FLINT, MICHIGAN — Of all of the things on David Lossing’s mind, there’s at least one topic that seems to come up with more prevalence than others: water.
“This district is outside of Flint, everyone is aware of what’s happening,” Lossing, a candidate for Michigan’s 51st district, said late on Wednesday evening, as he honed in on one of the leading issues dogging progressives this election cycle.
Across Michigan, candidates and incumbent lawmakers on a statewide level are speaking out with increased urgency about environmental issues, with an emphasis on water. That trend could lead to what some are calling a “green wave” in November, one that could significantly alter the state.
More than a dozen competitive candidates across the state have highlighted clean drinking water in Michigan as a key part of their campaign.
That focus has centered not only on the ongoing water crisis in Flint but also on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, the toxic substances cropping up in water around the state. Enbridge Line 5, an aging pipeline that passes under the Straits of Mackinac between Lakes Huron and Michigan, also remains a source of controversy, with residents afraid a leak could contaminate the surrounding water.
Lossing, the former mayor of Linden, is currently running as a Democratic candidate in an area that includes suburbs outside of Flint. He spoke passionately with ThinkProgress about the role environmental issues have played in his campaign, emphasizing problems like the invasive species that keep cropping up in the district.
Lauded as an “environmental champion” by a number of Michigan advocates, Lossing has made these issues a priority. Above all, there is the lingering issue of clean water in a state where numerous crises have eroded public trust.
“Local government is the first line of service,” he explained, going on to critique the state government’s mishandling of the Flint water crisis. Referencing inaction by public officials, he emphasized, “That’s not the way government is supposed to work.”
Lossing said he’s not alone in his reaction to how Michigan officials have treated Flint’s problems, as well as other environmental crises throughout the state. And he noted that water is playing a growing role in the campaigns of many of his peers.
“I hear it from my colleagues that are running in different parts of the state,” he said, a sentiment with which advocates have concurred.
“We’re seeing a lot of really strong environmentalists running for office,” Mike Berkowitz, the political director for the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter, told ThinkProgress.
Environmental issues have always played a role in Michigan, which serves as a leading custodian of the Great Lakes and, along with them, one-fifth of the world’s freshwater. The state is home to thousands of lakes and breathtaking natural resources, a source of considerable pride for many residents.
That identity has taken a blow in recent years, thanks largely to the Flint water crisis. In 2014, a cost-saving measure saw the city’s water source moved from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the nearby Flint River. Failure to properly treat the water as it passed through aging pipes exposed the entire area to lead, culminating in a state of emergency declaration two years later.
By that point, more than 100,000 people had been exposed, children had grown ill, and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease had claimed a dozen lives. Four years after the crisis began, residents in Flint largely rely on filters to protect them from the water and trust in the government is virtually non-existent on all levels.
Michigan ceased providing bottled water to Flint earlier this year and the city is working to replace its service lines. Court trials over the crisis are ongoing, with at least one official facing two felony counts of involuntary manslaughter.
But clean water issues in Michigan go beyond Flint. Earlier this week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) quietly announced it would be holding a PFAS conversation in Kalamazoo on Friday, amid anger from locals over the situation.
“High amounts” of PFAS were detected in two Kalamazoo county communities in July, leading the areas to rely on bottled water from the state government. PFAS can increase the risk of cancer and liver disease and is considered highly dangerous. The issue remains ongoing and a number of other areas in Michigan have expressed concern about their own PFAS levels.
Then there’s the controversy over Line 5. The waters surrounding it are environmentally sensitive and, if the 65-year-old pipeline were to leak, drinking water and nearby fisheries could become compromised.
On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) struck a deal to build a new oil pipeline to replace Line 5, a project slated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take around a decade to construct. Environmentalists have criticized the move and several Democrats, including Lossing and gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer, have expressed wariness.
All of these issues are playing out on the campaign trail. And while eyes have been focused on key races like the fight between Whitmer and her opponent, Republican Bill Schuette, candidates for Michigan’s state legislature are also actively pushing a green agenda.
Those state candidates range from established incumbents to relative newcomers, but all have made green issues a leading component of their campaigns.
Tanya Cabala is a Democrat and well-known environmental advocate in the state facing a tight toss-up race in a swing district right on Lake Michigan. Running for the 91st district in the Michigan House of Representatives, she has championed protecting the Great Lakes. Rachel Hood, a Democratic House candidate in Grand Rapids with an extensive background in water infrastructure, is similarly facing her own tight race.
Others are more comfortable and established, like Democrat Rebekah Warren, a state senator running for state representative, who has pushed hard for clean and renewable energy.
State Representative Stephanie Chang (D) has also drawn praise for her strong environmental record as she makes a run for Michigan’s state senate. Chang represents southwest Detroit, an area that includes 48217, Michigan’s most polluted zip code and the third most polluted zip code in the United States.
“We have a lot of environmental justice issues when it comes to air pollution,” Chang told ThinkProgress on Thursday, pointing to the outsized impact such issues have on communities of color.
“Water is [also] becoming something that is a universal concern in our state,” she added, noting that apart from Flint and PFAS, “the issue of water affordability is very prevalent in Detroit” where water shutoffs have been a problem for years.
Candidates like Lossing are in for a tight battle in districts that could go either way and polling provides minimal clarity. But Chang overcame five opponents to win Michigan’s Democratic primary and her seat is seen as safe for the party, giving hope to environmental advocates hoping for a wave.
This green trend also extends to a few congressional races — Rashida Tlaib, the Democratic candidate for Detroit’s 13th district, appears set to sail to victory in November’s general election after campaigning heavily on environmental justice issues.
No matter what happens in November, issues like the water crisis will likely play a role in Michigan’s politics for many years to come — something candidates are very aware of.
“Flint is the tip of the iceberg,” said Lossing. “That could happen to any community in this state.”