Opinion: Michigan's PFAS contamination reminiscent of Rouge fire turning point
In Michigan, enjoying the outdoors and the natural beauty of our state is a way of life, and one we take for granted far too often. In these trying times, we need to take it seriously and realize that it was not always this way.
I grew up on the St. Clair River. My favorite memories are of summer days floating down the river in an inner tube or fishing off the dock. Unfortunately, I also remember being a teenager and the sudden warnings of danger — the need to be careful swimming in dirty water and not being able to eat the fish we caught because of mercury, raw sewage, storm waters and toxic chemicals.
The progress we’ve made in cleaning up our lakes and rivers is no accident. It's due to policies which were put in place to clean up our waters and hold polluters accountable. Fifty years ago this week, the Rouge River caught fire in Michigan, and it galvanized leaders to act.
In the 1960s, the Rouge River was in bad shape from decades of industrial contamination. The kayaking and fishing that occurs today at places like the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge were unthinkable when I was growing up. Much of that began to change on Oct. 9, 1969, after sparks from a factory ignited the Rouge River.
Our leaders paid attention to this catastrophe and passed transformational legislation to improve our environment in the years to follow, including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
John Dingell played critical roles in passing all of these landmark laws, and he worked for years to achieve the consensus needed to pass these bills. Some may find it difficult to believe, but when my husband introduced the Clean Water Act in response to these pollutions, many complained because of cost and concern it might hurt business.
Today, they have a track record of success — just look at the river today. This cleanup is described by many to be one of the most significant recoveries of polluted waters in the country — a truly incredible ecological recovery story. We have witnessed returning bald eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey, lake sturgeon, lake whitefish, walleye, wild celery, mayflies, beaver, fox snakes and other species.
While our rivers may be less likely to catch fire today, we face new types of environmental threats that are just as urgent as those that plagued us 50 years ago. Many are less visible to the public. PFAS chemical contamination is a looming threat to families at hundreds of military sites, and Michigan has the most contaminated sites in the country. Yet, EPA has yet to set an enforceable drinking standard for PFAS, and some are fighting efforts to ensure we have all the tools we need to clean it up.
The Trump administration has also rolled back critical drinking water standards and protections that we fought years to implement under the Clean Water Act. And we are facing a looming crisis with a major drop in biodiversity in our country. The cumulative impact of all these things could set our country back years.
As we look back on the impact of the Rouge River fire, we see it today as a turning point for our nation. Our leaders rolled up their sleeves and worked hard to pass legislation to reverse decades of contamination. Today we’re at a similar juncture. It’s up to our leaders to decide how this moment will be remembered 50 years in the future.
Congresswoman Debbie Dingell is a U.S. House Representative serving Michigan's 12th congressional district.