It is not the best of times for Michigan's environment and the natural resources that define it, despite the efforts of a multi-million dollar state-sponsored marketing campaign that extols Michigan's 'Fresh Water' to draw tourists to the beaches in the summer of $4.00 gas.
Only a few weeks ago, Lt. Gov. John Cherry, once a committed conservationist, overrode his own DEQ by allowing an Army Corps of Engineer's designed dioxin pit to be placed in Zilwaukee & Frankenlust townships, without benefit of a slurry wall or groundwater permit.
Instead of heeding the advice of his own DEQ's research, the Lt. Governor relied upon a study paid for by The Dow Chemical Company, and done by a Dow contractor without peer-review or public comment.
The firing of EPA Region V administrator Mary Gade, a conscientious and committed civil servant, who oversaw the first removals of contaminants from our watershed in 30 years, then followed this action by Cherry. The dismissal resulted in Rep. John Dingell (D-Detroit) ordering his oversight staff to investigate the firing.
And to make matters more disconcerting, April 21st witnessed the first state permit hearing on a proposed coal-burning plant - on wetlands - in Midland; the first move in an effort to construct seven coal burning plants in Michigan, two of them in the Mid-Michigan area.
Without doubt, coal is by far the dirtiest fossil fuel. If new plants are built they will dump hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year for decades to come, resulting in documented increases in asthma & heart attacks, neurological damage from toxic mercury, and increased health costs all off-loaded onto the shoulders of the Michigan taxpayer.
But despite this genuinely depressing news and genuinely significant developments, grass-roots environmental organizations such as The Lone Tree Council and Citizens Against Chemical Contamination are at least diligently monitoring and fighting these developments.
Amazingly, both organizations are on the cusp of celebrating their 30th anniversaries. And seeing as any organization is only as formidable as the individuals comprising it, perhaps we should look and listen a little closer to the men & women that have staked a significant claim on protecting Michigan's natural resources for the past three decades.
In the Beginning
The Lone Tree Council was founded in 1978 and began with five individuals - Edna Kay-Simons, Pat Race, Terry Miller, David Bekrow and Michelle Hurd-Riddick.
"At our height we had 5,000 people show up in Midland to combat development of Consumer's Nuclear Power Plant, and a good 250 dues paying members," explains Pat Race.
"Our first activities centered around the issues of nuclear power, wetlands protection, incinerators, and chemical contamination," continues Terry Miller, 'but challenging construction of the nuclear plant was pivotal.
"Whether or not we were instrumental in the actual rejection of it, we played a significant role and for many of us that issue awakened an awareness of the problems that exist here in the Saginaw Valley," he continues.
"We are water impaired 12 out of 14 ways that you can measure water, so all of us made a choice to mobilize together after the nuclear plant issue and work to make this area a better watershed."
"We became aware that we were a political force, making a statement about the standards & quality of resources that affect all of us and as we did so, the community became aware of us," reflects Edna Kay-Simmons. "I recall our first Earth Day event, Hands Around the River, resulted in enough people showing up to ring the Saginaw River between bridges in Bay City."
One of the key issues, which Lone Tree Council has been committed to addressing for the past two decades, is that of dioxin contamination, which has largely been a football game between scientific and corporate paid for studies, volleyed between politicians and bureaucrats either too timid or reluctant to address the problem.
Isn't it easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of such tight-fisted control?
"Now is not a good time to be asking whether or not we are in limbo," admits Terry Miller. "Unfortunately, the power control of corporate America today in our political system is truly frightening."
"In terms of the dioxin slurry pit being constructed in Zilwaukee, all along we've believed it's being built in the wrong location, next to residential areas, game areas, in the flood plain, when a perfectly suitable alternative location near the old GM plant has not been pursued."
"No environmental impact statement was made, the issue went to Federal Court, the State of Michigan suggested betterments, a geological study indicated the sand lines near the pit leak out so a liner should be installed along with a slurry wall, and the DEQ set a hearing for the groundwater permit," he continues.
"The response is basically 'we'll take our $2 million and run, we don't have the money, so two weeks ago the DEQ director says 'Do these things or we'll take you to court', and then the Lt. Governor intervenes."
"The Army Corps of Engineers way is not the way to go. All the proof you need on that is found in one word: Katrina."
