5 fixes for Michigan's polluted industrial legacy, and a cleaner future
- As Michigan forges toward a greener manufacturing future, it struggles to clear pollution from industry’s past
- Experts and lawmakers push for more transparency in identifying and remediating pollution
- Suggestions include more state oversight of contaminated sites, new money for cleanups, and tying public incentives to good practices
As Michigan competes for a new generation of automotive factories, experts say the state can do a better job clearing contaminants that linger from the industry’s past — and ensuring new battery and electric vehicle plants won’t blight communities in the future.
Among strategies suggested by industry experts and lawmakers: mandatory disclosure of on-site contaminants; user fees for industries prone to pollution, and assurances from companies receiving state incentives that they will rid their properties of toxic chemicals, vacant buildings and broken concrete when it comes time to sell or close.
Michigan’s industrial legacy
The latest on pollution in Michigan:
- Michigan ‘polluter pay’ bills coming, following Bridge auto industry probe
- Did auto industry pollute your Michigan town? Find out with interactive map
- Photos: See how auto companies left trail of pollution, toxins in Michigan
- As automakers win incentives for EV plants, Michigan pays for polluted past
- ‘They destroyed our little town.’ What Michigan’s auto industry left behind
- With thousands of tainted sites, Michigan Dems eye return to ‘polluter pay’
- Key findings in Bridge Michigan auto project
The cost of bad policy:
- How Bridge tallied $259M in public costs for auto industry pollution
- Small supplier, big mess: Jackson pays the price of auto industry pollution
A new road:
The proposals come as the Whitmer administration aggressively courts large-scale manufacturing and related business to the state, and as lawmakers from both parties are beginning to raise concerns about what’s being asked — or not asked — of these companies in return. Bridge Michigan has identified more than $259 million in publicly subsidized cleanups linked to the auto industry, including at plants closed or abandoned by companies now receiving incentives to build new ones.
Proposed policy reforms include:
1. End the secrecy around polluted sites
It’s difficult for regulators to address industrial pollution problems they don’t know about.
Join us for live discussion Thursday on Michigan’s industrial legacy
On Thursday, Sept. 28 at 12 noon, Bridge Michigan business editor Paula Gardner and environment reporter Kelly House will discuss their industrial legacy reporting project. Senior editor David Zeman will moderate this interactive discussion. Bring your questions!
But in Michigan, landowners who find legacy contamination on their properties are not generally required to report it or to share their plan to address it. Critics say that lack of transparency makes it easy for unscrupulous parties to avoid thorough cleanups, eventually foisting costs onto the public if they go out of business or bankrupt.
Stricter requirements exist in Wisconsin, a Midwest state with political dynamics and an industrial landscape similar to Michigan’s.
Simply put, “if you find contamination, you have to notify the department,” said Trevor Nobile, field operations director for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Remediation & Redevelopment Program.
That triggers a cleanup process, with regulators maintaining oversight at every step.
Wisconsin’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, is challenging aspects of that 1978 law, arguing the state has too much discretion over what chemicals require remediation. But proponents say the law encourages faster and better cleanups, which speeds the path to recovery for surrounding communities.
Out of 68,213 Wisconsin properties flagged for pollution, 96 percent have been remediated, Nobile said. Private parties, not taxpayers, have covered the vast majority of costs.
In Michigan, by contrast, a lack of transparency about contaminated sites makes it difficult to gauge the scope of the problem. Of the 26,000 sites known to be contaminated, roughly half fall on taxpayers to clean up.
2. Find more money for cleanups
Changes to Michigan cleanup laws in the mid-90s dramatically limited private parties’ legal liability. Lawmakers knew that would create more “orphan” sites where nobody is legally liable, so taxpayers must pay for cleanups.
But the Legislature has never given the state adequate resources to do the job.
It's expected to take billions or even tens of billions of dollars to clean up Michigan’s 13,000 orphan sites. At present rates of staffing and funding, it would take generations to get through the list.
As a result, blighted industrial sites are left to fester, threatening public health and dooming efforts to return jobs and tax revenue to the land.
