Plainfield ups ante in suit against state

The Charter Township of Plainfield announced recently that it has expanded its suit against Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to include a claim for the full value of its water treatment plant and the cost of any removal of the water softening residuals in the Coit Avenue pit—a total sum that could exceed $20 million.

Douglas Van Essen points to the body of water in question. The bright circle near his fingertip is the lime the township deposits. This photo was taken when Plainfield Township first innitiated the lawsuit in August 2009

At the MDEQ’s specific suggestion and with its encouragement and approval, the water treatment plant was redesigned and rebuilt in the late 1980s and early 1990s to use the Coit Avenue pit for the nonhazardous lime residuals that are produced by the softening of municipal water. After 18,000 tons of the material has been deposited in the pit over the ensuing 20 years, the MDEQ changed its mind in 2009 and decided that the gravel pit was a “state lake” and insisted that the plant be redesigned and rebuilt and that all residuals in the pit be removed—a joint project that could top $20 million in cost.

After extended negotiations with the state broke down in August 2009, the township sued the MDEQ in Kent County Circuit Court, seeking to enjoin it from changing its mind in light of the township’s reliance on the MDEQ’s long-standing, previous position. The recent expansion of the suit to include a claim for damages was made by the township after the state argued that the Kent County Circuit Court could not enjoin the MDEQ, but could only award the township damages.

“We had no real choice but to sue,” noted the township’s supervisor, George Meek. “We cannot let our residents and residents in neighboring townships that rely on the plant for water absorb the totally unnecessary costs of rebuilding our plant—especially in these trying economic times. Now, because of the state’s own strategy, we have no real choice but to ask for an injunction, or in the alternative, millions of dollars from the state in damages.”

The state itself estimated that the changes it is requesting will cost each family served by the plant over $120 each year forever.

“That’s worth fighting over, especially when nothing is to be gained environmentally,” said Robert Homan, the township’s manager. “We have had environmental studies performed and, as the MDEQ itself expected in the 1980s and 1990s, there is no environmental contamination whatsoever resulting from our use of the pit. In fact, the irony is that part of the state’s argument is the pit is so aquatically healthy that it should be considered a lake.”

The township is hoping that the suit grabs the attention of the new governor, who has indicated that he wants to protect the environment and also avoid needless environmental expenses.

“We have the perfect matter for him to advance both of those goals,” said Meek, striking a hopeful note.

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