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When Michigan Said "Enough!"

Calamity at Arcadia Bluffs prompts civic backlash

August 16, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Because of all the havoc they cause, environmental calamities not only galvanize public opinion, they frequently signal the start of new periods of reform. The 1969 oil spill at Santa Barbara was a raw display of environmental negligence that prompted Congress to pass the pioneering federal statutes in the 1970s to protect water, air, and land. The 1979 evacuation of families from Love Canal introduced citizens to the links between toxic chemicals and health, and spurred passage of state and federal laws to minimize risks from hazardous wastes.

A similar reckoning is now occurring as a result of the mammoth washouts from the Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course in Manistee County that have repeatedly fouled the waters of northern Lake Michigan. Construction at Arcadia Bluffs, located on a 160-foot dune midway between Manistee and Frankfort, caused the worst coastal erosion in the Lake Michigan basin.

The public’s revulsion to the damage prompted an unusually assertive official response that may well commemorate Arcadia Bluffs for two reasons. First, for causing policy makers to aggressively respond to soil erosion, which is the state’s largest source of uncontrolled water pollution. And second, for being the place where Michigan began to return to its traditional role of leading the nation in developing and enforcing effective environmental safeguards.

Last spring, Attorney General Jennifer M. Granholm joined the Department of Environmental Quality in filing a lawsuit that called for $425,000 in fines against RVP Development of Grand Rapids, the owner of the course. It is the largest penalty ever sought in Michigan for water pollution caused by erosion, and instantly elevated what is known as "non-point" water pollution to the same level of urgency in the state’s view as toxic and fecal contamination.

Legislation also is pending in Lansing. Late last month, state Senator Ken Sikkema, a Republican from Grandville and chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs, heard testimony on his bill to strengthen Michigan’s 1972 soil erosion control law. The proposal, which includes a provision that would raise fines from a maximum of $500 to $25,000 per day, is the first undisputed effort this decade by Republican legislative leaders to strengthen a core environmental statute. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure before Thanksgiving.

Both the prosecution and the proposal for legislative reform come at a time of growing citizen support for environmental protection and stronger enforcement. A poll of 800 citizens by the Grand Rapids Press earlier this month found more than 95 percent of those asked felt government regulations were important to ensure water quality, sound sewage treatment, farm land preservation, and parks protection.

Environmental organizations across the state are feeling the new surge in support. The Michigan Environmental Council, a prominent advocate in Lansing, is now an alliance of 53 organizations, 75 percent more than in 1995. The state chapter of the Sierra Club has 17,000 members, 3,000 more than last year.

Sen. Sikkema said such numbers reflect the new influence of the environment as an electoral issue in Michigan. "People want reassurance that as we make Michigan attractive for business growth and investment, we are not ignoring the environment," he said.

Voter support for improved safeguards is largely the result of the significant scarring that has occurred in Michigan this decade and the public’s sense that it has gone on too long. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in the northern lower peninsula were needlessly carved up for natural gas development. Wetlands are being filled at a record pace. Water quality is declining, especially in the Detroit region, as rain rushes off of miles of new pavement, inundating sewage treatment plants and flooding public beaches with dangerous levels of fecal bacteria.

The calamity at Arcadia Bluffs, caused by an overzealous developer, ineffective oversight, and a state law in desperate need of strengthening, is a dreadful example of the trend. In 1997, RVP Development clear-cut at least 80 acres of forest at the edge of the high bluff that had absorbed rain and sheltered the 245-acre site from Lake Michigan’s storms. In April 1998 heavy spring rains and winds pelted the bare site, overwhelming the water retention system and unleashing a torrent that swept down a gaping ravine and into the lake.

According to state investigators, similar erosion occurred 12 more times in 1998, causing pollution and creating a peninsula in the lake. The Department of Environmental Quality was slow to act. The agency issued a short letter of warning after the first incident, and despite repeated violations of the state water quality and soil erosion control laws took more than a year to propose fines. In the meantime, RVP Development, the course’s owner, launched a reverse mining operation, with bulldozers digging out sand and transporting it on huge trucks back up the bluff to the summit.

The Attorney General and RVP are now trading legal arguments in a district court room in Manistee that, among other things, could decide whether Arcadia Bluffs will open in September. The court maneuverings, which are being closely watched, are another facet of a high-profile event that resonates with citizens and points, finally, to the end of Michigan’s decade of environmental neglect.

Keith Schneider is an environmental journalist and the executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press on August 15, 1999.



August 21, 2003

MANISTEE -- A Grand Rapids developer today agreed to pay a $125,000 fine to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for erosion that polluted Lake Michigan during rainstorms in 1998 and 1999. The fine is the largest ever collected by the state for water pollution caused by soil erosion. The settlement stems from a lawsuit brought by former Democratic Attorney General Jennifer M. Granholm on behalf of the state DEQ. The suit charged Richard Postma, a Grand Rapids-based developer, with repeatedly violating state soil erosion and clean water laws due to poor construction practices in building the 220-acre Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course along Lake Michigan and south of Arcadia. Thousands of tons of soil washed off the land during spring and summer rain storms, down an immense gully and into Lake Michigan. At the time it was the worst coastal erosion in the Lake Michigan basin and prompted  Michigan to strengthen its soil erosion control law.   

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