One photo showcases the legacy left by our parents, a generation that insisted on legislation that protected our water and air, endangered species, and held those who polluted with hazardous waste financially responsible for the cleanup.
The other tells the story of the legacy we are leaving our children if we fail to curb climate change and to enforce environmental legislation designed to protect our properties, our health and our dreams.
Both photos tell the story of a small cottage on Sanford Lake that has been in my husband’s family for over sixty years. It is where Rubin learned to sail, waterski, fish, love boats, and hate mosquitoes.
On May 19th, the Edenville dam collapsed after days of unprecedented rainfall. The dam, one of four privately owned by Boyce Hydro Power along the Tittabawassee River in mid-Michigan, failed federal inspection in 2018. When it broke and the contents of Wixom Lake poured into Sanford Lake, it took only two days before the pressure of the additional water overwhelmed the Sanford dam, sending another wall of water down the Tittabawassee River and into the city of Midland. The result was the equivalent of a 500-year flood.
The damage caused by one record-setting rainfall and two privately-owned dams whose owner, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, was chronically non-compliant with regulator requests to upgrade the dams, is mind-boggling. Roughly 1,000 property owners on Wixom Lake and another 1,600 on Sanford Lake watched property values plummet as the lakes disappeared over the dams, leaving debris and destruction in their wake. Throughout the Midland area, over 10,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes. While the financial cost of the flooding is unknown, the aerial photographs tell a horrifying story.
Even before the civil lawsuits began accumulating in the courts, Michigan’s governor called for an investigation. And while accountability is essential, I believe there are additional concerns.
Michigan has 2,523 dams, 1,153 regulated by federal or state agencies. Over half the regulated dams are privately owned. Should infrastructure that affects so many people be owned privately? Regardless of ownership, what should happen when a dam is not maintained, particularly with the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events caused by climate change?
The Tittabawassee River flows past a Dow Chemical plant and eventually meets the Saginaw River, continuing into Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay. Throughout the 20th century, the plant contaminated the river, air and riverbanks with a compound called dioxin. Considered a hazardous waste, dioxins can cause cancer and damage immune and reproductive systems. Under the Superfund legislation passed in 1980, Dow is responsible for cleaning up the site. As the cleanup plans were not agreed on until 2007, implementation delayed until 2012, cleanup efforts are still underway. Scientists and environmental groups are concerned the flooding could sweep the dioxins back into the floodplain and farther downstream.
In October 2019, the Government Accountability Office said the EPA should take steps to protect the 1,871 Superfund sites from the effects of climate change, including flooding from heavy rains. What is the status of those recommendations? When will they be implemented in the 89 Superfund sites in Michigan? If the EPA is not addressing this issue, what is the state doing? And what can be done to expedite these Superfund cleanups?
It was reported that flood waters were commingling with Dow-Corning’s on-site containment ponds, potentially unleashing a 26-page list of chemicals and contaminants like solvents, tars, lead and other heavy metals. And while it is too soon to tell if the spread of dioxins and these other pollutants will be another cost of the flood, homeowners have been encouraged to have private wells inspected. At a minimum, there is risk of E. coli and other pathogens contaminating the groundwater.
How many before and after photos will it take for us to make climate change a priority? To insist existing legislation be enforced?
Our legacy hinges on how we cast our ballots in November.
to Lori, Rubin's sister, who provided the photos and personalized this seemingly preventable tragedy. Fortunately, no human lives were lost. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the fish, wildlife and vegetation.
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