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Michigan House moves to overhaul standards for toxic cleanups

Update: 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
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

LANSING — The Michigan House narrowly approved a bill Tuesday to overhaul state standards for cleaning up toxic chemicals at thousands of polluted sites statewide.

The chamber approved an amended version Senate Bill 1244, following objections from Democrats. The 56-53 vote came hours after a House committee approved it and two weeks after the Senate cleared it along mostly party lines.

The Senate must sign off on amendments from the House before the bill goes to Gov. Rick Snyder, who has not said whether he will sign it before his term ends Dec. 31.

Related: Michigan power grabs, pipelines and pot: What we’re tracking in lame duck
Dec. 19: School grades, toxic waste and dark money: Your Michigan lame duck roundup

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 and allow land to return more quickly to the tax rolls.

“We want to see these sites cleaned up,” Jason Geer, director of energy and environmental policy for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, told the House Michigan Competitiveness Committee Tuesday morning.

But Democrats, environmentalists and other critics say the bill would add red tape and could slow the process, particularly at a time when scientists are warning cleanup criteria for hazardous chemicals such as PFAS may need updating. 

“This legislation moves Michigan in completely the wrong direction by tying the hands of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality,” Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, said on the House floor.  

“This anti-science bill is not just poor policy — it’s downright dangerous,” she added.

Critics also said Tuesday the hectic lame duck session doesn’t allow enough time to study the implications of the complicated, 50-page bill.

“Without experts thoroughly vetting this bill in an open and transparent way, our members can’t be confident it will protect public health,” Nicholas Occhipinti, government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, told the House committee

At issue is how Michigan regulators update toxicity values for hundreds of chemicals at polluted sites statewide. The values are necessary to determine when a site is safe, but research on health hazards of toxins is continually evolving.

Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, sponsored SB 1244 and contends the state’s current process lacks clarity, discouraging developers who might buy and redevelop contaminated, abandoned sites that the state must otherwise pay to clean.

“The improvements in the bill ensure Michigan will remain a national leader in addressing brownfield properties,” he testified Tuesday.

The state is tracking about 3,000 polluted sites that are likely “orphans,” meaning the original polluter is gone and taxpayers must pay for cleanups.

The version of the bill that cleared the Senate earlier this month would have required DEQ to rely on chemical toxicity values from a U.S. Environmental Protection database when assessing whether property owners have properly cleaned up a polluted site.

Critics called the requirement dangerous, because it would loosen standards for some chemicals. Many of the entries in the EPA database haven’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.

The latest version of the legislation allows regulators to seek different standards than the EPA if they undergo a lengthy process that includes public notices, meetings with “stakeholders” and adhere to strict scientific guidelines listed in the bill.

James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, said the bill would add more bureaucracy at the DEQ as the agency weighed whether to update toxicity standards.

The extra burdens would likely slow down toxicity updates, Clift said, unless the Legislature — which has cut DEQ funding over the years — gave the agency enough money to significantly expand its staff.

“We’re willing to live with this process if they’re going to bring serious long-term resources to this program, and without those long-term resources, you know, this bill should be trashed,” Clift said.

The bill would not change Michigan’s current cleanup standards for PFAS, a group of hazardous “forever chemicals” DEQ is increasingly finding in Michigan’s environment.

But it would add extra bureaucracy if regulators sought to revise the standard, Clift added. 

Tuesday's vote came the same day 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 its report

Republicans are pushing the bill closer to Snyder at the same time that they’ve rejected the governor’s 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. There’s still a slim chance the proposal could be revived this week as an amendment to another piece of legislation.

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