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Michigan Democrats unveil push for tougher polluter pay laws

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, at the podium
Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, led the unveiling of a series of so-called Polluter Pay bills on Wednesday at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing. (Bridge photo by Paula Gardner)
  • Democrats introduced new polluter pay legislation on Wednesday
  • The seven-bill package would increase cleanup standards for polluted industrial sites among other changes to boost accountability
  • Business groups criticize the proposals, saying they stretch too far and could push industry out of the state

After repeated failed attempts to reform Michigan’s environmental cleanup laws, Democrats are taking another crack at legislation to hold industrial polluters more accountable for cleaning up contamination.

The long-expected legislation, which party leaders promised as Democrats took control of Lansing this year, would strengthen cleanup standards, require pollution-prone companies to carry insurance to cover cleanup costs, and make it easier for Michiganders to sue polluters who may have compromised their health.

Bill sponsors joined environmental groups at a press conference Wednesday to announce the seven-bill package, saying that the state’s economy and environment are tied together.

Jason Morgan headshot
State Rep. Jason Morgan, D-Ann Arbor.

“We hope Michigan has a long future of good manufacturing jobs in our state,” said  Rep. Jason Morgan, D-Ann Arbor. “But that only works if those jobs in manufacturing are not causing us to lose really important pieces of our land and our environment, and access to safe drinking water.”


Morgan and Sen. Jeff Irwin, also an Ann Arbor Democrat, spent the last several months crafting the legislation.  

The proposals come after Bridge Michigan’s special report last month that exposed the long-lasting damage left behind in Michigan communities where auto companies and their suppliers have closed their doors, leaving contamination and vacant buildings in their wake.

All told, Michigan is home to over 24,000 contaminated sites but the state has only a fraction of the funding and staffing it needs to address them.

Current Michigan law makes it easy for companies to avoid telling regulators or the public when they find legacy contamination on their property. Cleanups, too, can be done in secret. That leaves the public vulnerable to inadequate cleanups that may become taxpayers’ problem when a company goes bankrupt.

Legislators cited industrial pollution in the Huron River as examples of how the proposed legislation could result in faster cleanup funded by polluting businesses and not the public. (Courtesy of the Huron River Watershed Council)

The proposed bills aim to change that in key ways: 

  • Senate Bill 605 would require landowners to alert regulators when they find pollution, and would give state regulators more authority over cleanup plans. 
  • Senate Bill 606 would no longer allow landowners to avoid cleanups by simply containing pollution (such as by capping soil under a parking lot). Instead, they’ll be required to bring their properties up to residential land use or drinking water standards, wherever “technically feasible.”
  • Senate Bill 607 would expand state environmental regulators’ authority to set cleanup criteria, allowing officials to avoid a lengthy rulemaking process.
  • Senate Bill 608 would require some industries to post bonds or hold insurance to cover cleanups in the event that they pollute. Today, taxpayers are often stuck with the cleanup costs after polluting companies go bankrupt.
  • Senate Bills 609 and 611 would make it easier for the state and private citizens to sue polluters, by adjusting the statute of limitations on claims.
  • Senate Bill 610 would allow people exposed to high levels of hazardous substances to sue the responsible party for the cost of medical monitoring, without waiting until they’ve been diagnosed with a disease.

“We wanted to make sure that cleanups are done to a higher standard, and make sure the public has the information that it should have when pollution is found in our state,” Irwin said.

The package represents a new, more tailored approach to toughening so-called “polluter pay” laws in Michigan, something Democrats have attempted repeatedly in recent years. 

In the past, Irwin and other Democratic lawmakers have attempted to broaden liability and cleanup standards for companies that pollute.

The new bills take a more comprehensive approach, not just making it easier to sue polluters but also aiming to dissuade them from polluting in the first place by ramping up the consequences for doing so, and triggering better cleanups with more transparency and oversight.

Business groups oppose the proposed changes. Policies making it more expensive to do business in Michigan may dissuade companies from locating in the state, the Michigan Manufacturers Association and Michigan Chamber told Bridge on Wednesday. 

“We have laws now. If you pollute, if you cause contamination, you have to clean it up,” said Mike Alaimo, director of environmental and energy affairs for the Michigan Chamber. 

The Chamber has approached the state about its own suggested approach to industrial cleanups, Alaimo said. He would not discuss details Wednesday but said the business groups want to see a targeted approach that would involve pollution data collection, elements of transparency and funding mechanisms for cleanup on orphan sites. 

At their press conference Wednesday, bill sponsors and environmentalists rejected the suggestion that the measures would push business away, arguing that most Michigan businesses are playing by the rules and have nothing to fear.

The proposed bills won’t disrupt existing policies that protect people who buy contaminated property from lawsuits and the bills won't change brownfield development standards, Irwin said. 

“But we also put more tools in place for the regulators to say in certain circumstances, pollution has to actually be removed, rather than just cordoned off,” he said. “We're talking about small modest but important improvements to the quality of cleanups and the transparency in the system.”

Irwin noted that a clean environment is important to Michigan’s economy, too, including sectors like tourism, hunting and fishing industries, beer-making and agriculture.

As lawmakers prepare to debate cleanup policies, they are also considering reforms to Michigan’s business incentives in hopes of preventing today’s EV factories from becoming tomorrow’s contaminated sites. 

Reforms introduced in early October would repeal the state’s Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) Fund and replace it with a fund called  Make it in Michigan Fund. One component of the rebranded funding plan would demand more accountability from the companies receiving large-scale incentives. That includes more scrutiny of companies’ environmental track record before granting public payouts. And the state would halt payments to companies that have outstanding environmental fines or are under investigation for environmental wrongdoing.

In conversations with Bridge, experts outlined a host of other changes Michigan could make to better protect itself from industrial pollution and abandonment. Read their suggestions here.

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