“It's one thing to say we don't want to put the cost on business because we want Michigan to be affordable and a place that business wants to stay, if we agree that we as a society are going to bear those costs,” said Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonprofit public affairs research organization.
“But we’re doing neither.”
One solution is to spend more taxpayer money on cleanups — something proponents say is just as important to Michigan’s economic future as attracting new businesses to build on greenfield land.
Another is to capture more cleanup funds from pollution-prone industries and their customers. For example, Michigan imposes a 1-cent-per-gallon fee on petroleum products to help pay for cleanups of leaking underground petroleum storage tanks at gas stations and other sites.
Some Democratic lawmakers say they plan to introduce legislation this fall that would reform Michigan’s cleanup laws. They’re also interested in new ways to capture cleanup money from industry.
Business groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce say they support the current law, but are conceptually open to minor changes and providing more money for cleanups.
“Environmental safety is a great thing,” said Michael Alaimo, the chamber’s director of environmental and energy affairs. But Michigan must be careful not to “negatively affect other priorities we have for the state, economic development being an important one of them.”
3. Prioritize brownfields over undeveloped land
In fiscal year 2023, Michigan authorized more than $4 billion for business subsidies. These funds don’t have to be awarded solely to companies for specific projects. Experts say more of the funds can be used for community investments like roads and education. That makes it possible to prioritize brownfield development in cities that already have the zoning, infrastructure, utilities and workers attractive to industry. It’s a blow to them when companies receive state money to build on virgin land, said Scott Smith, city attorney for Wyoming, which borders Grand Rapids.
Wyoming has spent years — and over $300,000 — trying to attract redevelopment to a contaminated former factory that GM shed during its bankruptcy, with little help from the state.
“The state ought to determine that they're going to prioritize reuse of brownfield sites,” Smith said, “rather than throwing money on farm fields.”
This approach would get pushback from automakers who argue modern EV battery plants often need more space than traditional factories provide. Manufacturers and other business groups also contend that greenfields provide the quickest path to building new factories in a fast-paced, competitive economy.
4. Add more expectations for companies receiving economic incentives
In Michigan, business incentives given to attract manufacturing typically prioritize jobs, with little attention to the other costs or benefits a new factory might bring.
Some neighbors of these new developments – and lawmakers in Lansing – argue Michigan should be asking more in return. That includes greater assurances that a new facility won’t leave contamination behind when it eventually closes.
Residents near new EV factories being built in Delta Township, Marshall and Big Rapids told Bridge they want assurance that the companies receiving economic incentives will handle pollution. They’re concerned about things like well contamination and the risks to workers and neighbors in the event of a spill or fire, said Marshall resident Glenn Kowalske.
New Jersey and Connecticut offer a model, said Devashree Saha, director of the World Resources Institute’s US Clean Energy Economy program and author of a report making recommendations about Michigan’s EV future.
Those states recently passed laws that require companies receiving certain taxpayer subsidies to first agree to terms stipulated by the surrounding communities, such as environmental stewardship requirements.
5. Plan for when a plant closes
Michigan can avoid repeating the industrial disinvestment cycle by requiring companies to plan ahead for their new factories’ eventual closure, said Rex LaMore, director of the Michigan State University Center for Community and Economic Development.
One option, LaMore said, is to require automakers and other businesses to hold insurance policies covering the cost of dismantling obsolete factories. That would give companies a disincentive to pollute, LaMore said, because discovery of contamination would mean “your premium’s going to go up, just like a bad driver's premium.”
Michigan could borrow tactics used to regulate big box stores and landfills, said Danielle Lewinski, vice president of technical assistance at the Center for Community Progress, a Flint-based nonprofit that assists communities plagued by vacant properties.
Some communities require big box store owners to provide money at the time of construction that can be used for eventual demolition. And Michigan is among many states that require landfill owners to purchase bonds to cover ongoing maintenance after a landfill is closed.
“Given the legacy of industry in Michigan, and what has happened with the erosion of our communities,” Lewinski said, “it's a legitimate conversation to have.”
Business groups have expressed at least some openness to the concept, while also hesitation around costs. Alaimo, of the chamber, called landfill policy “a workable model,” but added that the group’s support for legislation extending that model to other industries would “depend on how it’s written.”
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