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DAVIDSON: Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink

• Mar 7, 2019 at 3:00 PM

More than any one trait, the characteristic that defines West Michigan above any other is our love of water. From the inland lakes and streams to the majesty of our state’s namesake lake, the way of life and livelihoods of so many throughout the history of West Michigan have been dependent on and deeply tied to the presence and health of our water.

Marinas and motels, anglers and kayakers, boaters and beachgoers know that our lakes and rivers define a large part of who we are.

As young parents just finishing our training in Maine, my wife and I had our pick of locations in which to raise our infant and her future siblings. Jobs in emergency medicine and family medicine were plentiful nearly anywhere in the country, and though we were both from Michigan, neither of us were from the lakeshore. Its unique beauty drew us in and has intoxicated us from Day 1 while raising our three kids in this beautiful corner of the world.

As much as West Michigan is tied to the Big Lake, Michigan as a state has its past, present and future defined by our surrounding Great Lakes. We are home to 21 percent of the Earth’s surface fresh water. Eight out of every 10 gallons of fresh water in North America comes from the waters that surround Michigan.

For a state shaped — geographically, economically and culturally — by fresh water for millennia, what Michigan has allowed to happen to our most defining resource in recent years is nothing short of shameful.

We are the state that is home to Flint, a city of nearly 100,000 people that was poisoned four years ago when their leaders — including an unelected emergency manager who took orders from the governor at the time — and Republicans in Michigan’s Legislature ran government like a business.

To save money, Lansing Republicans switched the city’s water source from Detroit to the highly corrosive water of the Flint River, a dumping ground for cars, parts and toxic chemicals from manufacturing plants. An entire city was exposed to lead. Thousands of children drank toxic water that threatens to harm their growing brains. Water-borne Legionnaire’s disease broke out, killing 12 people and sickening 87. More than a dozen officials, including top leaders in former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, now face charges, including manslaughter.

How Michigan treats our water is a disgrace.

We are the state that has allowed Nestlé to extract 576,000 gallons of our precious resource for a mere $5,000 application fee and $200 annual reporting fee. This done despite rejection of a zoning permit for a new pumping station by Osceola Township and over 80,000 public comments in opposition to the deal. A judge from a different county trumped the zoning commission’s ruling, and the Department of Environmental Quality issued the permit in accordance with state law despite unprecedented popular opposition.

This state is home to one of the largest fresh water oil spills when Enbridge Line 6B burst in 2010, contaminating a tributary of the Kalamazoo River with more than 1 million gallons of heavy crude oil from Canadian tar sands. This is the same Enbridge that operates the controversial Line 5 through the Straits of Mackinac carrying nearly 23 million gallons of oil per day from western Canada to eastern Canada.

Again, despite massive popular opposition to the continued operation of this dangerous pipeline that has already leaked 1.13 million gallons of oil on land in the last 50 years, the Snyder administration has decided to reward Enbridge by allowing construction of a tunnel to house Line 5 under the Straits. This was a plan so controversial that it could only pass a Republican Legislature in a lame-duck session of 2018 after resounding Democratic victories in all statewide elections with each Democratic candidate including new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer opposing the continued operation of Line 5.

And closer to home here in West Michigan, we have seen some of our own “Pure Michigan” drinking water tainted with PFAS, industrial “forever” chemicals. PFAS were first reported at “toxic levels” in wells near Rockford in Kent County, then in Parchment in Kalamazoo County, and more recently in the drinking water of Robinson Elementary School in Robinson Township at levels more than twice the EPA threshold level.

The Trump administration has been completely negligent in tackling the PFAS crisis, including suppressing a study showing PFAS safety levels should be much lower than what it now is. The Trump administration has dragged its feet at every opportunity. Meanwhile, thousands of families face risks of infertility and some cancers linked to PFAS exposure.

Thankfully, Michigan still has leaders who won’t back down, including U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and Congressman Dan Kildee, who are pushing for more transparency and action. And new Gov. Whitmer is giving agencies the tools they need to begin the hard work of fixing Flint’s water system and holding those responsible accountable.

Living in the Great Lake State just miles from the only Great Lake located entirely within the United States, I and many others expected the safety and purity of our own water to be a given. Yet, for eight years, Lansing Republicans allowed money to override public health and the public good. Their neglect of our precious water indicts them.

An old poem warns us of the stupidity of the ancient mariner who killed the albatross of good fortune, only to see his crew die of thirst on the high seas: “water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” As Michiganders, we have been blessed with the resource of abundant fresh water. If we abuse this gift, we may find ourselves like the mariner’s crew, surrounded by this potential life-giving resource only to be denied its abundance.

— By Dr. Rob Davidson, Tribune community columnist

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