Drink up? Depends on where you live

Capital News Service

LANSING – If you’re thinking of moving in Michigan and worry about water quality, finding the perfect area might be harder than you think.

Because of  a wide variety of contaminants, pinpointing one area that has the cleanest drinking water or the worst drinking water isn’t an easy task.  

“It’s hard to say where the most issues are. There are different issues in different communities around the state,” said Sean McBrearty, a program organizer at Clean Water Action, an advocacy group..

Lead receives the most headlines but Michigan’s main drinking water contaminants include arsenic, nitrate, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and lead.

Some areas are affected worse than others, but overall, Lansing has no worries about lead and Northern Michigan enjoys fairly clean water, according to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

One of the biggest problems facing almost the entire state is the crumbling infrastructure, McBrearty said. “Michigan has more lead service lines than almost any other state.”

With around 460,000 lead service lines, many local governments are scrambling to find the money to replace them.

According to McBrearty, the only area where all lead pipes have been removed is Lansing. The Lansing Board of Water and Light finished replacing all of them in 2016.

Lansing and  Madison, Wisconsin, are the only two cities in the country to replace all of their lead service lines, according the the Board of Water and Light.

Because of the makeup of Michigan’s landscape, the state tends to have naturally higher arsenic levels in the groundwater. Arsenic is found in some bedrock, sand, gravel and soil when it’s dissolved by and absorbed into drinking water.

Some areas with the highest rate of arsenic contamination are Bad Axe, Lapeer  and southeast Genesee County. The cleanest counties include Mason, Manistee, Alpena and Mackinac.

Unlike arsenic, problems with VOCs are generally caused by human activity such as the release of industrial solvents, fuel and chemical spills, and illegal disposal of waste products. VOC levels are also much lower in the northern parts of the state than in southern Michigan, according to the DEQ.

Areas with the most VOC problems include Jackson, Battle Creek, Portage and Muskegon. DEQ data shows counties with the least problems include Montmorency, Luce, Baraga, Iron and Keweenaw.

In contrast, nitrate levels have a pattern that follows east and west, not just north and south. High levels tend to be found in West Michigan, focused on the southern and middle parts of the Lower Peninsula.

These contaminants come from livestock waste, septic tanks and drainfields, crop and lawn fertilizers, municipal wastewater sludge and natural sources, according to the DEQ.

The counties with the most serious nitrate problems include Cass, St. Joseph, Branch, Montcalm and Oceana. The east side of the state, particularly the Thumb, and the Upper Peninsula have lesser rates of nitrate contamination.

Another major factor whether the water is being pulled from the Great Lakes or from groundwater sources. Because the Great Lakes are so large, understanding the quality of the water is much easier and results in fewer  problems, according to James Clift, the policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council.

With groundwater, people need to be more wary of possible contaminants and localized threats, Clift said.

The Great Lakes Water Authority in Southeast Michigan gets most of its water from Lake Huron or the Detroit River. However, the region it serves has the most lead service lines in the state to deal with, Clift said.

Those who get their water from private wells need to be far more wary than those on municipal water, according to Clift, so it’s important to test well water not only when moving but also every two to three years.

County health departments can test for most common contaminants. For the consumer, strange smell and taste are indicators that something is wrong, Clift said.

McBrearty of Clean Water Action said some contaminants that are far harder to examine include perfluorooctane sulfonate, a VOC that’s been discovered in about 15 areas in Michigan.

“The science is not complete on how dangerous it is for human health,” McBrearty said. Only a handful of labs in the country can test for it, but the expensive testing is typically funded by the organization or company that caused the damage.

According to Clift, Michigan is working toward having its own means of testing for such contaminants.

More road money a start but not enough

Capital News Service

LANSING — Officials statewide are touting plans to increase state road funding as badly needed — although insufficient — help.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget recommendation for 2019 suggested a $175 million increase for road maintenance, and lawmakers are moving quickly in hopes of getting the money in place for the 2018 construction season.

State and county road maintenance budgets would each get a 39 percent share of the new state money with the remaining 22 percent allocated for municipalities. About $15 million of the state’s share would be used for technology updates, like hydrogen fueling stations.

This could bring relief to local governments that have seen their road conditions deteriorate through a winter of rapid weather shifts.

Cadillac has two state highways and one U.S. highway. M-115 runs through the west side of the city. M-55 used to be signed as Sunnyside Drive, a main road through the downtown area.

While M-55 has since been rerouted to follow U.S. Route 131, which runs along Cadillac’s eastern edge, Sunnyside Drive is still a state road, according to Ken Payne, the operations manager of the city’s Department of Public Works.

