone.
Because continued hyper-focus on money won’t restore the Great Lakes.
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,
Conservation colleagues: Swier was a leader, organizer, water defender and community builder
The world of grassroots water conservation in Michigan lost a pillar of the movement last December with the passing of Terry Swier. Swier is the Mecosta librarian who had the audacity to confront Nestle over its taking of groundwater for bottled water.
In the early 2000’s as Nestle was setting up shop, Swier and a group of Mecosta residents formed Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, teamed up with environmental law attorney Jim Olson, challenged the corporate giant and were victorious against all odds.
The full story of how Swier and her MCWC colleagues prevailed, with the support of Olson who navigated the legal minefield, is chronicled in the 2007 book, Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Groundwater. The book’s authors referred to Swier as the “unlikely activist” as prior to taking on Nestle, Swier said she “wasn’t active in anything.”
They also pointed out that Swier and her grassroots collaborators were essentially going it alone. The big non-profit groups working on water issues didn't (and perhaps still don't) make the connection to the long-term threat that bottled water diversions could be.
I didn’t know Swier and barely paid attention to her scrap with Nestle as it unfolded. But as I ramped up my reporting on Great Lakes water issues, the full impact of the threat and what she accomplished became evident.
Swier’s passing received little mention in the Michigan media and that’s a tragedy too. Today’s water conservationists need to know the story of those who paved the way for their work, because there's still a lot of work to do.
Swier was 77.
The latest MCWC newsletter has a tribute to Swier and attorney Jim Olson posted a remembrance here.
The Great Lakes region has been known as the "Rust Belt" seemingly forever. President Biden wants that to change.
The Great Lakes and its surrounding states have been on President Biden's mind lately. A few weeks ago he visited Ohio to formally announce the $1 billion in the infrastructure legislation will be dedicated to cleaning up the toxic sediment sites still on a 1987 list. The sites are remnants of the peak manufacturing era. But the president wasn't done.
In the State of the Union speech earlier this week Biden again singled out the Great Lakes region. He wants to ditch the term, "Rust Belt," that has long-been used nationally to describe the region based on its heavy manufacturing - cars and steel - prominence.
Biden wants the region to be known as "the home of significant resurgence in manufacturing." Presumably he was referring to GM's announcement of EV manufacturing in Michigan and Intel's decision to invest in chip making in Ohio. Worth mentioning is that Ford is taking its EV business to Kentucky, where Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell lives, so there's that. But I get it, it's an election year.
All this branding puffery and angst caused me to reflect on past attempts to get rid of the Rust Belt moniker. Former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, one of the brighter political lights in the region, coined the Fresh Coast. As in East Coast, West Coast and the Fresh Coast because of the abundance of fresh water the Great Lakes hold. Outside of Milwaukee, it didn't catch on and I'm not sure it did in Milwaukee.
And a University of Illinois professor who runs a freshwater lab pitched, the Water Belt. No sale.
But does the region even deserve a branding update now?
I ask in light of the fact most of those toxic sediment sites on that 1987 list still remain 35 years later. They languished for decades for a lack of funding to clean them up. But since 2010, funding wasn't a barrier as approximately $3.5 billion came to the Great Lakes region for restoration. But while some of that money was devoted to toxic site clean up, most of it was absorbed across 15 federal agencies in a mind boggling sea of 6,000 projects laden with bureaucracy.
So how about we don't spike the ball on the 5 yard line as we try to re-brand the region? Let's wait until those sites like the Detroit River, the heart of the Great Lakes, which still has 3.5 million cubic yards of toxic sediment, is clean. With Biden's infusion of $1 billion, that's estimated to be 2030, best case.
And maybe the region doesn't even need a re-brand.
University of Detroit environmental law professor Nick Schroeck calls it, the "Great Lakes Region." It's "evocative," Schroeck told me and I agree. In three simple words it evokes location and what the region aspire to be known for, water.
Let the region be what it is, the Great Lakes region.
How hard was that?
Six years after the Flint water crisis made national headlines, EPA and Michigan remain
in the drinking water spotlight
While the USEPA was grabbing headlines recently in the Great Lakes region with the announcement of the $1 billion windfall it was bestowing on the region, the EPA’s internal watchdog was taking a look back.
