March 3, 2024

Michigan Needs Polluter Pay Laws

Guest Opinion
By Levi Teitel | Dec. 2, 2023

I think we can all agree: If you make a mess, you should be responsible for cleaning it up. Unfortunately, corporations in Michigan missed that day in preschool.

Despite our reputation as the Great Lakes State, Michigan is behind the curve when it comes to holding corporate polluters accountable. With more than 24,000 contaminated sites across the state, Michigan taxpayers are on the hook for cleaning these places up instead of the corporations that caused the contamination.

Corporate polluters shouldn’t get a free pass to contaminate our air, land, and water, and taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill when they do. Right now, our state legislature is considering bills—known as Polluter Pay bills—that would address this issue. The bill package, numbered HB 5241-5247 and SB 605-610, provides more transparency, oversight, and accountability for polluting industries that harm our land and water.

From 1990 until 1995, Michigan had the strongest Polluter Pay law in the country: The Michigan Environmental Response Act, which was modeled after a similar federal law. Under the law, anyone who owned or operated a contaminated site at any point in its history could be held responsible for cleanup. If they believed they didn’t cause the problem, it was up to them to prove it. But in 1995, Gov. John Engler gutted the law.

Unfortunately, the repeal of Polluter Pay in the nineties created a hole that has gotten larger and larger—a hole the public is left to deal with. Private money paying for cleanups went from $0 in 1990 to $18 million in 1994, showing the legislation does the job it’s supposed to: making corporations clean up their own messes, not taxpayers.

More than 90 percent of Michigan voters support Polluter Pay legislation according to polling from the Lake Effect newsletter in May and August of 2023. On top of being widely popular, Polluter Pay is a common sense policy that will protect the rivers, lakes, and streams in northern Michigan that we swim in and fish from.

For those of us living in Up North, it’s difficult to ignore how this lack of oversight devastates our communities. A new report from For Love of Water (FLOW) shows that northern Michigan (and all regions of the state) would benefit if the Michigan Legislature reinstates Polluter Pay.

FLOW says that in Mancelona, for instance, the former Wickes manufacturing site that operated from 1947 to 1967 is the largest trichloroethylene (TCE) plume in the entire country. (Yes—you read that right. The entire country.) Because the company went out of business many years ago, taxpayers are now coughing up the funds to clean up this “orphan site.” So far, Michigan has spent $25 million to extend water lines because people’s wells were contaminated—money that could have gone to healthcare, education, or housing.

Polluter Pay isn’t just about addressing this legacy of contamination—it’s about tackling the root of the problem as well. Earlier this year, the Sault News of Sault Ste. Marie reported that Polluter Pay laws would “ensure a more timely cleanup of existing sites and incentivize corporations operating in Michigan to prevent future pollution.”

The solution is simple: If corporations use hazardous materials, they should have to pay into a fund that covers environmental cleanup, with additional penalties if they are found to cause contamination.

We also need more accountability for companies that receive government incentives to build new plants, especially if those same companies have closed or abandoned polluted sites in the past. New corporate incentives must include requirements and financial assurances about how the companies handle contaminants to prevent another situation like Mancelona from happening again.

By ensuring that there’s money available to clean up contaminated sites, Polluter Pay will save Michigan taxpayers millions of dollars, all while protecting our Great Lakes way of life. Let’s take these corporations back to school and teach them this basic lesson about existing in society: If you make a mess, you’re responsible for cleaning it up.

Levi Teitel is the rural communications coordinator with Progress Michigan, a nonprofit communications advocacy and government watchdog group. He is currently based in Emmet County.

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