The conditions of these roads are “fair to bad,” with the business loop of U.S. 131 that runs through the heart of Cadillac the exception, Payne said. He said the business loop, which serves as the city’s main street, underwent major repairs as recently as 2009 and is in good shape.

Wexford County maintains M-115, while Cadillac is under a maintenance agreement with the state to take care of Sunnyside Drive and the U.S. 131 business loop.

Poor maintenance of state roads can have a negative economic and social impact on the community, Payne said.

“I don’t think anyone wants to build on a bad road,” Payne said, adding that it would deter  economic development. “Of course it also goes onto social media and Facebook — if there’s a bad spot, residents are quick to tell us.”

While local governments await a potential influx of new money, roads continue to crumble. Some officials say they worry that some governments are misusing the funding that’s already available.

An open letter from the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association claims the Isabella County Road Commission’s proposal to build a new headquarters using road funding from a $1.2 billion road-funding package passed in 2015 goes against the intent of that law.

The trade association represents construction companies, including those that do road and bridge products. The letter was posted on its website.

“Anyone can go on the roads and find out that we are not investing enough money in our roads and bridges,” said association Vice President of Government Affairs Lance Binoniemi. “If you ask those lawmakers who passed that bill back in 2015, every intention that they had was to fix our roads and bridges, not to build new buildings.

“I don’t want to suggest that Isabella County doesn’t need a new building — they very well could use a new building — I just want to make sure that we’re all being very transparent with the way we’re using our money,” he said.

The commission’s current headquarters have “dangerous working conditions,” according to Isabella County Road Commission manager Tony Casali.

He listed structural damage, a lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and lead and asbestos contamination among the problems.

Low interest rates on federal funding through the federal Rural Development program — which may rise soon — make this the best opportunity the county may have to move out of its 70-year-old building, Casali said.

“They’re telling us now if that interest rate goes up a half-percent and we wait any longer, we could potentially be paying another $750,000 in interest,” Casali said. “Is our timing right? I don’t know if the timing is ever right when you do a project like this, but over 70 years, I think it’s probably time.”

The commission estimates the project will cost about $10 million, although that was a “best guesstimate” and was likely to shrink, Casali said.

While the additional $175 million in state funds would be a boost for the condition of the roads, it is not a complete solution and represents less than 15 percent of the Department of Transportation’s total spending in 2016.

The Senate Appropriations Committee also voted down a proposal to add another $275 million to the governor’s request.

Casali said that of the $175 million, he expects Isabella County to receive around $530,000 for the 2018 construction season.

“Based on this year, that makes up about 3 percent of my total expenditures,” Casali said when asked whether that was a significant amount. “I think I’ll let you answer that question.”

Train fact: more pedestrians hit outside of from crossings

Capital News Service

LANSING — The number of pedestrian deaths involving railroads is rising.

Trains killed or injured 19 trespassers in Michigan last year, though the number of vehicle-train accidents fell.

Deaths on segments of a railway other than a designated crossing–known as “trespassing”–accounted for 63 percent of rail-related fatalities in the United States between 2005 and 2016, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. More than twice as many deaths came from trespassing than from incidents at crossings.

Neither the cumulative death toll nor individual incidents from trespassing draw the level of public attention that other train-related deaths do, such as the December 2017 derailment of an Amtrak train that killed three and injured dozens south of Tacoma, Washington.

Or a 2009 accident when an Amtrak train hit a car and killed its five passengers in Canton Township. Or a March 2017 crash in Breedsville, Van Buren County, that killed the driver and injured her son when the car didn’t yield to an oncoming freight train.

Sam Crowl, the state coordinator for Michigan Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the entirety of a railroad is private property, and no railroad will allow pedestrians because of the safety risks involved.

“The reason we call them trespassers is because they’re not allowed on railroad property,” Crowl said. “They may be a pedestrian at the designated crossing, but when they walk off, they’re trespassing.”

Of the 19 trespassers hit by trains in Michigan in 2017, 13 died, Crowl said. Some survivors lost arms and legs.

Those numbers exclude incidents considered suicides — there were five last year, he said.

Patterns emerged among the dead.

“Eight of the 13 had earbuds on,” Crowl said.

The earbud-wearers had their backs to the trains when they were hit, Crowl said, and he attributed the rising number of incidents to technology that impedes hearing and pedestrians simply not paying attention.

“You can see that they did not intend to get hit by their walk,” Crowl said, referring to cameras now fixed to most trains. “If they were standing still they might feel the vibration of the train coming.”

Operation Lifesaver, which operates a branch in every state, works to reduce the number of rail-related fatalities through presentations and safety education.

The Michigan Department of Transportation discourages anyone from walking on a railroad anywhere other than at a designated crossing, media representative Michael Frezell said.

