Commentary: Flint, Line 5 And Restoring Trust In State Government

MLUI 2012 Annual

It’s hard to fathom the people of Flint were poisoned by lead-tainted water for 17 months while government officials ignored evidence and downplayed the problem. Unfortunately, the culture of denial and inaction brought to light by the Flint disaster has been around a long time in our state government. You only have to look at the Line 5 oil pipeline in the Mackinac Straits – which, until Flint, was the top water issue in Michigan – to see the same unwillingness to act in the face of urgent risk.

Rather than concede to calls for his resignation, Gov. Rick Snyder said he intends to stay in office to solve the problem in Flint, help the people who have suffered, make sure other Michigan cities aren’t also at risk, and, as he vowed during a three-hour Congressional hearing, make “comprehensive change in state government.”

In addition to fixing Flint, one action he can take immediately to demonstrate that he is serious about changing the culture in Lansing is shutting down the flow of oil in Line 5 to ensure the Great Lakes are protected.

By now, the Flint story has been well told. The switch from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April 2014 without implementing the proper corrosion controls leached lead from old pipes. Flint residents began complaining about the water, and as brown water flowed from the taps and tests confirmed unsafe lead levels over the following year, government officials quietly tried to figure out what to do.

Just how badly things were handled came to light, at least in part, after the governor’s office released nearly 300 internal emails earlier this year. A number of them pertain to an eight-page memo written in June 2015 calling for urgent action by Miguel Del Toral, a mid-level Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulator. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and EPA officials didn’t react with urgency so Del Toral gave a copy of the memo to Lee Anne Walters, a Flint mother whose children were suffering from lead poisoning. She gave the report to the media, and the Flint water crisis became front page news.

When questioned by reporters, an MDEQ spokesperson, who later resigned, said the water was safe, told people to “relax,” and called Del Toral a “rogue employee.” Despite mounting evidence and media pressure, it wasn’t until October 2015 that regulators finally issued a warning to Flint residents not to drink the water.

The Line 5 debate in Michigan has dragged out on a similar timeline. It was 2012 when the first report outlined the risk of the 63-year-old oil pipeline and the shocking lack of oversight. University of Michigan scientists have since developed a computer simulation that shows a pipeline leak would contaminate more than 722 miles of coastline from Petoskey to Alpena, and shut down drinking water on Mackinac Island.

Gov. Snyder formed a task force and an advisory board to study the issue. But just as the water kept flowing in Flint while regulators considered alternatives, each day that goes by the pipeline continues to carry 23 million gallons through five miles of open water in the Great Lakes.

Independent scientists have raised serious concerns about zebra mussels corroding the pipeline. Divers have documented broken pipeline supports. And everyone, including the Coast Guard, has pointed out that it’s impossible to clean up a spill in the winter when the Straits are typically covered with four feet of ice.

Public outcry is growing, too. More than two dozen local governments – from Traverse City to Detroit to Alpena Township – and four Native American tribes passed formal resolutions, more than one hundred businesses have signed on, citizens have filed petitions, and state legislation has been introduced, all calling on the governor to exercise his authority to protect the Great Lakes from a catastrophic spill.

Of course, the difference between Line 5 and Flint is that the tragic event hasn’t happened yet. But that’s just it. To rebuild public confidence, state officials need to take proactive action to prevent harm before it happens.

The bottom line is that at some point in the lifespan of a pipeline a leak will happen. There are dozens of documented leaks throughout the same Midwest pipeline network that prove it, including the 2010 disaster that spilled nearly a million gallons into the Kalamazoo River.

If there is one thing that unites Michiganders it’s a love for the Great Lakes. We understand that our recreational tourism economy is based on clean water. And what’s particularly important in the Line 5 debate is Michigan’s economy can thrive without Line 5. The majority of its oil passes right through Michigan for processing in Canada before being shipped to markets in the northeast U.S. and overseas – and Michigan can get the oil it needs from other less risky pipelines.

In addition to aiding the people of Flint and solving one of the most tragic drinking water cases in modern American history, Governor Snyder should look across Michigan and take action to prevent another disaster and to restore the public’s trust in state government. Shutting down Line 5 and protecting the Great Lakes would be a good start.

Hans Voss is the executive director of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, based in Traverse City, formerly the Michigan Land Use Institute. Email your feedback and ideas to hans@groundworkcenter.org.

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