GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A lifetime of taking in Michigan’s pristine wilderness coupled with a calling to protect it has led one woman into the research field, analyzing the division in why some people care about environmental issues and others don’t.
Colleen Linn is working toward her doctorate from Wayne State University, studying the threats to Michigan’s groundwater. The Upper Peninsula native said this path in life just makes sense.
“I grew up, as you do in Michigan, going to Lake Superior, going fishing, spending a lot of time in nature,” Linn told News 8. “My grandfather was a biologist. He dedicated his life to researching Isle Royale and furthering conservation efforts out there. He worked for the parks service for a long time. And then my other grandfather was your classic Yooper: fisherman, hunter, everything.”
But more than that, Linn said the mounting threats to Michigan’s environment have compelled her to learn more and to put her voice to work.
“The most important thing that we can do is protect our environment. So that people remain healthy and that they’re able to engage with nature in the way that they want to,” Linn said.
The lifelong Michigander graduated from Michigan Technological University with a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. After graduation, she took a job with Clean Water Action, a nationwide grassroots organization dedicated to keeping people safe by protecting the environment.
“No one should get sick because they drink water from their tap. No one should be afraid to eat a fish from the Great Lakes,” Linn said. “The thought of that happening to people is upsetting to me as someone who has grown up here. So I think the most important thing we can do is protect our environment.”
Linn worked as a campaigner, knocking on doors every day and talking to people about specific environmental issues. She called the job “tedious” and “tolling” but also a “formative experience.”
“It really puts in a perspective how democracy works. It’s a very gritty process and you have to be willing to do the work to make it work,” Linn said. “It’s taking the time to talk to somebody, talk to people one at a time about issues that are important.”
That’s when Linn’s roots as an anthropologist came roaring back.
“It was really vital for me to understand why some people are passionate about environmental protections and other people didn’t care about them at all. I saw those two camps and after I while I really just wanted to study why we as a culture have these different views,” she said.
After holding countless discussions with people across Michigan, Linn said she has encountered some strange arguments.
“One of the biggest campaigns I was working on had to deal with coal-fired power plants. We wanted to reduce their presence in the state and so the alternative to coal-fired power plants is renewable energy sources: wind and solar,” Linn told News 8. “I really couldn’t believe that people were upset about the idea of wind turbines (because they are) ugly. That was a main argument. They didn’t want them present because of the way they look. And contrast that with a coal-fired power plant along the water. Those don’t look that great, either.”
She continued: “So here’s an alternative energy source that could solve or help solve a lot of our problems. We just have to get rid of this thing that we’re still holding on to. It’s just that the arguments sometimes didn’t really line up or make sense. Obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than that. But moments like that were kind of confusing because it’s not like the thing we have now is so great. We’re just trying to move forward.”
Linn joined Wayne State University’s T-RUST program on urban sustainability, graduating with her master’s degree in 2018. It was a time when communities across Michigan had several problems obtaining clean water: lead contamination in Flint, water shutoffs in Detroit and the emerging understanding of PFAS pollution.
Her next steps will focus on Michigan’s groundwater and the role it plays in the environment.
“Groundwater has been used as a source for drinking water in the state, but it has also been used as kind of a sink for toxic dumping, especially before we had a lot of the environmental regulations that came about in the later 20th century,” Linn said. “So my interest is how is Michigan taking care of its water resources, specifically groundwater? The ways that Michigan is taking care of groundwater, how is it affecting people’s lives?”
While PFAS — or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of man-made chemicals often used for waterproofing and found in a huge number of products from Scotchard to Teflon to firefighting foam — are a major concern, it’s not the only threat.
“We have failing septic tanks across the state, as well. We have agricultural runoff that threatens the vitality of our groundwater. We also have groundwater withdrawal happening in the state as well, private companies profiting off of that,” Linn said.
While it’s not the only threat, Linn said it is wide-ranging.
“I think the threats to our groundwater are pretty prolific. I don’t want to say that one is worse than the other, but I think what makes the PFAS issue so unique is the ubiquity of it,” Linn said. “It’s everywhere. And it’s not just in our water. It’s in our soil, food consumer products, as well. And it’s invisible. You can’t pour a glass of water from your tap and see that there’s PFAS in it. When Flint and Benton Harbor were dealing with these lead issues, you can physically see the water quality and be able to make a judgement. There’s no sensory mechanism for us to know that we’re being exposed to PFAS.”