Let’s reverse state’s slide on environmental protection

Gail Philbin

The spectacle of a Michigan city poisoned by a drinking-water crisis caused by cost-cutting surprised few, if any, folks working on environmental issues in this state. We couldn’t predict the horrific fact at the core of the Flint tragedy — that many, many children will live with lifelong consequences of lead exposure. However, we’re all too familiar with the Snyder administration’s disregard for public health and the will of the people.

A dangerous culture has taken hold at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). That culture de-emphasizes government transparency, regulatory enforcement and responsiveness to citizen complaints, and instead emphasizes budget reductions and voluntary measures to address significant problems.

For years, we watched as the stage was set for public health and environmental damage in urban and rural regions of the state. Steel-industry facilities in low-income areas of Detroit have been re-permitted by MDEQ despite federal consent orders for environmental violations. The agency is considering a request by Marathon Oil, a company already out of federal compliance for sulfur dioxide emissions, to increase its toxic output in the heavily polluted River Rouge area of Detroit. In northern Michigan, the MDEQ approved a permit to operate an industrial fish farm in the Au Sable River that could endanger the health of a world-renowned trout stream.

In rural Michigan, a disaster that affects us all is brewing. Manure runoff from industrial livestock facilities is polluting lakes, rivers and streams. The result is the type of pollution that contributed to Lake Erie’s toxic algae bloom in 2014 and poisoned drinking water for a half-million people, including southern Michigan residents.

Algal blooms in Saginaw Bay and Lake St. Clair haven’t appeared close enough to a municipal water intake pipe to directly affect humans … yet. But these growths are wreaking havoc on the health of these water bodies as well as countless inland lakes.

This calamity has been unfolding for years, but was aided by Snyder’s appointment of Dan Wyant to head the MDEQ. Wyant ran the Michigan Department of Agriculture for years. Under his leadership:

■The MDEQ refused to update its permit for factory farms, a.k.a. concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), to require a ban on the application of manure on snow-covered or frozen ground. This practice is the primary cause of excessive nutrient loads getting into our waterways where they trigger beach advisories, fish kills and other issues.

■Until only very recently, records of complaints about factory farm pollution to the MDEQ’s hotline and actions taken were not publicly accessible.

■All but about 37 of the 269 CAFO permits issued in Michigan have expired, but the facilities are still in operation.

MDEQ rarely does field investigations and doesn’t take water samples in response to reports of suspected manure-related incidents by Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, a group that has analyzed local water samples around CAFOs for 15 years.

The state’s responsibility for the suffering in Flint has focused attention on its polluter-friendly approach to the environment

To prevent the next avoidable public health tragedy, we need to make meaningful change in how we protect our water and air. In agriculture, we can take two immediate steps: ban the application of CAFO waste on frozen or snow-covered ground throughout Michigan; and declare Lake Erie an impaired watershed, which will set mandatory pollution limits for tributaries.

Environmental issues are, at their core, issues of fairness, as we have seen in the Flint tragedy. Whether you’re an urban resident near an oil refinery, a rural neighbor of a mega-dairy or someone in between who depends on one of Michigan’s many rivers, streams or lakes for your livelihood, you have the right to clean air and water.

Gail Philbin is Michigan Chapter director of the Sierra Club.