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Risking the environment for profits

Feb 1, 2016

If anyone doubts the danger of not appropriately considering environmental hazards, they need only to consider Flint.

To try to save a little money, the state allowed thousands of people to be poisoned, with consequences that will cost us far more in money, let alone human tragedy, than continuing to spend a little more for clean water would have.

Yet, incredibly, some people still don’t seem to get it. In Monroe County’s Summerfield Township, not far from the Ohio border, local officials have been waging a lonely fight against a corporation that wanted to drill an oil injection well.

Experts saw this as extremely dangerous, because most of the area’s few thousand people depend on wells for their water. Much of the soil there is of a spongy variety called karst, which could easily lead to groundwater contamination if there were to be an accident.

The company which wanted to do the drilling has now backed off – but apparently only because the price of oil is now so cheap it didn’t make economic sense to drill for more.

When adjusted for inflation, the price of gasoline is, in fact, less than the 30 cents a gallon I remember paying in 1971. But we all know that will change, and those who would drill will be back.

Even more incredible is what is going on today in the crowded Detroit suburb of Southfield.

Several years ago, the Word of Faith International Christian Center bought a former Catholic friary on 110 acres there.

Now, to raise money, the congregation’s leader, Keith Butler, a former Detroit Councilman and unsuccessful Republican U.S. Senate candidate, wants to drill for oil on church grounds.

This has sparked a huge outcry in the neighborhood and from city officials, who are very much against the idea. But Butler sees dollar signs, as does Jordan Development, an oil exploration company located in Traverse City.

The company says they are very environmentally conscious, and in so many words, are telling residents to relax.

Jordan has applied to the MDEQ, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, for permission to drill a test well. Considering the way in which the MDEQ disgraced itself over the water in Flint, you’d like to think they’d now err on the side of safety.

But we just don’t know.

There are new tougher regulations in effect for those who would drill in heavily populated areas.

However, the restrictions only apply when there are 40 or more occupied dwellings within a quarter mile of the well. In this case, there are a few less than that, so they might get the permit to drill.

In fact, Hal Fitch, the MDEQ official in charge of oil and gas drilling, made the interesting claim that the emails his office has received were running seven to one in favor of drilling for oil in Southfield.

Mayor Ken Siver thinks the idea is outrageous, but apparently, local officials have little say.

The MDEQ plans to hold public hearings on the request February 17 at Southfield City Hall. It will be interesting to see who shows up and how residents react.

But I will, frankly, be astonished if they are in fact overwhelmingly in favor of having oil wells along Nine Mile Road.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.