- Margaret Mead
A view of the bay is half the pay is no joke. People give up a lot to live here. So news stories of ordinary people standing up to fight for the purity of a creek or a river or a lake are not uncommon. We live here because we love the land. We are passionately committed to keeping pollutants out of our water. But to win takes money and the weapon of information.
Which brings me to the Freedom of Information Actthe paper plasma for bringing life to environmental cases. Its a simple piece of paper that you can send to any public agency that asks for specific information. An agency might fight the release of data, but environmental information, generally, is not hard to get.
This week is Sunshine Week, a time of year when the media and activists put light on their favorite tool to seek truth. And thats the reason Im telling you this story.
The FOIA has brought life to the case of the Northport sewer, a $15 million monstrosity for a very tiny village in Leelanau County. The U.S. Census reports that there are 272 year-round homes in Northport and 119 summertime residents. One or two people live in 74 percent of the Northport homes. The sewer is scheduled to hook up to 522 homes and businesses. You do the math. Needless to say, there was a lower cost alternative that should have been chosen, especially considering that many people will have to work an entire year or more to pay for their share of the sewer.
Initially, most of us in Northport supported the concept of a sewer in order to allow the commercial district of the village to re-develop. We also wanted to ensure that septic waste would no longer leak out from the marinas drain field into Lake Michigan. However, homeowners never imagined that the village council would choose the most expensive system, per household, ever sponsored by the Michigan State Revolving Fund. The cost and size alone were shocking, but then citizensincluding members of the Leelanau Forum, an environmental groupwere outraged that the design called for a groundwater discharge into Northport Creek, a designated coldwater trout stream.
The Leelanau Forum filed a Michigan Environmental Protection Act complaint in circuit court last summer. We have argued in court that the Northport sewer project will unnecessarily pollute Northport Creek. Our experts have testified that the chosen wastewater site is largely made up of wetlands that are unsuitable for the planned groundwater discharge of 405,000 gallons per day, every day of the year.
In fact, a hydro-geologist and professional engineer specializing in wastewater treatment have submitted sworn testimony that the Northport seweras designedwill fail.
We recently received even more information. We learned that arsenic, lead, manganese and ammoniaall toxinsare contaminating the groundwater at the chosen wastewater site. The contaminants exceed the drinking water standards of the Environmental Protection Act. They originally came from leaky lagoons of the Northport hospital, which closed a few years ago.
This information was not easy to get. In the summer of 2006, we filed a FOIA request with Northport Village for any and all documents related to the sewer project. We submitted another FOIA last summer. But this specific DEQ report with contaminant levels was not given to us. Of course we didnt know that at the time. Its existence was discovered only after Chris Grobbel, an environmental expert working on our behalf, had gone to Grand Rapids to examine the files of Northports sewer engineer, Flies and Vandenbrink. The DEQ report was mentioned in a cover letter that described the baseline environmental assessment.
Our attorney, Kristyn Houle, had to personally visit the village office to make a formal request to the village for a production of the report.
The DEQ report revealed that this plume of contamination has migrated off-site onto adjacent property, into Northport Creek and then West Grand Traverse Bay.
So what does it all mean? Experts have testified in circuit court that the planned discharge of 405,000 gallons per day of sewer effluent into the wetlands of the wastewater site will exacerbate the existing contamination, damage the quality of Northport Creek, and potentially pose a public health threat.
It has taken the passion of common citizens to bring these facts to light. The Leelanau Forum will continue to seek out the truth, inform citizens, and protect the natural environment of Northport and the surrounding area.
In summary, submitting a FOIA request isnt perfect as you can see from our own experience. To be honest, its best to know what youre asking for before you ask for it. And the price of activism can be high--time and a great deal of money out of our personal pockets. So if you are someone who can help out a group of committed citizens, please give me a call at 231-386-5785.
David C. Brigham is president of the Leelanau Forum.