What’s in My Water?

By John B. Swift posted 07-01-2019 15:45


When I was a kid, we lived in Muskegon for a while, which was home to the Sappi Fine Paper Mill. I clearly remember waking up many mornings to the stench of that mill, built directly upwind of the city.

Sappi was finally shut down in 2009 and is now a brownfield project that is being redeveloped as a mixed-use residential waterfront complex. They even named it Windward Pointe, as if to finally acknowledge the poor location for a smokestack belching toxins into the community.

Generally, air and water quality have improved over the last 20 years. The issue now seems to be just how long some of the chemicals we produced for so long actually take to biodegrade. A prime example is the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination found on 3M sites. The Detroit Free Press did an informative write-up on the issue, which reads like a current day version of A Civil Action. The lawsuits have started, the corporate cover-ups are coming to light, and Attorney General Nessel is gearing up to take on 3M. Perhaps the Flint water controversy has brought increased energy into addressing these issues.

While environmental regulation has been around for 50 years, I think change on the ground probably comes along only after decades of more favorable caselaw, more developed administrative procedures, and enforcement with some actual teeth. It will be interesting to see whether 3M actually ends up incurring environmental liability.

1 comment



07-02-2019 10:10

Nice post John. The things you describe are probably commonplace across Michigan, since most of Michigan's development came on the back of the industrial revolution. It's ironic that our state identity is so tied to fresh water and lakes, yet we haven't been that forward thinking in protecting those resources. 

I live in Jackson, whose commercial development clustered around the Grand River. Recently PFAS has been detected in the Grand river too, and there are a number of brownfield sites along the river. Even before PFAS was detected, the Grand water quality has been poor, with insufficient dissolved oxygen to support marine wildlife, and bacteria counts too high to allow swimming.

Michigan politicians are in a tough spot - how to act as stewards and rehabilitators of the natural resources that define the state, yet also how to be business friendly and encourage development. For too long those things have been seen as a zero-sum game. I hope that will change.