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Attorney General, Lawmakers Act to Protect Great Lakes Shoreline

Granholm files suit, asks record fine

August 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Because of all the havoc they cause, environmental calamities often dramatically reshape public opinion and produce needed reforms.

The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island opened a new era of much stricter oversight for nuclear energy. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill clarified the hazards to marine ecosystems from transporting oil, and the $6 billion in fines and court-ordered settlements levied against Exxon set a precedent for future cases of environmental negligence.

A similar reckoning with the immense damage that soil erosion causes throughout Michigan now is occurring as a result of the washouts from the Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course in Manistee County that last year repeatedly fouled the waters of Lake Michigan.

Strong Measures
On April 22, Attorney General Jennifer Granholm joined the Department of Environmental Quality in filing a lawsuit against RVP Development of Grand Rapids, the owner of the course located on a 160-foot bluff midway between Manistee and Frankfort. The suit seeks a $425,000 fine for 13 separate incidents in which tons of soil laced with turf chemicals and debris washed off the denuded construction site and into the lake between April and November 1998. (See the Summer/Fall 1998 and Winter 1999 issues of the Great Lakes Bulletin.)

It is the largest fine ever sought in Michigan for water pollution caused by erosion, and instantly elevated what is known as "nonpoint" pollution to the same level of urgency in the state's view as toxic and fecal contamination.

Six weeks later, on June 9, state Senators Ken Sikkema (R-Grandville) and George A. McManus (R-Traverse City), and state Representative David C. Mead (R-Frankfort), acted on a recommendation from the Michigan Land Use Institute and introduced bills to strengthen the 1972 Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act. The proposed new laws would include raising fines from a maximum of $500, to $25,000 for each day that a violation persists. The Institute is working with lawmakers to further improve the proposal before legislative debate begins in the fall.

"Our message should be perfectly clear," said Sen. Sikkema, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee. "We are going to protect Lake Michigan and its shoreline."

From Clear-Cut to Washout
The lawmakers' action was prompted by the public's revulsion at the harm caused by Arcadia Bluffs, the DEQ's slow responsetothe problem, and the attitude of Richard Postma, RVP Development's chairman.

In 1997 RVP clear-cut at least 80 acres of forest at the edge of the 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, turning Arcadia Bluffs into the worst coastal erosion site in the Lake Michigan basin. The erosion created a peninsula in the lake and forced RVP to launch a reverse mining operation, with bulldozers digging out sand and transporting it on huge trucks back up the bluff to the summit.

The DEQ, however, 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 Mr. Postma consistently evaded responsibility. In an interview with the Grand Rapids Press last April, he called state officials "idiots, just plain stupid" and offered to "let a circuit judge tell DEQ where they can shove it."

Days later, in a two-page advertisement in the newspaper, Mr. Postma blamed the erosion on mistakes by his construction contractor, called the decision to strip away the protective forest so there would be an unimpeded view of the lake "moral and ethical," and said critics were exaggerating the damage. "We believe we have been good stewards of the land," he wrote.

A Warning
Arcadia Bluffs, which is scheduled to open in September, has emerged as a prominent symbol of corporate neglect for natural resources. It also is a warning that the high bluffs along the magnificent Lake Michigan shoreline are endangered by new developments of a scale and intensity never before seen in the region.

"The fact that this destruction occurred at all is a significant stain on Michigan's record of protecting the Great Lakes," said the Grand Rapids Press in an April editorial. "These waters and the shores along them are irreplaceable. Safeguards against their misuse must be rigorous. When they aren't, the consequences can be impossible to reverse."

CONTACTS:Gary L. Finkbeiner, Assistant Attorney General, 517-373-7540; Richard Postma, RVP Development, 616-493-7013; Ken Silfven, DEQ, 517-241-7398.

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