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Destruction of rare wetland on hold after court issues new order in Van Buren Township case

Posted at 6:16 PM, Jan 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-06 18:16:57-05

(WXYZ) — The destruction of a rare wetland has been put on hold following a 7 Action News investigation.

RELATED: Flooded basement? Experts say loss of wetlands could be to blame

Last fall, we showed you how the state had approved a permit that would allow a landfill to be expanded into a wetland in Van Buren Township. But a new court order is now in place.

The flooding from the downpours in June showed us how quickly mother nature can ruin homes and cars.

Wetlands are one of nature’s best defenses against flooding.

But southeast Michigan has been losing wetlands to development for decades.

From 1800 to 2005, state figures show Wayne County lost at least 90% of its wetlands, Macomb lost 86%, and Oakland County lost more than 41%.

“Every time we lose wetlands – we’re just incurring a lot more economic cost on us personally when the water comes into our basement,” said Dr. Connie Boris, Wayne County Conservation District Executive Director when she spoke to the 7 Investigators last fall.

Boris has been fighting to save a rare wetland in Van Buren Township. It’s called a Wet Mesic Flatwood and Boris says it’s one of only 7 left in Michigan.

“It’s a super sponge!! It really holds it, because it has such big trees with roots, all taking up water,” said Boris.

The rare wetland is on property near I-275 that belongs to Waste Management. Back in 2019, the company asked Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to allow them to expand their Woodland Meadows landfill. Waste Management told the state they desperately needed more room at the landfill, but expanding their capacity meant filling in at least 44 acres of wetland, including about 12 acres of rare Wet Mesic Flatwoods.

In October of 2020, EGLE approved their permit.

The Wayne County Conservation District tried to challenge that decision in court. At first, they lost – with an Administrative Law Judge telling them they had no standing in the case. But the Conservation District appealed to the state’s Environmental Permit Review Commission, and late last month they made a key decision.

“This panel, which is a higher authority in EGLE, said the Conservation District does have standing. So they remanded the hearing back to the administrative law judge,” said Boris.

And that’s not all. Boris and her lawyer Gerard Mantese took Waste Management to court in Wayne County Circuit Court, and the company recently agreed to pause some of the construction at the wetland site in the northwest quarter of the property.

“This property really is a state treasure, if not a national treasure. We wanted to obtain an order that just put the brakes on everything so that the property would not be destroyed, so we can litigate the issues in court,” said Mantese.

According to this court order, Waste Management agreed not to disturb part of the wetland property for six months and even allowed Boris to visit and photograph the site.

“It’s a very unique precious wetland,” said Boris. “Some of the trees there are over 200 years old.”

Boris says she hopes to use the next six months to work with Waste Management to try to save the wetlands for good, for both flooding prevention and wildlife preservation.

“It’s part of a wildlife corridor and if you can maintain wildlife corridors, you’ve really got to do that. The species, they need breeding habitat, they need nesting habitat, they need foraging habitat and that area provides all that,” said Boris.

In a statement, James Hamman, Area Manager of Disposal Operations for Waste Management, said,

“WM has remained cooperative in these efforts and would like to clarify the Judge entered a stipulated order that permits WM to continue its landfill construction efforts in accordance with valid permits issued by EGLE on approximately three-quarters of the property. In doing so, WM agreed to temporarily halt construction efforts in the northwest quarter of the property for 6 months, which is the anticipated time for the Wayne County Circuit Court case to be resolved. As part of our approved wetland permit, WM also created and restored approximately 75 acres of new wetland and preserved approximately 25 acres of existing high-quality forested wetland and forested upland.”

Waste Management officials said the new wetland reconstruction was completed last summer.

Regarding the permit hearing, a spokesman for EGLE told us this in a written statement:

“After a hearing before the Environmental Permit Review Panel on December 1, 2021, a majority of the panel voted to reverse the Administrative Law Judge’s order dismissing the matter for lack of standing. The panel determined that Wayne County Conservation District was an “aggrieved” person under MCL 324.30319(2) and able to petition for a contested case hearing regarding Waste Management’s permit. The case was remanded to the Administrative Law Judge to hear the merits of the case and determine whether Waste Management’s permit was properly issued.”

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com.