Tim Ryan: Dept. of Defense should be ‘held responsible’ for PFAS in Oscoda water

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan in Grand Rapids, May 4, 2019 | Nick Manes

As one of 22 Democratic candidates presently running for president, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) appears to recognize that it’s an uphill battle to unseat President Donald Trump in 2020.

Ryan, an Ohio congressman since 2003 who’s now making a long-shot bid for president, was in Grand Rapids last night. He was the keynote speaker at the Kent County Democratic Party gala at Grand Valley State University’s downtown Grand Rapids campus, as the Advance first reported last month.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) smiles after receiving the gavel, Jan. 3, 2019 | Win McNamee, Getty Images

Ryan rose to some prominence among Democrats for his criticism of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), which included an unsuccessful 2016 attempt to unseat her as caucus leader. However, he now says he supports her as speaker.  

Michigan has become a hotbed for Democratic presidential candidates this election cycle and especially over the last week. At the same that Ryan was addressing Kent County Democrats, businessman and presidential candidate Andrew Yang was in Detroit making his pitch for a universal basic income, the key tenet of his long-shot bid.

While the Kent County Democratic Party fundraiser was closed to the press, Ryan briefly spoke with the Michigan Advance and Michigan Radio before the event about the state of the auto industry, recent federal rulings in gerrymandering cases and PFAS contamination in drinking water.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: So you’re running in an incredibly crowded field with 22 Democrats now declared as running for president. What does an Ohio congressman do to stand out and make people want to vote for you?

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and Kent County Democrats Chair Gary Stark | Nick Manes

Ryan: Well, you’ve got to have an agenda that ultimately captures the imagination of the people and gets them excited about potentially what the future holds for all of us a country, and I think that candidate is going to be the one who wins. Coming up with innovative ways to reform education, reform health care, clean the environment up, get us to a decarbonized economy — people want to be involved.

Coming from the industrialized Midwest, seeing all of these as an opportunity to create new manufacturing jobs around electric vehicles, around wind, around solar. It’s really an opportunity for us to make a new economy in communities that have been left behind. Communities of color, old steel, old coal, old auto, old rubber. There’s an opportunity here.

Michigan Advance: Part of your district includes Lordstown, where General Motors has long had a large manufacturing presence, but ceased operations there earlier this year. At the same time, its rival, Fiat Chrysler Automotive, is pitching new assembly plants as part of a $4.5 billion investment in Detroit. How do you believe communities should be reacting to this?

Fiat Chrysler announced a $4.5 billion investment in five Michigan plants where new Jeeps will be built. The 2014 Jeep Compass was revealed Jan. 14, 2013, at the North American International Auto Show. | Fiat Chrysler photo, Flickr

Ryan: You’re going to have change. Change is inevitable. You’re going to have ups and downs; you’re going to have factories open and close. The problem in the United States right now is there’s no broad and deep industrial policy that can really help us dominate electric vehicles, dominate solar, dominate wind.

Right now, China dominates about 40 percent of the electric vehicle market; China dominates 60 percent of the solar panel market. We’ve got a lot of work to do. That’s why I’m running and why I think the president is asleep at the switch here. We really need presidential leadership to make some of this happen.

Michigan Advance: Ohio got some big news this week when a federal court ruled that several of its congressional districts had been gerrymandered to benefit Republicans and must be redrawn. The news is similar to a ruling in Michigan late last month. How do you see these rulings impacting the 2020 race?

Ryan: It could have a big impact because there could be another potentially another two seats or three seats that could come back into the Democratic fold. You put that on top of what happened in the last election [when Democrats gained control of the U.S. House], you could solidify a long-term majority.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan in Grand Rapids, May 4, 2019 | NIck Manes

Michigan Radio: A lot of residents in Michigan are dealing with contaminated water supplies from PFAS [including residents in Oscoda where there’s a former Air Force base linked to the contamination]. How would you hold the Department of Defense accountable for its role in the contamination?

Oscoda Township Supervisor Aaron Weed at Clark’s Marsh | Michael Gerstein

Ryan: We need to, and if the Department of Defense is contaminating local water supplies, they need to be held responsible and they need to pay the bill. It’s got to be that simple. Especially when you’re talking about the potential effects to kids we’re seeing and the families. We’ve got to be very, very clear that this is their responsibility to clean it up.

Michigan Advance: So as president, what steps would you take to hold the Department of Defense, other governmental agencies and private companies liable if they’re found to have caused PFAS contamination?

Ryan: Well, you’ve got to go through the process [and] make sure it’s coming from them, which we’re almost certain that we know. And then make sure there’s some relief. Some level of clean up that has to happen, some level of potential monetary relief for the families or anybody that’s been hurt by it.

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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