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Oil drilling in Southfield

Feb 8, 2016

A week ago I mentioned that Jordan Development, a major oil and gas exploration company based in Traverse City, wanted to drill a well on a church property in Southfield.

Southfield is a well-settled, bustling middle-class suburb of 75,000, and the idea of an oil well in such a community seemed unbelievable to some.

It seemed unbelievable to me as well, so did the idea that the city couldn’t stop it.

I reported last week that as far as I could tell, whether or not to allow the permit for the well was entirely up to the MDEQ, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which, as you may know, made some terrible mistakes in connection with the lead poisoning crisis in Flint.

One woman told me that I was a shoddy reporter, and that the city could stop it if it really wanted to, so I decided to go see Southfield’s mayor, Ken Siver.

I asked if the city could stop the drilling.

He told me, “We don’t know that,” but he is going to do everything he can to try.

The decision to grant the permit is officially up to the MDEQ, which, at the mayor’s urging, agreed to hold a public hearing on the issue Feb. 17.

The city may need every one of the thousand seats in the Southfield High School auditorium.

Residents are upset, as their Facebook page “Stop the Drilling” plainly indicates.

They’ve held numerous protests at the church site, a 110-acre parcel that for many years was a Roman Catholic friary known as Duns Scotus. Word of Faith International Christian Center, a huge congregation founded by former Republican politician Keith Butler, bought the site in 1998.

Butler, a former Detroit City Councilman who now uses the title bishop, has long been a controversial figure. When he ran for the party’s U.S. Senate nomination 10 years ago, he was attacked for living in a $1.3 million mansion in another suburb, and for pushing the several thousand members of his congregation to give large sums to the church.

Now, he wants to lease 40 acres to Jordan Development. Bishop Butler has declined to talk to the press about this, but his church website has a list of reasons they should be allowed to drill, including:

"The United States has a longstanding, constitutional right, which allows landowners to reap the benefits from their ownership of private property."

A church spokesman also told Crain’s Detroit Business that Word of Faith was enthusiastic about the drilling idea, because, “it could be a source of income or revenue.”

The mayor however, is anything but enthusiastic.

The ground formation is porous rock. There are still hundreds of homes in the area who depend on well water, and the Rouge River is only a mile away. Any ground water contamination could be disastrous.

Southfield is also the state’s one thriving, middle-class mainly African-American suburb.

Race doesn’t count for much here; community does.

Siver, who is white, won a landslide over an African-American opponent last fall. The mayor wants to spend his time concentrating on economic development, not worrying about his city being ruined by an oil spill.

But that may be up to the state. Specifically, the department that got it so wrong in Flint.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.