Channel keepers have eye on public health


DETROIT - Carl Freeman is not normally a hothead, but a teacher and scholar, a professor of botany at Wayne State University in Detroit. But these days he is livid.

The other day, when - once again - beaches on Lake St. Clair were closed because of unsafe levels of sewage in the water, Dr. Freeman went nova.

"I just find it appalling. Lake St. Clair should be the crown jewel of the Great Lakes system and we treat it like a cesspool! They've stolen it from us," he fumed.

"We've sequenced the human genome. We've made Dolly, the cloned sheep. But we can't protect our public health? We have the resources. We have the intellectual expertise - everyone knows that. All we are missing is the political will."

Now he and a few others are doing something about pollution in the lake. Two years ago, he and John Hertel, chairman of the Macomb County board of commissioners, were stymied after failing to get anybody to do anything about the lake, which supplies most of metropolitan Detroit with fish and drinking water.

"So John said, 'We need Kennedy's organization here.' " The Kennedy he meant was Robert F. Jr., son of the slain senator and an environmental activist who several years ago founded River Keepers, a private nonprofit organization dedicated to cleaning up and protecting New York City's water supply. Dr. Freeman studied the matter - and agreed.

The result was the founding of St. Clair Channel Keeper, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the vast lake by, as the group's manifesto says, "encouraging" government regulatory agencies to do their jobs.

"We like to think of ourselves as a friendly watchdog - gracious yet tenacious," Dr. Freeman said. But while they want to emphasize "collaboration over confrontation," they are willing to take the gloves off, and are now, he said, suing Macomb County over pollution in Bear Creek, which drains a vast area of Oakland and Macomb Counties.

"We are trying to get them to do the right thing, he said, "which is always a challenge."

What has so angered the channel keepers about Bear Creek is that it consistently has registered bacterial levels far in excess of what are considered safe. "Safe is 130. Bear Creek normally is in the 50,000 range. It has been over 300,000."

Whether or not his remedy is the right one, it is hard to argue that Dr. Freeman doesn't know what he is talking about. The lanky, 49-year-old Utah native has won numerous awards for community service during his 25 years on the Wayne State faculty.

Several years ago, he was appointed a charter member of the "Blue Ribbon Commission on Lake St. Clair," which was charged with coming up with a plan of action for dealing with the lake's notorious pollution.

Dr. Freeman ended up writing the plan, which led to the Legislature approving a $170 million Clean Michigan Initiative. The county was stirred to hire a special environmental prosecutor and a team of divers who have been removing illegal sewer connections from the lake, and it has successfully prosecuted some sewage plant operators.

Macomb also established a water quality board and made Dr. Freeman adviser. But he's far from satisfied. "I am appalled that the [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] and the EPA have not set a goal of developing a rapid, on-site test to tell if you have acceptable levels of bacteria in the water.

"What they do now is take a sample, culture it . . . and then tell you the next day 'well, you shouldn't have been out swimming yesterday because there was sewage in your water.' Well, that's great. Just great," he said, voice heavy with sarcasm.

"When you are I were kids, a woman went to the doctor if she thought she might be pregnant, and he took a blood sample and called her up and sai'the rabbit died.' Now what does a woman do? Buy a pregnancy test. We took something that was very expensive and mysterious and made it into a dipstick test. Why can't we have those kinds of tests for our water, to protect the public health?"

"If the government isn't going to protect the people, then people have to protect themselves," he said finally.

I left uncertain whether that was a right-or-left wing view. But I was certainly glad Carl Freeman and his channel keepers were watching over my part of the world.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.