He said taking photographs on railroad tracks is relatively popular, but unsafe.

“We strongly discourage anyone from taking pictures, or walking along railroad tracks, or playing along the tracks,” Frezell said. “We don’t want to see any fatality.”

Frezell said he would like to see an initiative similar to Toward Zero Deaths — a national strategy to eliminate traffic deaths adopted by MDOT and the Michigan State Police — regarding railroad accidents.

In 1970, there were 40 rail-related deaths in Michigan involving vehicles. In last few years, Michigan has averaged nine to 10 a year, Crowl said.

“We believe that what we do has helped to reduce that number downward,” Crowl said.

Collisions involving trains and vehicles have decreased 83 percent from 1972 to 2016, a reduction of roughly 10,000 incidents per year, according to Federal Railroad Administration statistics cited by Operation Lifesaver. But the number of trespassing deaths has grown, Crowl said.

“All of the incidents can be avoided simply by following the rules that already exist. However, we know people are in a hurry and don’t always follow the rules that exist,” Crowl said.

MI Operation Lifesaver’s advocacy involves going into as many schools and driver training classes as it can to share information. The group conducts free presentations.

Victims typically involved in trespassing-related incidents are between 18 and 38, and that age group is difficult to speak to in a traditional setting, Crowl said. The group is using social media to publicize hazards, in addition to billboards and radio ads.


Potholes plague road agencies, drivers

Capital News Service

LANSING —  If you’ve driven in Michigan within the last few weeks, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen a pothole. Actually, lots of potholes.

With the rise in temperatures and the heavy rain that has drenched the state, frozen roads are warming up, snow is melting and riverbeds are overflowing onto roads and sidewalks.

This is a huge concern for motorists and county road agencies statewide as roads with potholes proliferate.

“When the roads start thawing, particularly with the amount of rain that happened, that’s the time in which the roads are most vulnerable,” said Denise Donohue, director of the County Road Association of Michigan.

“Frost under the road can be as deep as 2 feet, it can be 3 feet deep,” Donohue said. “And so, as you can imagine, the top thaws out first because the water leaks through the existing potholes first. And so the soil right under the road right now is muddy, it’s damp.”

When heavy trucks drive, they pound the concrete against the “spongy” part under the road. The soil is still frozen, so water can’t drain away and sits in the “spongy” section, she said. “It doesn’t give much support to the asphalt, so that is where the damage occurs.”

As of Feb. 23, 47 of the state’s 83 counties have activated full or partial seasonal weight restrictions to preserve designated roads with axle-loading limits and slower maximum speeds.

Zach Russell, the communications administrator for the Ottawa County Road Commission, said that over the last few days, the number of reports the agency has received has forced the road commission’s supervisors to focus solely on potholes.

Despite the amount of resources being put into road repair, Russell said it’s difficult r to compare this season to previous ones because of the uncertainty of what March will hold.

“If March has a lot more thawing and freezing, it can cause problems, too. Even if it’s not more extreme weather than we’ve had in past years,” he said, roads are getting close to the end of their usable life..

Officials in some counties, however, are bracing for this season to be worse than normal.

“This is due to the extreme temperature swings from December to now and the high levels of moisture,” said Emily Kizer, the communications coordinator for the Washtenaw County Road Commission. “The good news: We are slowly making progress in resurfacing roads that have been underinvested in for years.”

During weeks when road problems are at a high, Kizer said Washtenaw County deploys six to eight pothole crews to tend to its roads.

“These crews are focused on different sections of paved roads, some are working on the highways and others on more rural paved roads,” she said. “They load their trucks up with cold patch, the temporary asphalt product that can be applied cold.”

According to Cindy Dingell, the public information manager for the Road Commission for Oakland County, the rapid fluctuation in temperatures have made this season unusual.

“The rapid change from freeze to thaw combined with torrential rain over the past several days has played havoc on the roads,” she said. “We are also dealing with decades of underfunding roads in Michigan which has really hampered the true cure to potholes which is reconstructing some of the worst roads.”

Dingell said that the county’s last count of pothole reports was just over 900 so far this year,  slightly higher than last year.

The Lapeer County Road Commission’s board secretary, Linette Weston, said the state’s lack of funding for transportation infrastructure is a challenge all counties face in combating potholes and other maintenance problems.

“It is a fact that we spend less per mile on road repairs than neighboring states,” she said. “Unfortunately, the funding has lacked for so long that the repairs that need to be made now are exorbitant.”

Weston advises motorists to stay alert.  

“Expect delays and defects as you make your commute. Also be aware that road workers will also be out working to fill the holes and they need space to do their job safely,” she said.