Michigan lobbyist for polluter wrote law easing toxic cleanups, emails show

A lobbyist whose clients include Wolverine Worldwide wrote a law last year to ease pollution cleanup standards, months after trying to negotiate a settlement in the state’s lawsuit against the shoemaker. The lobbyist says Wolverine did not hire him to write the law. (Photo illustration by Craig Mauger)

LANSING — In a single year, a self-described “lawyer-lobbyist” went from working on behalf of a company accused of poisoning groundwater to writing a law that could weaken Michigan’s standards for pollution cleanups.

A joint investigation by Bridge Magazine and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network found that attorney Troy Cumings  last year represented Wolverine Worldwide in behind-the-scenes negotiations concerning litigation brought against the company by then-Attorney General Bill Schuette over contamination from one of the company’s tanneries in Rockford.

At the same time, Cumings was board member or record keeper for fundraising accounts tied to Schuette, who was running for governor as a Republican.

More than 500 pages of internal emails produced under the Freedom of Information Act also show that Cumings, a 44-year-old lobbyist from Warner Norcross and Judd of Grand Rapids, later helped write legislation that makes it more difficult for state environmental regulators to update pollution cleanup standards for hundreds of chemicals.

Troy Cumings is a Lansing-based lobbyist for the firm of Warner Norcross and Judd. He has numerous clients, including Wolverine Worldwide, a shoe company accused of poisoning groundwater in West Michigan.

The Legislature cleared the 50-page bill, Senate Bill 1244, in the final week of the 2017-2018 session. Outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed it into law on Dec. 31. That came days after dozens of Department of Environmental Quality staffers, in a rare public veto plea, said the changes would “threaten the health and safety of the people of Michigan.”

“The polluters responsible for poisoning drinking water were in back rooms writing the legislation,” said Bob Allison, deputy director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

“It appears that we decided to bring them into the offices and let them sit around and write the rules here — all when the health of millions of Michiganders is at risk.”

Cumings and Wolverine said he didn't write the bill on behalf of the shoemaker.

“Wolverine Worldwide is aware of SB 1244, but has not been involved in it, taken a position on it, or retained any lobbyists in connection with it,” the company said through a spokesman.

Cumings, who represents an array of interests including a hospital and health plan, declined to disclose his client, citing attorney-client privilege.

The situation raises the possibility that a polluting company could pay someone to write legislation to reap future benefits — all without the public knowing.

Cumings downplayed that possibility, noting that he made compromises with environmentalists. Internal documents show he relented on some points of contention. He compared his work to “model legislation” used to introduce similar ideas as bills in multiple states.

“At the end of the day, whatever any lawyer drafts, it’s still vetted out,” Cumings said.

“The Legislature still has to review it. The administration. Everybody gets a chance in the process,” he continued. “A lot of legislation starts with model legislation, right? Well, who drafted that model legislation? Right?”

Truth test?

At issue is how Michigan regulators determine unsafe levels for chemicals polluting air, soil and water — and how much cleanup a polluter or developer must perform. The state is tracking nearly 7,000 sites in need of cleanups, nearly half of which are likely “orphans,” meaning the original polluter is gone and taxpayers bear the burden.

Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, introduced the bill to overhaul how regulators set the standards.

Stamas, who did not return a message seeking comment, at the time echoed arguments from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Michigan Chemistry Council and other industry groups: the previous rules gave too much leeway to state employees and discouraged developers from rehabbing polluted sites.

Jason Geer, director of energy and environmental policy for Michigan Chamber of Commerce, argued in his committee testimony that businesses had faced uncertainty when it came to determining how much it would actually cost to clean up a contaminated site.

“It’s impossible to finance that,” he said. “It’s impossible to justify an investment.”

An inspector for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality scrutinizes a barrel believed to contain PFAS chemicals at a northern Kent County site used by Wolverine Worldwide. (Courtesy photo)

Democrats and environmentalists said the bill would add red tape to chemical updates as scientists warn cleanup criteria for hazardous chemicals such as PFAS might need strengthening.

Nick Occhipinti, a lobbyist for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, was among those asking lawmakers to tap the brakes during a House committee meeting in December.

“The combination of toxicological, remediological, bureaucratic and legal skills needed to understand the impact of this bill is immense,” he said before questioning a carveout for “polychlorinated dibenzodioxin and dibenzofuran congeners,” commonly known as dioxins, from certain standards.

The bill said those chemicals, which have long polluted the Tittabawassee River in Saginaw, weren’t likely to leach from soil into groundwater. Occhipinti said experts should weigh in on whether that and other provisions were true.

The House committee approved the bill five minutes later, and the full House sent the bill to Snyder later that day.

Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, who served on the House committee that weighed the bill, said he worried about not knowing who Cumings was representing.   

“That’s extremely unsettling,” Hammoud said.

Emails show staffers in Snyder’s office prioritized the bill during his final days in office. They invited one environmentalist — James Clift, then with the Michigan Environmental Council — into the final negotiations over the language, and he won a few concessions.

Clift successfully fought to change language that would have eliminated months-old cleanup standards for PFAS, chemicals linked to cancers and other health risks that regulators are increasingly flagging nationwide.

But Snyder’s office leaned heavily on Cumings.

That included one lengthy weekend exchange days before the House sent the bill to Snyder. Angela Ayers, Snyder’s director of strategy, wrote that his staff wanted to finalize the language by Sunday, with Cumings and Clift offering their support in writing.

What ensued was a debate between Cumings and Clift over how much freedom to give regulators to determine what science to use in determining unsafe levels for specific chemicals.

Cumings labeled one of Clift’s ideas for giving state regulators more leeway compared to federal standards as “not acceptable.”

