Permitting Pollution

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Siyo, greetings and good day.

Jesse Deer In Water here, organizer and speaker for Citizens’ Resistance At Fermi Two (CRAFT). CRAFT is an Indigenous-led, intergenerational, multi-racial, and cross-cultural grassroots organization dedicated to environmental justice and the well-being of the earth. By centering earth-honoring traditions and place based respect at the forefront of our vision we focus on nuclear safety in Michigan and the Great Lakes region. 

For those who might not know, Fermi 2 is a nuclear reactor managed by DTE.  It is located in Monroe County Michigan along the shores of Lake Erie near the border with Ohio. Operations for this particular reactor began in 1988 and were licensed to continue for 40 years at the time. That lifespan was then expanded and now the plant is authorized to operate until 2045. It should be noted that Fermi 1 was decommissioned in 1975 after a major incident at the plant almost led to a meltdown and inspired the Gil Scott-Heron song “We Almost Lost Detroit.”

CRAFT was formed in 1993 after an accident at the Fermi 2 nuclear power facility caused 1.5 million gallons of untreated radioactive water to spill into Lake Erie, a key local source of drinking water. Keep in mind, nuclear power plants aren’t only radioactive, there are many other dangerous and deadly toxins involved in the generation of nuclear power, all of which have a wide variety of impacts on our health and the health of our planet. In addition, keep in mind that DTE, the same company that has been responsible for blocking legislation that would produce cleaner climates and hiking up utility service rates without providing proper service, is at the helm of this operation. We should all be concerned. 

First, let’s make a few things clear. None of these things could happen without a system that allowed our state to let greedy corporations pollute our natural resources, a system that legally permits and provides permits for us to be poisoned. This is why CRAFT has made it a primary mission to understand the permitting process, expose it for what it is (essentially a license to kill), and closely monitor the activities involving the dumping of dangerous pollutants into our fresh waters taking place at the plant. 

The two big permits DTE needs are an energy permit and one that is regulated through what is called The National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). These permits regulate and track how much toxic waste gets into the water. In terms of the energy permit, if a plant is using water for their process and dumping it back into a water body then they have to have this permit. The NPDES program addresses water pollution by regulating discharge of pollutants and heat the waters of the United States. However, it should also be clear that these permits don’t say the pollution can’t happen, just that it’s being monitored for “acceptable levels,” something we don’t believe actually exists. For example, Fermi 2 was recently down 3 weeks due to a coolant leak. That means that on average 2 gallons per minute and at its peak 2880 gallons per day were being released into our groundwater. On top of that, the levels of radiation within the coolant are unknown 

About seven years ago we discovered that Fermi Two’s NPDES permit had expired. It had been expired for a few years and the state had been tacitly allowing them to dump into Swan Creek and Lake Erie unchecked. We raised the red flag and in no time DTE filed for a renewal and got it really quickly. At the time, though we knew this was a major issue, we really didn’t have the capacity or resources to dig deeper into how this could have happened or why it was allowed to go on for so long. 

What we did know, however, is that it allowed DTE to use 45 million gallons of water a day from Swan Creek and dump it back out into Swan Creek and Lake Erie. This would be different water than the water that went into the plant, this water would be diluted 10 to 1 with wastes of all kinds. We knew that would be 4.5 million gallons of waste a day pouring out at temperatures well above the local average. Thermal pollution is the fancy name for the heated water dumped back into our water system. It is an extreme danger to the Great Lakes Waterways and is also regulated in most cases through the  NPDES permits. However, for some reason, it is not regulated in this particular permit.

To understand how this impacts our ecosystem, think about the fact that the release of waste heat (thermal pollution) and toxins into Lake Erie and nearby Swan Creek promotes the growth of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). In addition, the killing of fish and organisms that live in this water is also an issue. “The withdrawal of cooling water removes and kills hundreds of billions of aquatic organisms from waters of the United States each year, including fish, shellfish, fish eggs, and larvae.”- This passage comes from page 31 of DTE’s permit.

For CRAFT, our work isn’t just about protecting our water but also to honor the environment and think deeply about the impact of our current actions upon future generations. The list of dangerous radioactive elements, toxins, and waste by-products that are regulated in this permit is pretty long and scary looking. So, it should be front and center in your mind, that when the nuclear power industry and utility companies like DTE say that they are producing clean energy, it is a gross misstatement which is misleading and deceptive. Investigating these permits has been revelatory in not only showing us some of the methods for dumping toxins but also the impacts from the pollution the plant creates. There is no doubt in our mind that there is no safe amount of toxins, no magic number of pollutants that will protect our earth.

As more acknowledgment and prioritization of indigenous cultures and lifeways that place emphasis on care for the environment, we see hope in an emerging consensus that the way we treat the earth will impact how it is treating us. The pathways into a future where climate, environment, justice, and liberation are centered in community care require a continued focus on this truth. Dumping of toxins regulated by governments paid and bought for by corporate monopoly for-profit utilities like DTE cannot be a part of any solution.

The Great Lakes have been described as one of the North American continents and this earth’s most distinctive natural features. They contain the largest freshwater surface in the world and are considered sacred by many Indigenous Nations and Peoples. The Great Lakes are also rimmed by twelve aging nuclear fission reactors—nine in the U.S., and three in Canada—that continuously pollute this fresh water with their heat and wastewater. All these facilities release heated water and radionuclides into the Great Lakes during normal operations; all pose the risk of accidental radiation releases to air, water, and soil; and none have a plan for safe, long-term disposal of their spent nuclear fuel. If we are truly looking at solving climate issues and protecting the health of our waters, lands, and communities we are going to have to go deeper than carbon. It’s gonna have to include protecting the waters from poison.

Right now, we are asking anyone who cares about protecting one of the most essential elements needed for the survival of all species on this planet, our water, to join us and help take action. We have been working with professors and students in environmental law schools and connecting with nationwide networks of climate and water protectors to help us unpack the bureaucracy surrounding their legalization and the jargon that fill the pages of these permits, making them often hard to understand for the average person. We want to make understanding how to protect our earth, how to actually speak back to the “powers that be,” and how to advocate for an earth that doesn’t get a vote, a manageable and doable process. We welcome all who would answer this call. 


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