The Inspector General’s office announced it will investigate EPA’s role in the Benton Harbor lead in the drinking water crisis from last summer and beyond. The crisis where Michigan’s Department of Environment of Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) slow-walked taking action to notify citizens about elevated lead levels in drinking water, according to citizens and activists.
Slow-walked to the point that a coalition formed and petitioned the EPA to use its emergency authority to intervene. That’s similar to how EPA had to intervene in Flint
In a letter to Radhika Fox, the administrator for water and Debra Shore, the Great Lakes region administrator with responsibility for Michigan, the IG said it would be looking at the agency’s “elevation policy.”
The elevation policy was a product of the Flint water crisis where the IG’s office was critical of the agency for failing to elevate the issue up the chain of command.
In the Flint crisis, regional administrator Susan Hedman resigned under pressure for her handling of the issue.
The state of Michigan recently settled a $600 million citizen suit brought by Flint citizens. A similar negligence suit against the EPA is still pending in federal court.
The Flint report cited “management weaknesses” that delayed the EPA response on Flint.
IG investigations take time, then more time to be written and released so don’t expect anything soon. But just the fact that it’s looking at the Benton Harbor crisis speaks volumes.
It’s Flint redux.
Economically disadvantaged Black community struggles to maintain a deteriorating water system. Citizens and activists, some veterans of the Flint crisis, seek help from the responsible state agency then appeal to the EPA for an intervention.
Did Michigan and the EPA not learn anything from Flint? I suspect the Inspector General will have an opinion.
Tribal leader calls out USEPA for lack of emphasis on protection in restoration program. In rare candid remarks, says Lake Superior degradation is ongoing and without a plan to stop it.
I've been attending conferences of various sorts about Great Lakes restoration since 2006. And one thing is a given; the collection of activists and others peripheral to the cause of restoring the Great Lakes will be as close to perfection as possible when it comes to speaking with one voice.
They've mastered the art of defining the message and repeating it ad infinitum, no deviations. Be it the Great Lakes are a "national treasure" or money is the key to restoring the lakes or their hyper-emphasis on collaboration like its an outcome instead of a process.
That's why it was refreshing to attend a recent Great Lakes restoration workshop sponsored by the
non-profit Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. The purpose was to brief journalists about what's happening with restoring the lakes in light of the $1 billion funding windfall the restoration program will soon receive.
And many of the smart, hardworking and well-intentioned people who've been working on restoration for years were there presenting and for the most part, they repeated a variation of the same messages from 10-15 years ago.
But there was a refreshing exception, Michael "Mic" Isham, an Ojibwe Tribal executive and leader. He represented the Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and he too, has been part of the restoration establishment for years.
But Isham was willing to deviate from the approved talking point script. He acknowledged a few of the virtues of the restoration program then spoke candidly about its shortcomings. Like the neglect of Lake Superior which he said is suffering ongoing, unaddressed degradation exposing it to "death by 1,000 cuts."
Isham said to get federal funding for restoration projects you have to hit metrics, but Tribal projects don't easily produce quick, quantifiable results. They are based on Seventh Generation and Traditional Ecological Knowledge principles that take time and don't work well within budget cycles, but are no less worthy.
And perhaps most important, Isham dared to criticize the program's hyper-focus on restoration while not including protection in its mission. What good is it to restore if we don't protect and prevent, he said.
But the consensus is that the Great Lakes restoration works so don't tamper with it. And there's a darker side to that picture. Program supporters don't want to do anything that could cause Congress to examine the program. That's because it brings a lot of federal money to the region.
I was assigned to write a story based on the workshop and there were two tracks I could take. The safe, "the Great Lakes restoration program is an incredible success but there's more work to do" route. That's the forever talking point. Or put a spotlight on Isham's priorities, the need to protect the lakes and reduce reliance on metrics to justify funding and define success.
Here's my headline.
Federal Great Lakes restoration program should focus on protection and flexibility, says Ojibwe leader.
The story is here.
Note: This was updated on Feb 13.
Chicago-based environmental journalist