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Royal Oak

Debate on groundwater ordinance continues

November 26, 2013

ROYAL OAK — The City Commission is again seeking more information on an ordinance written by Shell Oil Company that would prevent water wells from being dug in an area around Lincoln Avenue and Main Street.

The City Commission voted Nov. 18 to table a vote on the ordinance until further information can be obtained about the need to pass it and information about the contamination at Lincoln and Main.

The vote was 6-0. Commissioner Mike Fournier was absent from the meeting.

The intersection was the location of a leaking underground storage tank in 1989 and 1991 while Shell Oil Company owned the gas station that caused groundwater contamination.

Shell sold the gas station in the 2000s, said City Attorney David Gillam. The oil company requested in October that the city pass the limited-area groundwater ordinance, leaving some commissioners questioning why Shell would make such a request.

The commission voted Oct. 21 to table the first reading of the ordinance and requested that both Shell’s legal team and representatives from Oakland County be present at a future meeting to answer their questions.

At the Nov. 18 meeting, Shell representatives were present, but representatives from both the county and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality were not.

The lack of a balanced presence led the commissioners to wonder if Shell was providing them with one-sided information.

The ordinance was almost dropped altogether after Commissioner Jim Rasor introduced a motion to reject the ordinance, but his motion failed to pass with a 2-4 vote. Commissioner Kyle DuBuc voted with him.

“I want to know how contaminated it is and how much of a risk it is before I let them off the hook,” Rasor said.

The others questioned whether the ordinance was necessary, considering the Oakland County Department of Health has on record that the site is contaminated and would not permit wells to be constructed there. Additionally, city ordinance bans the drilling of wells where city water is available — which Gillam said is nearly everywhere.

“We’re caught in a Catch 22,” said Commissioner Carlo Ginotti. “If we vote for this, it sounds like we are doing something great for the people of Royal Oak, but it’s a paper tiger. If we vote against it, it sounds like we don’t really care for the people and ground contamination.”

Frank Bernard, an attorney who represents Shell Oil, said in similar situations across the state that the company has either been able to clean the groundwater until it was acceptable to be used as drinking water or asked the local municipality to implement a ban on drilling in a specific area. Either tactic, Bernard said, has been used for a site to no longer be considered a potential public health hazard by MDEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In Royal Oak,  “the way to do that is to restrict putting wells in that area,” Bernard said.

Bernard said about 20 municipalities and counties have approved similar ordinances in Michigan.

Gillam added that if the ordinance was approved, it would provide the city with a “specific enforcement mechanism.”

“We wouldn’t be relying on the county or other agencies to enforce their own regulations,” Gillam said.

Ginotti said he wanted input from the county or the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality before making a decision.

“I’m still reluctant to pass an ordinance if I’m doing it in a vacuum,” Ginotti said.

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