By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
Fifty years after the Rouge River fire, which ignited the movement for environmental stewardship, politicians and experts gathered for an Environmental Town Hall to discuss positive progress and current challenges.
Spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-12th District), the gathering, held Oct. 7 at the Wyandotte Boat Club, included Sean McBrearty, campaign organizer, Clean Water Action; Jim Francis, Lake Erie basin coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources; Sally Petrella, monitoring program manager for the Friends of the Rouge; state Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township); Steve Sliver, executive director, Michigan PFAS action response team, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy; state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit); Brian Loftus, supervisor, Grosse Ile Township, who served as moderator; state Rep. Cara Clemente (D-Lincoln Park); Brian Kelly, federal on-scene coordinator, EPA Emergency Response Branch; Robert Burns, riverkeeper, Friends of the Detroit River; Susan White, refuge administrator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife; and Matt Best, co-chair, Alliance of Downriver.
Dingell said there have been many Downriver Town Hall meetings focusing on the environment because there are many issues which concern residents.
“There are a lot of things that we worry about, from McLouth Steel to the Great Lakes Initiative,” she said. “What we really want to do is just talk about the issues that are on your mind.”
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is a significant federal investment designed to target the biggest threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem and speed up the process of addressing them to restore and protect the Great Lakes.
Dingell said that 50 years ago, after the fire on the Rouge, her late husband, then-U.S.Rep. John Dingell, introduced the Clean Water Act, which was opposed throughout the country because of its cost.
“We got all of the major conservation, endangered species acts out of what happened,” Debbie Dingell said. “And the Rouge River was one of the dirtiest rivers in the country, as was the Detroit River. Those days are over, but we still have to worry about other contaminants.”
She said the meeting was to update attendees and address questions residents may have. The panelists introduced themselves and their areas of expertise and responsibility.
McBrearty said his organization, Clean Water Action, was founded to help get the Clean Water Act passed. He praised the environmental advocacy of the Dingells over the years.
He said he focuses on water infrastructure implementation of Michigan’s new lead and copper rules, as well as addressing PFAS contamination and making sure that the state is working to set the most protective standards for human health in the PFAS rule-making process.
PFAS are man-made chemicals used in the United States since the 1940s, which do not easily break down, and which persist in the environment and the human body, and can result in adverse health effects.
McBrearty said he also is focusing on oil and gas, including the aging Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, which carries oil through the Straits of Mackinac, just west of the bridge.
Next, Francis, with the DNR fisheries division, said Michigan is second in the nation for fishing tourism, second only to Florida.
“We have awesome fisheries here in the state of Michigan, and it’s important, because the fisheries contribute $2.5 billion to the state economy,” he said. “So, it is a real economic engine as well.”
Francis said fishing tourism creates about 38,000 direct jobs, so it is not just recreation – it is an economic driver.
“We have got some of the best fisheries right out the window here,” Francis said, pointing to the Detroit River. “The population estimate in Lake Erie is about 45 million walleye this year, and about 15 percent of those fish migrate right past this window every year.”
In addition to walleye, he said anglers are catching perch, white bass, muskellunge and lake sturgeon.
“Having quality recreation opportunities is important to quality of life,” Francis said. “When you are trying to attract people to businesses and communities, having good recreational opportunities is really important, and that is why we are protecting water quality. Aquatic invasive species is another major threat we are concerned about, as we continue to protect and restore habitats.”
Another advocate for water, Petrella, with Friends of the Rouge, said the watershed drains 467 square miles of land, travels through 48 communities in three counties – Wayne, Oakland, and Washtenaw – in an area that is home to 1.35 million people.
She said at one time, the Rouge was one of the most polluted rivers in the state and the country, but in recent years has become one of the most improved watersheds in the country.
Petrella said the fire on the surface of the Rouge River 50 years ago produced flames 50 feet high, and said it took 65 firefighters several hours to extinguish the blaze.
