Whitmer calls water ‘fundamental human right’ with $120M in new funding

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As Michigan has grappled with big water safety issues in recent years, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has devoted several early executive actions to tackling environmental problems.

Now in her fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, Whitmer has proposed more than $120 million for new drinking water protections, calling water “a fundamental human right.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

Environmental groups and Democrats are heralding the proposal while Michigan continues to research contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Known collectively as PFAS, the chemicals have come under national scrutiny, with congressional and state lawmakers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vowing to take action on the so-called “forever chemicals,” although Democrats have criticized the EPA for acting too slow.

The man-made substances are used in everything from fire-fighting foam to clothing, fast food wrappers and nonstick pans and have been linked to cancer and developmental problems.

Whitmer has proposed spending $120 million to help local water systems implement Michigan’s toughest-in-the-nation Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), rip up old lead service lines and further research and clean up PFAS.

“With this budget, we can also get to work cleaning up our drinking water,” Whitmer said during her budget presentation to state lawmakers Tuesday.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Budget Director Chris Kolb at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

“Families currently can’t drink from the tap in many communities … there are children in our state who can’t read, and drivers are getting crushed by repair bills,” Whitmer continued. “Each of these is a barrier to the American Dream. We have an obligation and an opportunity. This is not easy. If it was, our predecessors would have done this, and they would have done it right?”

Clean drinking water and school funding were recently listed as Michiganders’ top concerns, according to a report by For Our Future-Michigan.

Ensuring clean water was a major issue during Whitmer’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, as well as her State of the State address last month, as the Michigan Advance previously reported.

Whitmer also has reorganized the state Department of Environmental Quality into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), which will house the Office of the Great Lakes.

Dan Kildee testifying at the U.S. House Oversight Committee, March 6, 2019 | House Democrats photo

At a time when U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and other Democrats have criticized President Donald Trump’s administration for failing to act more quickly on fighting the chemicals, Whitmer’s supplemental proposal would direct another $30 million for PFAS research and cleanup, if enacted.

Budget Office spokesman Kurt Weiss said the proposal does not identify particular areas in Michigan where cleanup money would be spent. That would be up to state environmental regulators.

PFAS in Michigan

So far, state officials have only been involved in PFAS cleanup at one site, Weiss said — near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, one of the worst areas of contamination in the state. The base also was a focus in Wednesday’s U.S. House Oversight Committee hearing, as the Advance reported.

Environmental contractors sample the groundwater from former fire training area #2 to check for PFAS at former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan | Breanne Humphreys, Air Force

The Michigan PFAS Response Team (MPART), started under former Gov. Rick Snyder, has identified 46 sites where PFAS contamination is actively being investigated. Whitmer has said she will keep the dedicated PFAS team.

Snyder, a Republican, also had asked lawmakers for $43 million in supplemental funding to address the problem during the Lame Duck legislative session. Environmentalists called the funding a “good start,” saying it fell short of a full-on assault to fight PFAS.

Rick Snyder | Susan J. Demas

Supplemental money has gone toward research, rather than cleanup.

Whitmer’s budget proposal would tack on another $30 million to that. Environmentalists are again praising the investment, but say more is needed.

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) called Whitmer’s environmental budget proposal “really transformative,” but said it’s only a start.

“Look, I’m always gonna ask for more,” said Rabhi. “I think we have a long way to go in the state of Michigan. We have a lot of ground to cover to make up for lost time, but this is a step in the right direction.”

Drinking water

The problem is acutely felt by Rahbi, whose liberal district is home to many environmentally friendly constituents and has weathered toxic pollution from PFAS and 1,4 dioxane.

Huron River, Wikimedia Commons

TriBar Manufacturing was found by the city of Ann Arbor to be a “major source” of PFAS contamination in the Huron River, according to the city. The company has since added extra treatment to remove it from the company’s wastewater, and levels in the river are expected to decline, the city says.

Ann Arbor also has struggled with groundwater contamination from a 1,4 dioxane plume, including one aquifer that “represents the largest local water body known to be contaminated” with the harmful chemical. It has not entered the drinking water supply, the city said.

Whitmer’s budget proposal recommends $1.9 million in drinking water grants for local water systems, which have sued the state over a state rule approved under Snyder that requires water systems to reduce lead levels to at least 12 parts per billion.

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Utilities have expressed concerns over the cost of such an endeavor and argued that the rule violates the law, as the Advance reported.

The governor also proposed $60 million to install filtered water stations at K-12 schools amid concern that many old school buildings — including in Detroit — may have unsafe levels of lead in drinking water.

Lead is a known neurotoxin that can cause developmental disorders, and children are especially at risk of lead poisoning.

“This plan would ensure clean safe drinking water in our school buildings,” Weiss said.

The school drinking water problem is separate from Michigan’s most well-known case of water contamination in Flint starting in 2014. State and local officials failed to provide corrosion control chemicals to the city’s new water supply, the Flint River.

Flint | Michigan Municipal League, Flickr

The highly corrosive, untreated river water caused lead to leach from Flint’s aging pipes into the city water supply. Since then, Flint has switched back to Detroit’s water system, which is treated with corrosion control chemicals and lead lines are being replaced.

Whitmer’s budget includes $8.1 million to help with Flint’s recovery, as the Advance reported, including early interventions, school-level supports and nutrition programs for children.

Is it enough?

Environmentalists are calling the plan a “good start,” but say more is needed.

Yousef Rabhi | House Democrats photo

“Is it ever going to be enough money to clean up and make sure we’re protecting public health 100 percent? That’s a big ask,” said Sean Hammond, deputy policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC). “But I think this proposal definitely keeps things moving forward.”

Rabhi, the MEC and other environmentalists have also called for enacting a state limit for PFAS in drinking- and groundwater that is much lower than the EPA’s guideline of 70 parts per trillion.

But budgets typically do not include policy recommendations.

“We’re hopeful since this seems to be the governor following through on her promise to put public health in the forefront,” Hammond said. “This money, if implemented, will really help address a lot of the issues that we’re facing.”

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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