My Story

Covering Huron County

Grass Roots Environmental Issues

By James Donahue

The politics of Huron County, Michigan, were about as active as I can remember in all of my years as a news reporter. And nearly problem seemed to revolve around environmental issues.

State inspections uncovered high levels of arsenic in the ground water throughout the area. Just about every city and town was under an order to either build expensive water treatment facilities or find a way to draw water from nearby Lake Huron. Consequently, a master plan was being worked out to build a big water treatment plant at Port Austin, at the northern tip of the county, that would serve that community and everything south to Bad Axe, the county seat.

There was a lot of state and federal money promised for what was becoming a multi-million dollar water project, and all of the local water users were facing a big hike in water rates to cover the local share. Naturally it was a hot-button issue. The village of Ubly, located south of Bad Axe, opted not to be included in the project. That town was either considering a water line to the lake from the east, or building its own treatment plant.

The politics of getting all of the communities and townships along the proposed water route to agree to participate, and accept their fair share of the cost of building the plant, the distribution system and then running and maintaining everything was an extremely complicated thing to work out. I attended a lot of meetings of the various boards, committees and sub-committees comprised of representatives from all of the participating governments and watched the plan and all of its ramifications get slowly hammered out. Before it happened, however, there were many irate shouting matches among angry citizens and the elected town and township representatives. It was grass roots government at its finest.

In addition to this, Bad Axe was notified by the state that its sewer treatment plant was out of date and that a new system had to be built. This was another costly construction project that promised to raise sewer rates for the citizens of Bad Axe and the surrounding area tapped into the city sewer system.

The farmlands throughout Huron County were being bought up by corporations and factory farms were appearing everywhere. Almost overnight we had giant barns and pens housing thousands of dairy and beef cattle, pigs and chickens. This was causing an unexpected drain on the underground water reservoirs, creating volumes of polluted run-off from livestock urine and feces that was getting into storm drains. All of the toxins were consequently feeding into local streams and then into Lake Huron.

These farms created a stench that permeated the air throughout the county and put pressure on the Road Commission to build and maintain roads capable of supporting the weight of heavy trucks that serviced such farms. Because they were battling deficit budgets, the township boards were tearing their hair. The Road Commissioners also were tearing their hair. Appeals to state legislators for controls and financial help to either build these roads or slap controls on where and how these farms could be erected went unanswered.

Testing of Lake Huron waters at the various state and county parks surrounding the county showed so much contamination that swimming was banned for much of the summer. We worried about toxins in the fish being caught in the lake as well.

Because of the rising cost of crude oil, the price of laying asphalt and maintaining the county road system was getting so costly that less and less road construction work was getting done each year. Consequently the roads were beginning to fall into poor repair.

During an interview with one of the state legislators seeking re-election to office, this man boasted to me that among his “accomplishments” was the sponsorship of a bill allowing big seed companies like Monsanto to place secret test patches of genetically modified corn, soy, wheat and other crops throughout the area, and prohibit local growers from protesting. Because of the way these crops cross-pollinate and because of the way Monsanto uses this to trap farmers into paying big fines and submit to buying only Monsanto seeds, I recognized this as a bad bill. I broke the rules that day and scolded at the politician about what he had done. He got up and stormed out of the interview.

I last saw my old friend Jim Fuhrman during those days in Bad Axe. He had lost the family farm on Filion Road, near where we both grew up. He and his wife, Sharon, went bankrupt and were forced to sell out to one of those corporate farming interests. Jim was a broken man when I last saw him. He had suffered a severe automobile wreck, lived in constant pain, and was trying to make a living selling some kind of health drink. He died not long after we left the area.