Sunday, March 7, 2010

Message to neighbors of Michigan's 4,000 orphan contaminated sites: Sorry, you're on your own

Our state used to be pretty good at keeping tabs on places where abandoned industrial contamination poisoned the water and soil. When nasty stuff moved toward residential wells, a solution was found before people got sick. If toxic stuff headed for an unpolluted stream or lake, a strategy was created to  avoid a disaster.

Not any longer.

As this excellent package of stories by the Detroit News’ Jim Lynch chronicles, there are more than 4,000 such sites and no money left to monitor the pollution, much less clean it up:

These are sites where the polluters are long gone – bankrupt, dead, or untraceable. Society can pitch in to address the problems. Or we can simply write off the land, water and neighbors affected by each of these sites as expendable.

As the stories illustrate, the damage isn’t just to the environment, but to public health, economic prosperity and property values.

Even in this dismal economic climate, you would think that managing this problem would be considered a core government service, but it’s not.

No, Michigan lawmakers have been busy slashing the general fund budget of the agency that oversees these problems 75 percent in the last eight years – and there are plenty of lawmakers who wanted to take more.

In a sidebar to the News’ main story, a fellow from the Michigan Manufacturers Association suggests that the problem is a result of red tape. Presumably, if we just get the bureaucrats out of the way, things will be fine. Never mind about funding the program.

Meanwhile, contaminated plumes of groundwater are moving toward - and already have - poisoned drinking water wells. Others have, or soon will, reach unpolluted streams, lakes and ponds.

You can probably find a site near you on the News’ interactive map of some selected sites:

This year, we’ve got candidates for governor and for state legislative offices running for election. It would be a fine time to ask them whether they consider toxic cleanup of such “orphan” sites an essential function of government, and if so how they intend to restore funding for it.


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