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Michigan DEQ staffers to Gov. Snyder: Veto bill to weaken cleanup standards

Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages

LANSING — Dozens of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees are urging Gov. Rick Snyder to veto legislation that would weaken standards for cleaning up Michigan’s thousands of toxic sites.

Senate Bill 1244 would “threaten the health and safety of the people of Michigan” and solely benefit the polluters who are pushing the bill, according to a Wednesday letter to Snyder signed by 82 state employees.

The employees said the legislation, which the Republican-led Legislature sent to Snyder on Tuesday, puts them in an “untenable position.”

Related: What we're following in 2018 Michigan's Lame Duck session

“Michigan’s citizens ... will have a false sense of security at best and at worst, their health and environment will be impaired and the cost of the cleanups in the future will become their burden as well as the burden of their children and great grandchildren,” the letter said.

The letter is a rare public plea from DEQ staffers, who wrote they were communicating as “concerned citizens.” The agency is still trying to rebuild public trust after the Flint water crisis in 2014.

At issue is how Michigan regulators update toxicity values for hundreds of chemicals at some 7,000 polluted sites statewide, nearly half of which are likely “orphans,” meaning the original polluter is gone and taxpayers must pay for cleanups.

The values are necessary to determine when a site is safe, and research on health hazards of toxins is continually evolving.

Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, sponsored the legislation and contends the state’s current process lacks clarity and discourages developers. The new process, he said, will return sites to tax rolls sooner and still protect public health.

The legislation would require the DEQ to use chemical toxicity values from a U.S. Environmental Protection database –  unless the agency undergoes a lengthy process that includes public notices and meetings with “stakeholders.”

“The improvements in the bill ensure Michigan will remain a national leader in addressing brownfield properties,” he testified in a committee hearing Tuesday, before votes in the House and Senate sent the bill to Snyder.

Industry groups including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Chemistry Council back the measure, saying it would give companies more clarity on cleanups.

Democrats, environmentalists and other critics say the bill could slow the process, particularly when scientists are warning cleanup criteria for hazardous chemicals such as PFAS may need updating.

They note the EPA database hasn’t been updated for years, even as research elsewhere  — including federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — show greater health risks.

Backers have repeatedly called SB 1244 a compromise between interested parties.

Critics call it nothing of the sort. Their ranks include DEQ staffers who describe meeting with representatives from industry, environmental groups and others to hammer out a methodology to update toxicological standards, many of which dated to before 1998.

The parties initially agreed on a process that resulted to proposed updates on hundreds of chemicals, according to the letter to Snyder. When the outcome displeased industry leaders, “this interest group took their issues to the legislature,” staffers wrote.

“Neither the department nor Michigan’s citizens has had a voice during negotiation of these amendments” to cleanup standards outlined in Stamas’ bill, the employees wrote.

The DEQ “will not be able to meet the requirements” of the legislation, the employees wrote.

Stamas told Bridge Magazine Thursday morning he had yet to read the employees' critique of his bill, "but I appreciate their thoughts on it," he said.

"We had a lot of input from a lot of groups," said Stamas, who added he was surprised to hear critics argued otherwise. "This has been a stumbling block: How can we set a criteria we agree upon?"

The employees' letter is a “a breathtaking act of courage and wisdom,” said Anthony Spaniola, a Troy attorney who has become an informal spokesman for Michiganders affected by PFAS — “forever chemicals” linked to cancers and other ailments and increasingly being found across Michigan.

Spaniola owns a cottage on Van Etten Lake in Oscoda in northern Michigan, where PFAS from fire suppressants at the shuttered Wurtsmith Air Force base has leached into drinking water and bubbled into toxic foam that has washed onto beaches.

The Legislature advanced Stamas’ bill the same week a scientific panel assembled by Snyder released a report suggesting Michigan's cleanup criteria for certain PFAS chemicals — 70 parts per trillion (ppt) — may need revision.

"Research supports the potential for health effects resulting from long-term exposure to drinking water with concentrations below 70 ppt," Snyder's PFAS Science Advisory Committee concluded in a report released Tuesday.  

The bill would not change Michigan’s current cleanup standards for PFAS, said James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council. But it would add cumbersome bureaucracy if regulators sought to revise the standard, perhaps making it impossible.

Susan Masten, a Michigan State University water quality engineer who helped write the PFAS panel report, is among those who highlighted the apparent disconnect between the scientists’ findings and the Legislature’s action.

She tweeted Tuesday: “One of the recommendations of PFAS report that was released today: 70 ppt level may not provide a sufficient margin of safety. Well, the MI GOP is pushing through a bill that would make it far more difficult, costly & time-consuming to set clean up criteria for polluted sites.”

The bill comes to Snyder at the same time the Legislature has rejected his priority legislation to fund toxic cleanups.

The state’s chief source of cleanup funding — The Clean Michigan Initiative, a $675 million bonding program that voters approved in 1998 — has run dry.  

Snyder wanted to raise fees on trash-hauling to replenish those funds and invest in recycling, but a legislative deadline last week killed a bill to do that. A new funding proposal could still emerge Thursday, the final day of the Legislature’s lame duck session.

In their correspondence with Snyder, the DEQ staffers suggested the governor was engaged in “political bartering” to secure cleanup funding in the final days of the Legislature’s lame duck session.

“Even if funding becomes available,” the employees wrote, “having funds to manage risks based on criteria that are not protective defeats the purpose of the cleanup program.”

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