“That fire really made the community start to think, ‘Is this the way we want to treat our river?’” she said. “It set the wheels in motion for what has happened to clean up that river. So, 50 years later, not only does the river no longer catch on fire, but we are developing a water trail, a paddling trail on 27 miles of the Rouge River. It is an amazing thing to see that river from the perspective of a very small boat.”
Petrella said the Rouge was polluted for more than 100 years, and it will take more than 50 years to clean it up. She said the Rouge is still affected by what is dumped into it by industry, combined sewage overflow, storm water, illegal discharges, as well as the paved banks, which allows the water level to fluctuate rapidly. She said this causes bank erosion along the river, increasing sediment levels, which clog the gills of fish.
Petrella said the Friends of the Rouge gives people a hands-on opportunity to clean up, restore and monitor the river.
“Over our 33-plus years, we have pulled over 50,000 cubic yards of trash out of the river, 1,700 tires, 64 vehicles and 500 shopping carts,” she said. “As the river has gotten cleaner, we have done more removal of invasive species.”
Petrella said engaging youth is necessary to move the effort forward, and their educational outreach has impacted more than 98,000 students, many of whom they teach how to do water quality tests, which influences some of them to become scientists.
She said to deal with the excessive rainwater runoff into the Rouge, they have initiated rainwater gardens and green infrastructure projects to improve infiltration, so more of the storm water goes into the ground instead of running off into the river.
Petrella said fish other than carp and goldfish are starting to come back in the lower branches of the Rouge.
She said they know there are PFAS in the Rouge, and testing will begin soon to measure the levels.
“Now that we are out there paddling quite a bit, we are actually starting to get concerned about air quality along with water quality,” Petrella said. “So, over the next 50 years, we will continue our work to get this broken river cleaned up.”
Camilleri said the Downriver region is unique in that it is home to both industry and conservation.
“We have a couple of coal plants, we have some auto factories, but we have also recognized that we need to clean up our land and preserve that as well,” he said. “So, I believe that as we engage in a large conversation about climate change and the future of our planet, if we can figure this out here, how we coexist with the needs of our energy grid as well as our manufacturing for our products that we serve around the world, and still have clean air and clean water, we could be setting the stage for what the future of our planet can look like.”
Camilleri said the Legislature is also looking at the contaminates which cause algae blooms on Lake Erie.
Sliver, whose work focuses of PFAS, said he represents seven state agencies which are coordinated on a daily basis, trying to address the contaminates. The seven groups include: EGLE; the DNR; the Department of Agriculture; the Department of Public Health; the Department of Military and Veteran Affairs; the State Fire Marshal; and the Department of Transportation, which oversees commercial airports.
“We have a coordinated approach to address PFAS contamination, with the No. 1 goal of protecting public health,” he said. “Michigan is the most pro-active state, rapidly identifying and reducing exposures.
“So you will hear, and you probably have read, that Michigan has got more contamination than anybody else when it comes to PFAs, but we are looking more comprehensively than anyone else, and there are other states that are not looking, and when they start looking, they are going to find it.”
Sliver said Michigan completed its most comprehensive evaluation of its water supplies it has ever done last year.
“We are using that information to inform where we look next, to make sure that we are focused on the primary route of exposure that we know about, and that is drinking water,” he said. “The good news was that 90 percent of our supplies in the state didn’t have reportable detections of PFAS in their drink water.”
Chang spoke about legislation that would direct the fines levied against corporate polluters back to the communities which the pollution impacts, while Best discussed programs which are working to improve urban watersheds and reduce flashiness in streams and rivers impacted by stormwater runoff more quickly than they would under natural conditions.
White spoke about the spring opening of the new Downriver wildlife refuge, and the challenges to finish the visitor center project prior to the May 9 opening.
Kelly updated attendees on the Superfund cleanup occurring at the former McLouth Steel site, with a detailed description of the removal of gal-asbestos, the asbestos cladding of zinc panels, incapsulated by asphalt.
For more information, go to TheRouge.org, fws.gov/refuge/Detroit_river, and iwralliance.org.