Policy Tracker: Huron River incidents revive calls for polluter pay laws

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Dear Michigan Climate News readers,

This edition of our monthly policy tracker explores

We aim to help keep you up-to-date on the latest state and federal government policies impacting climate and the environment in Michigan.

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– Nina at Planet Detroit

On to the policy update:


Huron River incidents revive calls for polluter pay lawshexavalent chromium spill

Recent chemical spills on the Huron River have led to calls for Michigan to renew its “polluter pay” laws to ensure polluted sites are cleaned up and municipalities aren’t left paying to manage pollution.

Ann Arbor has already paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to deal with legacy 1,4-Dioxane pollution from the Gelman site on Wagner road, according to City Councilmember Kathy Griswold. The city has also paid millions of dollars to filter out PFAS from its drinking water, which is sourced from the Huron River. Tribar Technologies in Wixom was the source of this pollution and a recent hexavalent chromium spill.

In light of these issues, it makes sense that Ann Arbor legislators have taken the lead on introducing new polluter pay laws. State Rep. Yousef Rabhi D-Ann Arbor introduced HB 4314 in 2021 to require polluters to restore land and water to a level suitable for residential use or drinking water. And State Sen. Jeff Irwin D-Ann Arbor introduced a parallel bill, SB 58, in the Senate.

Democrats would need to gain control of the Michigan Legislature in November and retain their hold on the governor’s office to pass this legislation, according to Lana Pollack, a former state senator who helped draft the state’s landmark polluter pay law in 1990. That law helped save Michigan taxpayers an estimated $100 million in cleanup costs over five years. But the legislation was soon gutted by a 1995 law signed by Governor John Engler that weakened cleanup criteria and reduced polluter liability.

Pollack told Michigan Climate News that even if Democrats win a majority, the public will have to push lawmakers to adopt new legislation because the business community will likely lobby against it. “They pushed against it the last time except that the public pushed harder,” she said.

In 1990, there was bipartisan support for a polluter pay law, and Pollack said there is still an appetite among some GOP lawmakers to act on things like protecting water, despite the party’s hard move to the right in recent years. For example, State Sen. Jon Bumstead R-Newaygo introduced a multi-billion dollar bill in 2021 to replace lead pipes and protect against PFAS contamination.

“The bottom line is everybody cares about safe water,” she said. “Everybody cares about drinking water that's not contaminated.”

She added that framing the issue around protecting taxpayers could bring in Republican support, saying it would be easy to get Michiganders to agree that it’s better to have polluters pay for cleanups than residents.

The current polluter-pay laws under discussion may not cover all that the 1990 legislation did, according to Pollack. That law included both strict cleanup criteria and liability provisions that were modeled on CERCLA or the federal Superfund law. So even if HB 4314 and SB 58 are passed, additional legislation may be needed to ensure that “polluter pay” lives up to its name, she said.

More state policy updates:

Voting rights amendment: The Michigan Supreme Court overruled a decision by the Board of State Canvassers that would have barred the Promote the Vote proposal from November’s ballot. Proposal 2 would guarantee at least nine days of early voting and require state funding for drop boxes and absentee ballot postage, among other changes. The proposal has been endorsed by environmental groups like the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter, acknowledging the link between a functioning democracy and environmental protection. (Freep, Bridge, Planet Detroit)

Put a lid on it: The state is set to receive $25 million from the U.S. Department of the Interior to seal oil and gas wells, money that was made available through the 2021 federal infrastructure law. The federal funding was intended to protect water quality, create jobs and reduce planet-warming methane emissions. (Detroit News)

School water filters: The Michigan Senate passed SB 184 and SB 185, the so-called “Filter First” bills requiring schools and childcare centers to install water filters, test filtered water regularly and inform families about water quality. In March, $50 million was set aside for water filters in the $5 billion supplemental state budget passed. If passed, these bills would make Michigan the first state in the nation to have this sort of legislation in place.

Solid waste: Michigan House Bill 6189, which would repeal part of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, has passed both chambers of the state legislature. If signed into law, the law would drop a requirement for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to give a written reason for denying a solid waste disposal area permit. The bill would also give EGLE or local health officers additional powers to issue orders regulating disposal areas.

Solar power: Michigan lawmakers are considering SB 1106 and SB 1107, which would allow communities to create “solar energy districts''. Brian VanBlarcum, Senior Tax Manager for Consumers Energy, said the move would provide a framework for solar energy development, creating a standard taxation structure that municipalities and energy companies could agree on. (MLive)

Federal policy updates:

PFAS designation: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to designate PFOA and PFOS, two common types of toxic PFAS chemicals, as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. The EPA could finalize the move in 2023, creating potentially enormous costs for polluters and accelerating cleanup efforts at sites contaminated with the so-called “forever chemicals.” (Guardian)

Refinery fire: After a fire shut down BP’s refinery in Whiting, Indiana near Chicago, the EPA issued an emergency fuel waiver to alleviate shortages. This allowed four states, including Michigan, to lift a requirement for lower volatility fuels that are sold in the summer to reduce ozone pollution. (Detroit News)

At the Michigan Public Service Commission:

Explanations needed: The Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) is calling for additional information from investor-owned utilities, including DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, to address issues with reliability and things like distributed energy sources, which could include rooftop solar. Keith Cooley, president of the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan, has criticized DTE for falling behind on maintenance while continuing to charge high rates. (Planet Detroit, Detroit News)

Public outcry: At an MPSC meeting in Detroit, residents showed up to challenge DTE Energy’s proposed rate increase of 8.8%, which could earn the utility an extra $388 million a year. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has also intervened in the case, saying in a statement that the utility “is completely unconcerned about the savings accounts of its consumers.” Under current plans many low-income neighborhoods in Detroit would wait years for improvements to their power grids, potentially leading to more blackouts and making these areas less able to host distributed power sources. (Planet Detroit)


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