Polluter-pay laws could return under Democratic majority


Although Great Lakes tributaries may look pristine, the fish within them are often contaminated. Image: Brandon Gerig

By Andrew Roth

LANSING – Michigan could restore laws requiring polluters to pay for cleanup of contaminated land and water amid a flurry of efforts by the Legislature’s new Democratic majority to roll back decades of Republican policies.

“I would very much expect that,” said Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, the majority whip.

McMorrow added that strengthening the laws would be “instrumental to us as we think about the future of this state and what is going to attract and retain people here.”

“We’re the Great Lakes state, and we have a huge responsibility to that asset in a way that no other state in the country does,” McMorrow said.

Michigan used to have some of the strongest “polluter pay” laws in the country, but those laws were significantly narrowed under former Gov. John Engler in 1995.

“Since 1995, the number of contaminated sites in Michigan has really exploded,” said Sean McBrearty, the legislative and policy director for Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group headquartered in East Lansing.

According to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, there are over 24,000 contaminated sites in Michigan, about half of which are “orphan sites” where no responsible party still exists – meaning taxpayers will be responsible for covering the cost of cleaning those sites.

“When we look at this economically, what we’re seeing here is another unaccountable giveaway to irresponsible corporations,” McBrearty said.

“What we need this Legislature to address is to bring back our polluter pay program to ensure that the responsible corporations, not taxpayers, are on the hook for cleaning up contaminated sites moving forward.”

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, introduced a bill in 2021 to reinstate the requirement that polluters restore contaminated areas to standards for residential land use or drinking water. The bill stalled in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

But that proposal would have stopped short of fully restoring the previous law. It left out a provision that assigned “joint and several liability” to current and former owners of a contaminated site – meaning both the original polluter and anyone who acquired the mess would be responsible for cleaning it up.

“That is really the crux of the polluter pay law,” McBrearty said. “Democrats across the state, from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on down, campaigned on making polluters pay to clean up their messes instead of having that fall on taxpayers.

“Now is the perfect opportunity for them to stand up for what they promised Michigan voters,” McBrearty said.

Irwin said the provision was viewed as a “non-starter” when Republicans held the majority, but could be possible with Democrats in charge.

“Obviously, I can dust off what we had introduced in the past and put that in right away,” Irwin said, but prefers to introduce a new version of the legislation “after a new conversation around what’s possible in this new environment.”

Irwin added that discussions about what to include in the bill are ongoing, including the fact that many contamianted sites pose a public health risk.

“My sincere hope is that now, those of us in the Legislature can sit down with stakeholders, the environmental community, industry and the governor’s office to hammer out some improvements,” Irwin said.

Currently, the process of forcing a polluter to pay for cleanup must go through the legal system, which can take years to play out.

McBrearty said, “The concern is that we have such a large backlog of over 24,000 contaminated sites, located in all 83 counties across the state. Imagine the amount of time it would take, and resources, for the state to sue every company individually.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office said in a statement that while Nessel has not reviewed specific legislation, she has “long been a proponent for fairer polluter pay laws.”

“When corporations release dangerous chemicals into our air, water and soil, they should be responsible for any cleanup instead of leaving the bill to the taxpayers,” Nessel’s office said.

Andrew Roth reports for Capital News Service

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