Regarding the firing of Mary Gade, Miller is equally dismayed. "One of the strongest supporters for Dioxin Clean-up has been the Region V EPA," notes Miller. "When the State of Michigan became reluctant to pursue clean-up with Dow, the EPA stepped in and said 'Do it! This resulted in the first time in 35 years that we saw removals of contaminants from the Tittabawassee River last summer, and Mary Gade was the woman behind it."
"Now she gets fired by the Bush Administration. This is the power of corporate America; but as least she's not going out easily. However, that's the difficulty of truly addressing environmental issues in this world today."
"It's not a happy time for the environment. Politicians and corporations are governed by the budget, but they neglect to realize that our most valuable possession is the quality of our environment and it is the State's responsibility to assure that quality and protect those resources.".
When she ran for Governor, Jennifer Granholm sat down for an interview wit The Review and said the following when asked about they Game of Delay that Gov. John Engler had been playing with dioxin clean-up in our watershed.
"The solution is simple. Dow Chemical has to clean it up once it's proven they created the contamination."
Apparently the solution is not quite as simple as Granholm stated. Isn't it easy for the founding core of Lone Tree to get jaded and cynical? More important, what keeps them going?
"Granholm said the same thing when she addressed us," smiles Pat Race. "But I think it's really all about perspective. In the case of Michigan, we're caught in a paradigm shift. Half the state is looking at the 21st Century and half is living in the 20th. I don't think we have 21st Century leadership at a legislative level because it's being compromised by the economic state of Michigan."
"Nationally, states are usually more progressive on energy issues that the federal government," interjects Miller.
"In California they are quite progressive and even have a Republican governor, but they're in better economic shape so that helped move them in a positive direction."
"We're still stuck in that 'Rust Belt' mentality, which is very frustrating. When an Administration's own regulatory system is compromised by the political system, jobs is always the excuse, which is understandable."
"But more upsetting is the fact we have 7 projected possible coal plants slated to be built in Michigan, in this age of global warming, two of them proposed in this Valley," continues Race.
"This is 19th Century thinking. Five states have put a moratorium on them. For one slated in Kansas, the governor said, "No, we're not going to have them."
"I don't think they'll go through," states Miller. "But the biggest fight will be the one slated for Hampton Township. Frankly, I've never seen more coordination among state environmental groups. Clean Water Action, The Michigan Environmental Council, Sierra Club, all the groups are working against these project sites."
Considering with the issue of Dioxin, for example, that the migratory patterns from the proposed slurry pit will easily allow the likelihood that contaminants could leach into the Lake Huron water system, why isn't there more outrage?
"Actually, among the environmental community, we've been trying to get that message out statewide," answers Miller.
"Dioxins have already been identified in Traverse City and they'll never be able to retrieve them if they get into the bay. It is a statewide issue, but difficult to get people concerned about water when they are out of work."
"But with 20 percent of the fresh water in the world at stake, this should not be taken for granted and we need to raise the level of consciousness on that."
"Several of us attended a meeting of joint scientists at a world level discussing declining water levels. Part of the scientific community is divided. One view is that declining water levels are cyclical, the other is that its not a lack of precipitation so much as an issue of evaporation created by Global Warming. Lake Superior has never been warmer in its history."
"Water is clearly our goal, yet Michigan still hasn't signed on to the Great Lakes Compact yet. The Legislature is still approving water withdrawals in plastic bottles."
"The DEQ doesn't even have a budget yet, to my knowledge, so they can't execute permit requirements. It's almost a mantra - anything the DEQ steps in to do any regulation and enforcement and basically do its job, the mantra becomes 'the DEQ is out of control'. This is a sound bite with no relevance, especially when they are the arm designed to protect valuable resources."
In many ways, the goals for the future of the Lone Tree Council are no different than when they started 30 years ago.
"We aim to hold Dow Chemical accountable for the complete clean-up of the Tittabawassee & Saginaw rivers and the watersheds around it," states Race.
"We also seek control of what goes into the dredge disposal facility and want to see alternatives pursued to using an unlined slurry pit. There are alternatives out there, such as using geo tubes."
"Then of course you have the coal issue. It's not just global warming evaporating the Great Lakes, they are getting dirtier. Corporations spends millions on ads convincing ratepayers coal is a 'clean technology, but its not. 50 pounds of mercury a year are released with coal. Coal releases nitrous oxide mixed with sulfate that creates acid ran and smog. Coal releases an estimated 6 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, and this is supposed to be their 'clean' technology."
"You already have 10,000 asthmatics living in Bay County."
Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination
Similar to the Lone Tree Council, the organization known as CACC (Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination) began 30 years ago. Beginning with core founding member Anabelle Hunt, today they enjoy a membership of 200 committed individuals.
"I was at Michigan State University at an energy conference and CACC has a small table," recalls John Wituckai, "so I decided to join. That was 25 years ago and I've been involved with them ever since."
"CACC got its start when the State of Michigan planned to spray a huge area of central Michigan with Demeron, which CACC managed to stop by going door-to-door and getting neighbors involved," explains Kay Cumbow, Chairwoman of CACC.
"We filed a lawsuit to stop the spraying and won three important items: first we stopped the spraying; second, any person slated for spraying would receive a warning, and finally, any chemical spraying is required to go to biological departments."
This was quite a victory, so we went on to organize a ban on coal plants and developed a clearing house for papers and studies on every toxic issue that surfaced," she continues.
"Today we have become more vocalized, with chapters in Alpena, Madison Heights, Freeland, and Alcona."
"One of our key focal points is the Lefarge Cement Plant in Alpena, because of the amounts of mercury they discharge."
For 25 years CACC has sponsored a Backyard Eco Conference drawing grass roots speakers from throughout the Great Lakes region along with scientists and experts from national groups.
"For me personally, one of my biggest accomplishments occurred 15 years ago when works from the Dow plant in Bay City came and told me about radioactive thorium waste being bulldozed into the Saginaw River," explains John.
"After taking Geiger counter readings and photos and pressing the issue, it took Dow two years and $17 million dollars to get all the radioactive waste out of the banks of the river they were trying to bulldoze into, so I have a feeling I'm on a 'list' somewhere."
"Our key goals now center around nuclear power plants on Lake Huron and a low-level radioactive waste dump that will service about 20 nuclear plants," he continues.
"A geological repository is being planned a couple miles from the shores of Lake Huron underground, so the same issues of leakage exist as with the slurry pit in Saginaw County."
"Nuclear waste destroys any benefit in reduction of green house gases and you have to worry about it for 10,000 years. Nukes put out a lot of hot water that will kill fish and overall, it's nasty business."
"We have witnessed progress on this issue," notes Kay, "as CACC managed to win money from the Canadian government to comment on draft guidelines for the repository, seeing as a lot of their nuclear waste is set to go there. Normally it just goes through an environmental assessment, but Bart Stupak and other activist legislators have won the push for reason."
Another focal point for CACC is the issue of toxic trains transporting chemicals.
"Years ago a study was done showing a 'worst case scenario' if chlorine tankers leached, and it devastated the entire residential area," explains John.
"Periodically, I'll walk the tracks around Bay City and found a spike sticking out of a wobbly track. People finally came and corrected it and did the job they were getting paid to do."
"On the Liberty Street Bridge I saw a train coming over and this guy jumped in a row boat to go to the center island so he could swing the bridge allowing the train to travel," relates Pat Race. "That's the level of safety we're dealing with. It was only a few minutes to spare before the train hit the point where it crossed."
Faith in the Future
""You asked earlier what keeps us going," reflects Kay, "and I would say it's the fact we all have nieces, nephews, children and grandchildren that we are about - its mainly for future generations."
"The latest issue of Mother Jones is how young college students formed a group and went from having 10 demonstrations to 1400 demonstrations a year. Young people are stepping up to the plate."
"I tell my daughters that if we didn't do this and weren't blatantly successful, at least we're an obstacle to the practice of stream rolling and 'business as usual'," reflects John.
"We help slow things down and help the good forces in the government attempt to handle issues the right way. If nothing else, we can help prevent things that have happened here from happening in other towns across the country."
"Most of us are optimistic people," concludes Terry Miller. "We grew up in the '60s and saw when can be accomplished by mobilizing. Change can occur and we're hopeful it will."
"It may not happen in our lifetime, but nobody can fault us for trying."
To join the Lone Tree Council, send $10.00 for a regular membership or $20.00 for a private membership or $100.00 for a sustaining membership to PO Box 1251, Bay City, MI 48706.
To join CACC please phone Kay Cumbow at 810-346-4513.
Lone Tree & CACC will be celebrating their 30th Anniversaries at a Banquet with noted environmentalist Dave Dempsey, with music by Victor McManemy & Tim Joseph on Sunday, June 8th The Grand, 660 W. Hampton Rd (Woodside) in Essexville. $20.00 tickets include pop or beef with buffet and cash bar. Phone 989-894-2785 for tickets or purchase them at the door.
9th February, 2024