Michigan has thousands of polluted sites, and funding to clean them up is nearly gone.
Gov. Rick Snyder wants to raise $79 million annually by boosting Michigan’s relatively low fees on dumping in landfills, a proposal that would cost the average family an extra $4.75 each year.
But Snyder, who is term-limited, leaves office early next year. So what do those vying to succeed him think?
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is tracking about 7,300 contaminated sites. Some 3,000 of the polluted sites are likely “orphans,” meaning the original polluter is long gone, leaving taxpayers solely responsible for the cleanup.
One of the biggest sources for dealing with contamination has mostly dried up: the Clean Michigan Initiative, approved by voters in 1998.
Shortly before Snyder announced his proposal, Bridge Magazine asked eight candidates for governor — four Republicans and four Democrats — for their ideas. Their responses are edited for clarity and length.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley
“Lt. Gov. Calley believes cleaning up legacy pollution sites is important to continue and is ready to work with the Legislature and stakeholders to develop a long-term solution.”
State Sen. Patrick Colbeck
“Your questions involve important issues, but this stage in the campaign Patrick wants to focus on the issues voters are asking about most: jobs, taxes, roads and healthcare. Over the next six weeks, he’ll be participating in six town halls with candidates Jim Hines and Brian Calley fielding questions about all topics including environmental issues.”
Dr. Jim Hines
Doing nothing to replenish funding “would be an environmental disaster” and cost the state more in the long run, Hines said.
He would work to gain a better understanding the full scope of the problem, and scour the state budget for other possible revenue streams. Whether the answer was a budget item or another bond, “I’d be comfortable with either one.”
Attorney General Bill Schuette
Did not respond.
“We need to look at how the businesses that caused problem can play a more active role in remediating it. One of our primary objectives needs to be building a sustainable fund of at least a billion dollars to address the ongoing clean up issues. One possibility that I would strongly support is the imposing of another half percent on industrial manufacturing companies earmarked specifically for a Clean Michigan program. Once we have a fund of at least a billion dollars we can rebate any tax levied in excess of what is necessary to maintain a billion dollar reserve. The state cannot adopt a posture of not addressing these sites because Michigan’s future is inextricably tied to our water and environment.”
The state is plagued by reactive thinking, El-Sayed said, paying more to fix environmental disasters after they occur, rather than investing beforehand to prevent them.
He wants to create an infrastructure bank — covering everything from water piping to energy projects — that would incentivize private investment though low-interest loans and other financing. El-Sayed would reshape the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources “to be the regulators that they always ought to have been” and beef up enforcement, he said.
He would seek long-term investments in environmental cleanups, and to spur economic activity by redeveloping those sites.
“As a scientist, I understand the threat that these sites pose. The state allotted money to clean these sites up, and that is what should be done. Governor Snyder has shown that his interests lie not with the environment and the people but with bottom lines, corporations and the wealthy. If we were to introduce a progressive tax structure where the rich, ultra rich and corporations, who polluted these sites in the first place, pay their fair share, there would be no debate concerning pulling funds from elsewhere.”
“These sites are man-made disasters, and we must address them. We need to have the resources on hand to keep Michiganders safe – and that includes the long-term recovery efforts around the Flint Water Crisis, managing contamination sites including PFAs, and being ready to respond immediately to any unpredictable environmental disasters. We must identify a long-term funding source to support these projects and keep people safe – whether that’s a bond, a dedicated funding stream, or by making sure that the polluters pay their fair share of the long-term cleanup efforts.”