Lawmakers say new legislation will hold polluters accountable, increase transparency ⋆

On Wednesday morning, state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and state Rep. Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor) joined environmental advocates to break down the details of a newly introduced “polluter pay” package intended to bolster the state’s environmental cleanup standards. 

The long-anticipated package of bills, introduced in the House as House Bills 5241-5247 and the Senate as Senate Bills 605611 would set stricter requirements for environmental cleanups, increase transparency into cleanup sites, prevent the creation of new orphan sites and provide those impacted by pollution with options to seek justice. 

“Polluter pay has a long history here in the state of Michigan,” Irwin said.

“We’re trying to revive that history by improving our political accountability laws holding corporations accountable and making sure that the health and the beautiful environment that we have here in Michigan is something that residents can enjoy for generations and generations,” Irwin said.

What the bills would do

Senate Bill 605 and House Bill 5247 would give the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and the public more information about cleanups and polluted sites, including posting information about the polluter’s response, remediation and postclosure plans alongside, assessment reports and proof of due care compliance.

Senate Bill 606 and House Bill 5242 would require polluters to pay for land and water to be restored as much as technically feasible, meeting the most stringent standard achievable with current remediation methods. 

Senate Bill 607 and House Bill 5245 would allow EGLE to set cleanup criteria without Administrative Procedures Act rulemaking.

Senate Bill 608 and House Bill 5246 would require businesses with large amounts of potentially polluting materials to provide up-front financial assurance to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.

Senate Bill 609 and House Bill 5243 would empower the state to bring claims on behalf of the public to cover cleanup costs and damage to natural resources due to contaminants not known to be harmful when the statute of limitations for contamination claims expired.

Senate Bill 610 and House Bill 5241 will enable people exposed to hazardous substances to bring claims to polluters to cover the costs of medical monitoring for conditions linked to exposure to the contaminants. 

Senate Bill 611 and House Bill 5244 would allow people harmed by pollution to seek justice through the courts by beginning the timeframe for the statute of limitations when a spill is discovered.

While Michigan previously had strong laws centered on polluter accountability, changes to the law under GOP former Gov. John Engler in 1994 shifted the focus to managing exposure to contaminants. 

By introducing this package lawmakers are looking to give environmental regulators more tools to enforce better cleanups, Irwin said.

While current state law allows polluters to employ institutional controls to restrict access to polluted resources, these policies would prioritize cleanup of polluted sites, Irwin said. 

This package would also address concerns with “secret cleanups.”

“Many people in Michigan don’t know that there’s an element of our law that allows a polluter to never tell the state about the pollution that they’ve found and just work on it on their own,” Irwin said. 

“We need to end these secret cleanups. The neighbors have a right to know. EGLE has a right to know. The people of Michigan have a right to know,” Irwin said. 

Polluter pay bills aim to give Michigan regulators more authority, tools for environmental cleanup

According to EGLE there are between 24,000 and 26,000 contaminated sites identified in the state.  

By requiring businesses with the potential to contaminate a site to provide financial assurance to cover cleanup, rather than placing taxpayers on the hook for abandoned sites.

“We should give EGLE the authority to identify sectors that are likely to leave behind orphan sites and require them to have bonding or insurance, some sort of backstop so that the taxpayers aren’t left holding the bag and so that those neighbors have some assurance that that site could get cleaned up along the way,” Irwin said. 

The package also opens up additional legal avenues to address contamination and its impacts. 

The bills would start a new six-year clock for claims related to previously unregulated contaminants such as PFAS, and would start the clock for the statute of limitations when a site is discovered, or when it should have been discovered, Morgan said. 

Currently, the statute of limitations begins at the date when the spill occurs. 

Michiganders who are exposed to high levels of contaminants would also be able to sue the polluter for the costs of medical monitoring for conditions tied to their exposure to pollutants. The current law doesn’t provide resources for people until after they’re diagnosed with a disease which is often too late, Morgan said. 

“These bills are about protecting Michiganders and giving them the tools to hold polluters accountable for the impacts that they cause them and their families,” Morgan said. 

“If you are responsible for causing pollution, you should have to pay to clean it up. This legislation makes it clear that fencing off land and closing drinking water wells is not a substitute for removing as much pollution as possible,” Morgan said. 

During Wednesday’s press conference, members of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, West Michigan Environmental Action Council and Great Lakes Business network shared support for the package. 

Marshall Kilgore, director of engagement for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, said the bill would be beneficial in fighting environmental injustice.

State Rep. Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor) outlined additional legal avenues for citizens impacted by pollution and a press conference following the introduction of a new “polluter pay” bill package. | Kyle Davidson

Kilgore said Southeast Grand Rapids residents continue to grapple with the legacy issue of vapor intrusion, where vapor forming chemicals can migrate into overlying buildings. In extreme cases these vapors can accumulate to levels that produce near-term safety hazards, or negative health effects. 

“One of the most dangerous examples of vapor intrusion in Grand Rapids took place in the heart of the Madison Square neighborhood, of course, a predominantly Black neighborhood,” Kilgore said. 

Twenty individuals who worked in the area had to pay out of pocket to take blood tests, with a large number of them showing levels of cancer-causing chemicals in their blood that were dramatically higher than allowable levels, Kilgore said. 

People who lived in the area were displaced from their homes for weeks due to testing and remediation efforts, Kilgore said. 

“It is ridiculous, ludicrous to require a taxpayer — some of whom have been directly affected, had to pay for blood tests out of pocket, had to relocate — to pay for this environmental injustice and solve a problem they did not create,” Kilgore said. 

“We owe it to our fellow Michiganders, my neighbors, my loved ones, to hold polluters responsible. In doing so, we will protect the Great Lakes, our amazing forests, and finally, finally in 2023 show our frontline communities, communities of color, disadvantaged communities that we care, and we will protect them and uplift environmental justice,” Kilgore said. 

State Rep. Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor) and State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) take questions on a recently introduced “polluter pay” package on Oct. 25, 2023. | Kyle Davidson

authored by Kyle Davidson
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