Water monitors funding should be permanent

Wednesday morning, in a new display of transparency and neighborliness, Imperial Oil sent out a press release warning that it was restarting its Sarnia refinery and things might look a little different across the river. Before the restart, the plant had been shut down for maintenance.

Imperial warned to expect elevated flaring — those flames when the refinery burns off excess volatile gases at the tops of its stacks — and heavier than normal steam discharges.

Wednesday evening, it sent another notice — the brilliant orange glow of massive flares pulsing through thick clouds of steam was not what plant operators had expected. An equipment failure during the restart caused the extra fireworks.

Except for the light show, there was no indication that the incident had any negative effect on air or water quality on the Michigan side of the St. Clair River. This time.

It is another warning that what Chemical Valley does is as complicated as it is potentially dangerous to the environment and all the people downwind and downstream. Even during heightened scrutiny during the restart process, dangerous things can and do go wrong with the chemical plants. That is likely true of any manufacturing process, but a malfunction in a factory that makes car parts isn’t going to spill toxins into our drinking water.

That’s why we spent $2.5 million in state and federal grants a decade ago to create a real-time monitoring network to protect water plants and users downstream from Sarnia. The system was designed to continuously monitor water as it was drawn into plants and to sound an alarm if chemical contaminants were found.

The state and federal grants that kept the system dried up in 2011. Soon after, municipalities started switching off the system to save money. Now, only Marysville has its system keeping watch. Every other plant, from Port Huron to Monroe, is depending on timely notice from Chemical Valley to save it from sucking in a chemical spill and distributing poisons to customers.

Gov. Rick Snyder, though, has signed a supplemental appropriation of $375,000 to bring the entire monitoring network back online.

There are only three problems with the offer.

It’s optional. The same water plants that chose budget savings over safety after 2011 don’t have to take the money or turn their systems back on.

It’s probably not enough.

It’s temporary. What happens when that $375,000 is gone?

This is too important to gamble with. If the state can’t fully and permanently fund the monitoring system, then municipalities must get their ratepayers to foot the bill. It is hard to imagine that any water customer would say no to protecting the quality of water delivered to his home.

— Times Herald (Port Huron)

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