House measure urges Canada not to store nuclear waste on Great Lakes

Lake Huron | Susan J. Demas

A bipartisan measure aimed at putting “moral pressure” on Congress to prevent Canada from storing nuclear waste on Lake Huron has advanced from a House committee.

Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has been eyeing a spot on Lake Huron, right across the lake from Michigan’s “Thumb,” as one of its two top choices to build a new nuclear waste storage facility. The site would store high-level nuclear waste from Canada in a large underground repository near the shore.

State Rep. Gary Howell during a House recess Wednesday, May 8, 2019 | Michael Gerstein

The House Committee on Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation met Tuesday afternoon to discuss the concurrent resolution, HCR 12, which was introduced by Committee Chair Gary Howell (R-North Branch) to urge the federal government to oppose the site. The measure was moved for recommendation from the House with a vote of 8-1.

“Yes, Canada projects a wonderful image of pine trees and moose and rocks, and God bless ‘em. But if you live where [state Rep.] Gary Eisen (R-St. Clair) does and look across at all the Canadian chemical companies lining the St. Clair River, you realize that there are dangers over there that we need to keep an eye on,” Howell said.

“Personally, I don’t trust ‘em,” Eisen remarked later in the hearing.

Likening the potential effects of nuclear waste near Lake Huron to PFAS chemical contamination in Michigan water, Howell warned during his testimony that there are “always unintended consequences.”

“And here, the danger of the unintended consequence is vast,” Howell said. “I never ascribe bad motives to my opponents in public life. I’m sure that Canadians think they’re doing the best thing they can, but this is a terrible idea and we need to do everything we can. … I frankly find it dumbfounding that a vast country like Canada, the best place they could come up with was a half mile from the shore of Lake Huron.”

State Rep. Bill Sowerby (D-Clinton Twp.), who thanked Howell for introducing the resolution, said Michigan is “tired” of taking on Canada’s “imported garbage” and is worried about having the country’s toxic byproducts in Michigan’s waterways.

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“I want to be clear, I’m not a campaigner against nuclear power,” Howell remarked. “I feel that nuclear power has a proper place, that it probably can help as we transition our [energy] sources. I’d certainly rather see that than littering Michigan with several thousand more windmills. But that’s another topic for another day.”

Howell acknowledged that the state of Michigan alone can’t prevent Canada from building at the Huron-Kinloss/South Bruce site. He reasoned that state legislators need to call on help from the federal level to make sure this doesn’t happen.

“Obviously I’m trying to put moral pressure. … We need to put pressure on our friends in Congress, on the [Trump] administration, to take this directly to Canada and say look, this has got to be rectified. This has got to be prevented before we have a disaster on our hands.”

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In December, U.S. Sens. Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) expressed their concern over how the decision could affect the Great Lakes.

Earlier this month, Stabenow and Peters joined U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and John Moolenaar (R-Midland) in introducing a joint bipartisan resolution to address the issue in Congress. Their measure urges President Donald Trump to work with the Canadian government to find an alternative, non-Great Lakes location to store the nuclear waste.

“This is not a simple fix if there’s a problem,” Howell said. “Unfortunately, we don’t control the entire shoreline. And we’re going to need help.”

The concurrent resolution has support from the Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the Ecology Center, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, Michigan Trout Unlimited, Michigan Lakes & Streams Association, Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, Alliance for the Great Lakes, League of Michigan Bicyclists, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the Environmental Caucus, and the Michigan Sierra Club.

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“This waste can be dangerous for up to 10,000 years post-burial,” said Sean Hammond, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council who spoke in support of Howell’s resolution. “… Putting it next to a dynamic ecosystem that supplies a lot of the world’s freshwater seems like a poor planning decision.”

State Rep. John Reilly (R-Oakland) was the only committee member to vote against the measure. In an email, he explained that it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s opposed to its intent.

“…The brief testimony today was not sufficient for me to vote with certainty on a complex issue to which we were just introduced,” Reilly wrote. “I must assume that concerned groups in Canada have discussed this with their officials, and because this resolution weighs in on another country’s policy, I would defer the matter to the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission], EPA [Environmental Protection Agency\ and Trump administration in general.”

If Howell’s resolution is adopted by the Legislature, HCR 12 would be sent to Trump, members of the Michigan congressional delegation, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Canadian officials.