Opinion | It’s time to invest in Michigan’s environment and economy

Liesl Clark is director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

A Michigan city gets the funding it needs for major upgrades to its water and sewer systems resulting in safer drinking water for residents and cleaner waterways for swimming, boating and fishing.   

The owner of an abandoned gas station redevelops it into something fun and enriching for the community, thanks to a grant for an environmental investigation of the site.

Your neighbor’s excavating business gets a big boost from a contract to clean-up contamination left by an old factory on the outskirts of town and needs to hire more workers.    

These are just some of the ways that taxpayer dollars invested through the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) benefit Michiganders where we live, work and play.  

About half of MDEQ’s budget each year flows into Michigan communities in the form of grants that support local projects that protect public health and the environment, while spurring economic growth and creating jobs for Michigan workers in the process.  

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget strengthens that MDEQ role. It’s a great opportunity for Michigan to invest in Michigan.

To take just two examples, her plan calls for roughly $10 million for MDEQ’s brownfield redevelopment program and a $120 million supplement to improve long-neglected local water infrastructure.

The water infrastructure dollars will help communities respond to contaminants such as PFAS in their water supplies and implement new state rules to protect Michigan families from lead in our drinking water. It will also support research and development of cleaner drinking water technologies.  

MDEQ’s brownfield redevelopment program helps communities clean up abandoned and/or contaminated properties and return them to productive use.

Just last month, for example, our brownfield program awarded the City of Gaylord $62,150 to search for possible contamination beneath a parking lot that was previously a car dealership and service center.

That seed money will help the city determine whether past uses contaminated the soil or groundwater. Once the environmental condition is known and any significant challenges are addressed, the property owner can move forward with plans to construct a 65,000-square foot commercial and retail space with apartments on the upper floors. That means new jobs for Gaylord residents and new customers for its downtown businesses.

Partnerships like these between MDEQ and local communities have spurred more than $4.7 billion in private investment and created 24,000 new jobs over the lifespan of the brownfield redevelopment program. In 2018, each grant and loan dollar invested by the MDEQ returned an average of $42 to our economy.

Assuming that the math holds, the governor’s proposed $10 million investment in the program during fiscal year 2020 will deliver a $420 million stimulus to the state’s economy.  

In supporting this and many other MDEQ programs like it, the governor’s budget is great for our environment, great for our health, and great for our communities. That’s something we all can - and should - get behind.

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Kevin Grand
Wed, 04/03/2019 - 7:15am

I'd much rather see the state locate the people responsible for any contamination and stick THEM with the bill for the cleanup, rather than the Michigan Taxpayer.

Some of them cannot be found because their business has closed and/or their owners have died.

Some people are easily located (cough, cough Rick Snyder) and have a lot of money that could be seized to pay for their actions.

Does the political will exist for this course of action?

Gary Lea
Wed, 04/03/2019 - 9:21am

Kevin, I have experienced similar thoughts, but this article tells of searching for possible contamination and addressing what is found. Perhaps laws and codes long ago did not prevent or sufficiently fine environmental offenders. Depending on what is found beneath this Gaylord parking lot and to what extent, I want to believe that affected soil can be removed and replaced. Mycoremediation, or using fungi-based technology to decontaminate the environment must become one more business opportunity and tool in environmental soil treatment.

Wed, 04/03/2019 - 11:18am

And of course the cities can't ever be expected to budget in their water/sewer fees the eventual upgrading and replacement of their local infrastructure (or keep from spending it elsewhere), so the state again has to grab money from everyone across the state to do it. I'm sure the voting patterns of the cities has nothing to do with this. Maybe there's proposal here to help outstate residents with their wells and septic systems costs? Sure!

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 1:23pm

Some 90% of contaminated sites the state will have to clean up. Past experience, and court decisions, have dictated current policy. The state does try to get companies to clean up the sites, but forcing them to through the courts is the last resort. As happened so many times in the past, if forced, companies, or people either file bankruptcy or just leave the state altogether, leaving the state with the problem anyway. With regard to Snyder, he shouldn't have listened to the DEQ or Flint's water consultants, the experts, when they told him the water was fine.

Ryan Leclerc
Wed, 04/03/2019 - 9:40am

Brownfield redevelopment is vital. I would like to see the state consider investing in green infrastructure to relieve the burden on storm-water systems for the percolation of water on-site rather than having it accumulate force and cause sediment and pollution to wash into waterways. If we cleared the grass and invasive shrubbery from creek-sides and riversides we could provide native plantings that could also slow water, filter pollutants, and provide habitat.

Wed, 04/03/2019 - 12:09pm

I wish Ms. Clark success in her new gig as Director of MDEQ but wish the agency would stay focused on their primary mission. That means acting as an enforcement agency for polluters, not becoming a jobs program. We have executive branch agencies that spur economic growth and work to create jobs. A pollution police agency is sufficient in and of itself. No apologies needed.
Whats next - the Michigan State Police takes on economic development tasks? Geez.

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 10:24am

I think that you're missing the point. Part of the MDEQ's mission is to educate the public about what they do. Contrary to what certain sectors of the political landscape will have you believe, environmental stewardship doesn't have to be a drain on the economy, but, in fact, can create jobs and stimulate investment in communities statewide. So, making the point in an opinion piece is spot on to the mission of the MDEQ.

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 1:15pm

Why not use the DEQ resources available to find and determine the contamination? It's what they are there for, and it is about 1/4 the cost. The rest of the money will go a lot further that way. Cities have failed to plan for water system upgrades over several decades. They need to come up with funds to take care of their own, before receiving state money to help with it. The city I live in has always replaced water and sewer lines over a certain age when road replacement is necessary and it has worked perfectly for nearly 100 years. FYI, the math never holds.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 04/07/2019 - 8:54pm

Ms. Clark says, "In 2018, each grant and loan dollar invested by the MDEQ returned an average of $42 to our economy." What an amazing rate of return! What great investments! With such stellar investments, we will all soon be rich! Hopefully, Ms. Clark will be kind enough to give us a detailed explanation of how this was done. Over what period of time did each dollar of grants and loans provide this bounty? At what rate of interest were future benefits discounted back to present value? What counted as benefits Please, give us a detailed accounting.

She gives us many instances of wonderfully beneficial and productive investments in our state's economy, but regrettably fails to tell us what returns and benefits the same resources would have yielded if invested in other projects. If, using the same assumptions and accounting methods, other investments would have yielded greater benefits, then her examples would not look so golden.