Flint’s man-made water crisis: where are the watchdogs?

By Joel Thurtell

What a disaster the Flint water crisis has become. There was no need for tens of thousands of people to lose their publicly-provided source of clean drinking and bathing water. But government stupidity, folly, dishonesty made it so.

There was a time in Michigan history when it was easier for citizens to focus attention on toxic emergencies in spite of bumbling and deaf state agencies and a lackadaisical governor.

There was a time in Michigan history when environmental commissions overseen by citizen boards of directors provided an alternative route to enforcement for those of us with information about pollution.

I’m thinking of the Michigan Water Resources Commission, the Michigan Toxic Substance Control Commission, and most of all, the Michigan Environmental Review Board.

These commissions, and in particular the environmental review panel, also known as MERB, could be counted on to raise a stink if a citizen brought a legitimate complaint about government agencies’ refusal to take action on an environmental crisis.

I learned about the effectiveness of these agencies when I was a reporter with the South Bend Tribune. Late in 1982, I discovered while reading minutes of the Cass County Health Department, that three residential wells downstream from the city of Dowagiac’s municipal landfill were contaminated with unacceptable levels of the cancer-causing solvent, trichloroethylene. I soon learned that the industrial waste likely came from a Dowagiac factory.

As I reported, I found that officials of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources were unwilling to come clean on what they knew. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request and when a district DNR official let me read a stack of documents relating to Dowagiac industrial pollution, I learned why the officials were being disingenuous.

Contamination in household wells had been known to state officials since 1957. For years, DNR officials were fully aware of heavy metal contamination in household wells.

DNR people didn’t bother telling state or county health officials then, and when they learned of household well contamination by TCE in October of 1982, they failed to inform health officials at either the state or county level. State health officials learned of contamination when a union official complained that drinking water at the Sundstrand Heat Transfer plant was unsafe to drink.

Sound a little like Flint, where a Virginia researcher and a local pediatrician were the ones who first warned of lead in city mains? Those whistleblowers were scoffed at by state officials.

As I prepared a story for the March 13, 1983 South Bend Tribune, I called Michigan State University zoology Professor William Cooper, chairman of MERB. (Prof. Cooper, a former chairman of the MSU Zoology Department, died on November 7, 2011.)

Cooper called the Dowagiac pollution “an extreme situation.”

“You’ve got a hell of a problem,” Cooper told me. He put Dowagiac on the next week’s MERB meeting agenda. Soon, a state senator was involved. Next, Attorney General Frank Kelley sued Sundstrand. A judge ordered a clean-up. Then, a dozen or so homeowners with dangerously contaminated wells won a civil lawsuit against Sundstrand.

I had been writing about the pollution, but it took MERB and the bullhorn of Bill Cooper to raise state awareness.

Where is MERB when the people of Michigan and Flint need it?

What happened to this watchdog agency as well as the Toxic Substance Control Commission and the Water Resources Commission?

They were killed off by governors James Blanchard and John Engler.

In 2006, before I retired as a reporter with the Detroit Free Press, I spoke with Bill Cooper about the stifling of those watchdog agencies.

The environmental panels were created under Republican Governor William Milliken in the 1970s, Cooper told me. “One thing Milliken wanted was a public forum where citizens had standing without hiring a lawyer. That was the whole sense of the Environmental Review Board.’

“There is nothing in the state of Michigan that comes close to that now.”

Too bad for Flint and the entire state of Michigan that two governors were more interested in making government business-friendly than ensuring the safety of residents.

Drop me a line at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com



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