Just try to overstate the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
That regulatory authorities would turn a blind eye to what can simply be described as knowingly poisoning children through lead excrescence from water pipes is an atrocity of epic proportions. And one that will play out over the years and decades. Any child who drank Flint water has been exposed to lead. The number runs close to 10,000.
Little surprise, then, that Governor Rick Snyder, who was scheduled to deliver his sixth State of the State address to Michigan Congress Tuesday evening, isn’t balking at comparisons of the mismanagement of this catastrophe to George W. Bush’s flyover mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. “It’s a disaster,” he told Ron Fournier of the National Journal, before adding that he would like to be around long enough to solve the problem.
Unsurprisingly, protestors think otherwise. So too does Democratic leadership hopeful Bernie Sanders, who has called for Snyder’s resignation.
Three years ago, the residents of Flint seemed to be smartly thinking with their pocketbooks. Why not circumvent rising costs from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) by signing on to a new pipeline from a new water authority? The savings, promised the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), would be “millions of dollars in water costs over time.”
Except said pipeline has yet to be built, and so the Flint River was tapped as a stopgap source. For more than a year and a half, residents’ complaints about the smelly, discoloured liquid that tumbled from their taps were ignored or purposely buried. It was the corrosive properties of the water that leached the lead from the pipes. It needn’t have happened.
I’m betting that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is paying close attention to all this. Why? Two words. Lake. Huron.
The flip side of the dirty water Flint River scandal is the historic reliance on water from the Great Lakes. DWSD was piping Lake Huron water to Flint and the planned KWA pipeline would do the same. The bigger picture: about 40 million Canadians and Americans rely on the Great Lakes for their drinking water.
Long before the Flint story broke, political opposition was mounting in Michigan to a plan this side of the border that would see Ontario Power Generation sink a so-called deep geological repository little more than a kilometre from the shores of Lake Huron on the edge of the Michigan Basin.
The purpose of the DGR is to store, at a depth of 680 metres, low and intermediate nuclear waste that would be transferred there from all of the province’s reactors. Shoe covers, mops and such would constitute low-level waste, while resins with radioactive properties extending into the thousands of years constitute some of the so-called intermediate waste.
When I toured the area last spring, opposition from the likes of Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee was batted away as mere vote getting. “It’s opposition without technical merit,” Jerry Keto, OPG’s vice-president of nuclear decommissioning, told me, adding that the “geological isolation” of the site renders the proximity to the lake all but irrelevant.
In May, a federal review panel submitted its environmental assessment report to then environment minister Leona Aglukkaq, having concluded that the DGR is the “preferred solution” and that the OPG site offers “highly suitable” geology. As to the lake itself, the review panel found that “the project is not likely to cause significant adverse effects on the water quality of aquatic ecosystems of Lake Huron.”
In subsequent months, other Michigan politicians joined the “No” ranks, including Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters.
The then-federal government punted the issue past the election. A decision by the Liberal government has been promised by March 1.
That’s a big file for Ms. McKenna. A central question she might be asking of the process is this: what other comparison sites in the province were drilled, risk-tested and cost assessed before concluding that the proposed site is the right one?
Advocates will argue that the municipality of Kincardine offered itself up as a host site. That is true. But it’s not an answer. They will also argue that the Flint disaster is unrelated. I’m not so sure. Politics is politics.