State Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, hosted the town hall event July 15 at Groves High School to discuss the state’s surface and drinking water protections.

State Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, hosted the town hall event July 15 at Groves High School to discuss the state’s surface and drinking water protections.

Photos by Deb Jacques


Leaders, advocates discuss Michigan clean water risks

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 29, 2019

 From the left, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel; Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy Deputy Director James Clift; author and activist Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha; Clean Water Action campaign organizer Sean McBrearty; and Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash discuss threats to Michigan’s water July 15.

From the left, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel; Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy Deputy Director James Clift; author and activist Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha; Clean Water Action campaign organizer Sean McBrearty; and Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash discuss threats to Michigan’s water July 15.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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BEVERLY HILLS — The bad news is that between outdated and even toxic infrastructure, climate change, and industrial contamination like oil and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, Michigan’s Great Lakes are in big trouble.

In fact, most of the United States is facing similar threats to drinking water and surface water.

The good news is that Michigan is leading the pack in mitigating those water dangers with more testing, treatment and legislative action than nearly any other state in the nation.

That’s according to the panel that spoke July 15 at Wylie E. Groves High School at a clean water town hall event. State Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, hosted the discussion with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Deputy Director James Clift, Clean Water Action campaign organizer Sean McBrearty, author and activist Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash.


Line 5
Nessel started the discussion by detailing what she said her office is doing to clean up Michigan’s waters and prevent further contamination. For her, a big priority is removing the infamous Enbridge Line 5, a more than 60-year-old pipeline that delivers petroleum from Wisconsin to customers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  

“If there were to be a spill, it would directly impact the drinking water supply of nearly 40 million people … and 700 miles of shoreline,” she said, adding that Line 5 is actually about 20 years younger than the company’s Line 6B, which ruptured nine years ago just outside of Kalamazoo, spilling nearly a million gallons of crude oil into a creek that empties into the Kalamazoo River.

Aside from working to shut down and remove Line 5, Nessel said she’s cracking down on companies that contaminate drinking water at the state level and holding them accountable.


PFAS
Drinking water is top of mind for Clift, too. After he won some favor with the crowd by noting that he’s a Groves alumnus, he explained that at the helm of EGLE his two priorities are to implement a new lead and copper rule for drinking water in the state, and then to fulfill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s directive to implement drinking water standards for PFAS.

Both are easier said than done, Clift explained.

“PFAS are in a class of chemicals that includes 5,000 chemicals. We have good information for about seven of them,” he said.

McBrearty said Clean Water Action is concerned about PFAS too, but there are more industrial contaminants in our surface water than just those. His organization was founded in 1972 to get the Clean Water Act passed at the federal level to regulate pollutants for the nation’s surface waters.

“We’re looking at issues that have the potential to contaminate 20% of the world’s drinking water,” McBrearty said.

He told a story about a recent summer trip to Oscoda, near the Selfridge Air National Guard Base located there.

“We couldn’t let our daughter swim in Lake Huron because of the foam that was washing up on the shore,” he said of PFAS foam, a known indicator of the chemical in surface water.

Clift noted that Michigan is the first state to have dedicated labs that can more quickly test residential water samples for PFAS, and also is the first state to lower the level of allowable PFAS in water to under 12 parts per billion, unlike the federal standard of 15 ppb.


Lead and copper
McBrearty added that Clean Water Action is also concerned about lead contamination in Michigan drinking water. The state has more lead service lines than anywhere else in the U.S., he said.

Hanna-Attisha,  the Flint-area doctor who discovered unsafe lead levels in local kids and, in turn, exposed a water crisis in the city, is of course upset about the state’s failure to remedy lead service lines, particularly in low-income areas like Flint.

“What Flint has done has opened our eyes to, ‘Hey. We can do better,’” she said. “I never like to use the word ‘safe’ when speaking about lead. There is no safe level, but policies have not caught up to the science (to implement lead standards).”

It’s no coincidence that toxic lead levels are often first noticed by pediatricians, she said, because schools are especially susceptible to letting contaminated water accumulate in pipes while the water stops flowing during weekends, holiday breaks and summer vacations.

“We’re using children as literal and unethical detectors of unsafe drinking water,” she said.

But kids aren’t the only ones impacted, and Hanna-Attisha stressed how devastating the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint was, which can be attributed to the water crisis.

Clift said the first step to thwarting lead poisoning from drinking water is to find all the lead service lines in the state, so the Clean Water Act can be triggered and force mandatory pipe replacements in those communities.


Execution
Nash was happy to report to the Birmingham-Bloomfield crowd that lead has not been detected in the Great Lakes Water Authority system that services Oakland County residents, among others. That doesn’t mean, however, that lead can’t be collected as water makes its way into a home, he said.

“If you have a house built before 1949, you probably have lead leads into the house,” he said.  

And when lead is detected in the water of individual homes, Nash said those leads need to be removed and replaced. But there’s no easy answer in his book as to who should pick up the tab for that work.

“The problem we’re having, and we’re working with EGLE on this as they try to do something with (creating a lead standard), is that when dangerous lead levels are detected in water, it would trigger immediate action to be repaired at the cost of the utility, not the consumer,” Nash said. “You can’t charge what affects some to everyone. Once this gets going, there will be people looking for ways to hit these cities with lawsuits.”

In other words, the department that claims the responsibility for repairs also claims liability. Several municipalities already face multimillion-dollar suits for improper stormwater treatment charges following the flooding of August 2014.

Nash knows it’s not possible to stick homeowners with the bill, either. Particularly if the house is being leased to a tenant who might have toxic water due to landlord neglect.

“The cost gets passed on to the ratepayer, but there should be a state rule enforcing some protections. Around 40% of Pontiac homes have lead leads or galvanized pipes. At $5,000 a pop, the landlord won’t want to pay that, and the ratepayer is most likely living in poverty. The University of Michigan Water Center did a study to look at potential ways to pay for (repairs), and they’re very worried some customers won’t be able to afford water.”

The rest of the panel agreed. Hanna-Attisha said that in Flint, “before there was a crisis of water quality, there was a crisis of water affordability.”


Red tape
McBrearty jumped onto that thought, saying that as climate change worsens in the coming years, the question of whether water is a commodity or a human right will become more important.

“The same week (a company) was issued a permit to pull 400 gallons of water per minute from the Great Lakes on the west side of the state for just $200 a year was the same week water was cut off to Flint customers,” McBrearty said.

Bayer noted that question should fall to her and her colleagues at the state and federal levels of government, any water shutoffs or permits to pull water from the Great Lakes were done legally, and legislation would need to change to prevent water from being treated as a privilege in the future, if that’s what voters choose to do.

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