Editorial Roundup: Michigan

Traverse City Record-Eagle. Nov. 14, 2021.

Editorial: Lingering lead water lines are a nationwide problem

Just because we can’t see something, doesn’t mean it won’t hurt us.

It seems we find ourselves relearning that lesson collectively time and again these days as the inventions we relied upon to accelerate into modern life now have come back to haunt us.

Think about what we’re now learning about PFAS chemicals that now lace our groundwater in many places and cause a bevy of health problems when we drink them in contaminated tap water. Those chemicals were integral in waterproofing processes, nonstick cookware and foam that effectively extinguishes chemical fires.

Similarly, albeit several decades ago, our nation had a reckoning with its past use and dependence upon lead in a massive number of products, including gasoline, paint and drinking water pipes. The former were taken off the market by the late part of the last century, although lead paint lingers in many homes in the U.S. — it’s presence must be disclosed to renters or buyers.

The latter, on the other hand, were banned in 1986 yet water continues to flow through millions of them nationwide, generating a persistent risk of lead exposure to tens of millions of Americans. Those lead hookup pipes were allowed to remain connecting homes to water mains despite the known risk of damage, especially to children, caused by drinking lead-laced water.

Worse, even in the most proactive states like Michigan, nobody has an accurate count of lead water pipes still in use.

That lurking public health menace erupted into the national spotlight in 2014 when officials in Flint changed their water supply, failed to compensate for a change in water pH levels, and sent a gush of lead through taps citywide. That catastrophe and the continuing fallout drew important attention to lead pipes buried, forgotten and still flowing water into homes in our country.

At that moment — 38 years after they were banned — lead service lines landed in the policymaking spotlight. Lawmakers and experts pushed important new requirements for community water systems and set deadlines for lead pipes to be removed and replaced.

Seven years later, the issue erupted once again as we learned residents in Benton Harbor have been drinking lead-laced water unabated for years.

Then, a few weeks ago, we learned of a high lead result returned in a recent water test in Beulah. That announcement, coupled with the Flint-scale disaster unfolding in Benton Harbor, compelled us to ask how many lead service lines still are in use in the Grand Traverse region.

We already knew from years of reporting that the City of Traverse City had removed about 100 lead service lines officials were able to locate as the Flint water crisis unfolded.

Yet we knew little about the dozens of other community and municipal water systems dotting our region. Sure, we knew where they are located because system managers every two years report results of lead and copper tests to the state. But operators aren’t required to provide the state an official count of lead lines in the ground until 2025.

So, we made some calls.

What we found isn’t surprising, but it also isn’t comforting. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of lead service lines still in use in cities, towns and villages across our region. Some municipal water managers could rattle off exactly how many. Others simply aren’t sure, although their most recent water test results show traces of lead.

Some contend — probably accurately — that a well managed water system, even with lead lines present, won’t contaminate drinking water in our homes. They also accurately point out that the costs to swiftly excise the old lead lines is insurmountable in most places.

Some are proactively seeking grants to help fund replacement. Others are taking their time and replacing those aging lines at a rate of 5 percent each year, according to a relatively recent regulatory change. At that rate, many households in our region still will be drinking water through lead lines until 2040 or later.

In the meantime, requirements that water system operators test for lead and copper in a small number of homes only once each two years seems inadequate. It’s almost inconceivable that water conditioning doesn’t fluctuate with demand, elevating risk that lead will erode into homes.

That’s why we all should take steps to protect ourselves and our families. If possible, have our own water tested. Ask water system officials if our hookup is lead. And use home filters for any water for drinking or cooking.

It took decades to create this catastrophe, and it will take decades more to solve it. In the meantime, knowing the risks we face is imperative.

Because what we don’t know can and will hurt us.

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Detroit News. Nov. 10, 2021.

Editorial: Driver refunds prove reforms are working

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently advocated for giving Michigan drivers refunds from a $5 billion surplus held by the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association, and it appears this will happen. The refund is welcome news, and an indication that auto insurance reforms are working.

Residents are reaping the benefit of 2019 bipartisan reforms to the state’s notorious no-fault insurance requirements that have lowered the price of insurance premiums and medical costs associated with auto accidents. For too long, Michigan drivers paid the highest insurance rates in the country — and not by a little. This made coverage unaffordable for many motorists, especially in Detroit.

“It is great news that the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association has swiftly taken action in response to my letter this week to begin the process of issuing refund checks to help drive down the costs and produce savings for Michiganders with auto insurance,” Whitmer said last week.

The law already stipulates that refunds were possible following an audit in 2022, so Whitmer appears to be jumping the gun a little, and she’s gotten some criticism for that. But the bottom line is that drivers are saving money, and that’s worth celebrating. The amount of the checks is still unknown.

“Delivering real savings like this to Michigan drivers is the entire reason we fixed the state’s broken auto insurance system in 2019,” said House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Levering, in a statement. “We wrote this law to include an automatic refund next year, and I’m glad our reforms have produced large enough savings for the MCCA to act immediately and return that money to the people even sooner.”

The Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association, a state-created nonprofit that reimburses insurers for claims above a certain threshold, should still ensure refunds are based on a financially sound analysis. The MCCA receives its funding directly from drivers via annual assessments.

Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, chairwoman of the Insurance and Banking Committee, says the law as written would have likely triggered refunds around the time Whitmer called for them. She also cautions against the governor or Legislature interfering with the MCCA’s decision-making process.

“I believe it would have taken place exactly when it did, regardless of the governor’s request,” Theis says.

Whitmer may have pushed for the refunds to deflect some of the blame she’s gotten recently from survivors of catastrophic accidents, who want to modify the reforms to reclaim former benefits. The law caps reimbursements to medical providers, and has led to changes in the care for these individuals.

While lawmakers may want to revisit that aspect of the law, they should hold firm on most reimbursement caps as well as giving motorists a choice in what kind of personal injury protection coverage they want. It’s these changes that have driven most of the savings.

Michiganians deserve this refund, and we’re glad to see some additional proof that the reforms are indeed lowering the burden of driving in this state.

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Alpena News. Nov. 13, 2021.

Editorial: Mail-in voting changes politics (a bit)

We were disappointed to learn from News staff writer Steve Schulwitz that only 17% of residents voted in the Alpena Municipal Council election last week.

As we’ve written before, local government affects the day-to-day lives of Americans more directly than any other local government, yet municipal elections persistently have the lowest turnout. Alpena’s turnout last week actually ranked pretty high, with some major cities posting turnout in the single-digit percentages.

That turnout has to change, and we urge city leaders across the region to do more to encourage more residents to turn out.

But another figure from Schulwitz’s recent reporting caught our eye: 58% of voters last week voted absentee. More than twice as many voters cast ballots through the mail last week than in the last Municipal Council election in 2019.

The popularity of mail-in voting changes the dynamics of elections, primarily because absentee voters can cast their ballots far earlier. For last week’s election, absentee ballots were available starting Sept. 23 — a full 40 days before Election Day.

That means candidates have to start knocking doors sooner. Groups that organize candidate forums and debates have to get those events on the calendar earlier. Newspapers have to profile candidates in earlier editions. And city clerks and other officials tasked with increasing turnout have to start their work sooner.

The end game and the mechanics of politicking stays the same, but the calendar has to shift so mail-in voters can learn as much as they can before casting their ballots.

END