Working for Schuette — and Wolverine

Cumings drafted the bill nearly a year after the state sued one of his clients in federal court: Wolverine.

That followed revelations that toxic PFAS chemicals leached into hundreds of drinking water wells from a former Wolverine Tannery in Rockford and dump sites in neighboring Belmont.

Wolverine used the hazardous chemicals to waterproof hides and leathers that were buried in northern Kent County, and the state has since launched studies on how they affected public health.

In its complaint, Schuette’s office said Wolverine was responsible for conditions that “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment.”

Snyder’s administration called Wolverine “responsive” in investigating the contamination and called the lawsuit a formality.

“This court filing is the next step in formalizing the process, timelines and expectations the state has for the company moving forward,” a DEQ press release said at the time.

Wolverine denies liability in the case and has since sued chemical manufacturer 3M. Wolverine argues that company bears some responsibility for that contamination because it manufactured the toxic chemicals used in Hush Puppies and other products.

Two West Michigan townships — Plainfield and Algoma — have also intervened in the case, arguing Wolverine should pay to hook up residents to water free of PFAS.

The state’s lawsuit on Jan. 10, 2018, came four months after Schuette announced his run for governor.

Cumings, who directed Schuette’s transition team in 2010, has been involved with numerous fundraising accounts tied to the former attorney general. Cumings is listed as the treasurer for one Schuette-tied nonprofit, On Duty for Michigan, and the secretary for Serve First Foundation, a nonprofit that funded the publication of a 2015 book written by Schuette called “Big Lessons From A Small Town.”

The U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids does not list Cumings as an attorney in the ongoing lawsuit by the state against Wolverine. But Bridge and MCFN obtained emails and text messages showing he arranged behind-the-scenes talks on Wolverine’s behalf in the weeks and days leading up to the lawsuit. In one email thread from December, a state attorney said Cumings wanted to talk about a potential settlement.

In a string of text messages, Cumings texted Susan Leeming, then-DEQ’s director of external relations on Jan. 3 of last year.

“Time to meet today: Just me and you?,” Cumings asked.

“I’m slammed. Next week?” she replied. “About?"

“WWW...” he replied, a common acronym for Wolverine Worldwide.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Leeming texted back.

Apologizing, Cumings responded that he would “go in a different direction”. He told Leeming he thought she was his “point of contact” while the assistant attorney generals were gone.

A day later, Cumings emailed staffers for Snyder, Schuette, DEQ and Wolverine to set up a conference call for Jan. 5, which he wrote he would join. The email’s subject line: “meet to discuss WWW.”

On Jan. 9, one day before Schuette’s office filed the lawsuit, Cumings texted Leeming. “Sue, where do we stand on messaging issues? The call would be with the team, not just you and me.”

“Mel is just starting to work on this. We’ll call tomorrow,” Leeming replied, possibly referring to DEQ spokeswoman Melanie Brown.

Neither DEQ, Wolverine nor Cumings would answer questions about his role in the litigation or how the settlement talks played out.

Doug Van Essen, an attorney representing the townships suing Wolverine, called it  “highly disturbing” for Cumings to participate in legal negotiations on Wolverine’s behalf while serving Schuette politically.

“It’s certainly not healthy. To me, that’s a conflict of interest,’ Van Essen said. “Schuette is the AG. I don’t see how you can possibly represent his personal interest and also negotiate with him on the professional side.”

Cumings disagreed.

“No conflict. I can’t get into the client stuff,” he said, saying his work for Schuette and interactions with his office on Wolverine’s behalf were in “two different spheres.”

Schuette told Bridge and MCFN in a voicemail: “There is no conflict.” Schuette did not elaborate nor did he respond to a followup message.

Van Essen said he did not know how or whether Cumings’ dual relationship with Schuette and Wolverine affected the litigation case against Wolverine.

At the same time, Van Essen saw Cumings’ toxic cleanup bill flying through the Legislature. Fearing the changes might complicate future cases like his, Van Essen and other West Michigan colleagues called on their representatives to oppose the bill.

Lame duck rush

The push to overhaul Michigan’s cleanup standards dates back to the early days of Snyder’s administration. Irreconcilable differences may have led to the votes in December 2018 as his second term ended.

For years, industry representatives, including Cumings, environmental regulators and environmentalists met to hash out the new standards, aiming to agree on recommendations for action.

By 2017, however, Cumings, said DEQ employees pursued their own ideas and clashed with industry representatives.

Over the next year, industry representatives and DEQ staffers stalemated in three areas: how closely toxic chemical thresholds should mirror those of the federal government, when to assume a single-event exposure to a chemical is enough to trigger cleanup standards and how to handle vapor intrusion (when vapor-forming chemicals enter a property).

“I would say we were really close,” Cumings said. "But we just couldn’t quite get there.”

With all of the work that had been put in during the Snyder administration on the cleanup standards, Cumings said in the fall of 2018, Snyder’s administration realized that a legislative solution would have to be pursued.

“I think this is a reasonable proposal,” Timothy O’Brien, senior adviser to then DEQ-Director Heidi Grether said in early December.

“At this point I think the question for industry is not whether they are completely comfortable, but whether this is something they can live with. To me, this is an area that you have to come down on the side of environmental and public health precaution.”

Concerns going forward

The new law’s impact may not be known for years — until the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (The reshaped version of the DEQ, known as EGLE) offers rules to update the safe threshold for various chemicals.

Clift, now a senior adviser at EGLE,  said Whitmer has yet to request those rules. Once she does, however, the agency will grapple with several changes under the new law.

Among them: It must use chemical toxicity values from a U.S. Environmental Protection database called IRIS –  unless the agency undergoes a lengthy process that includes public notices and meetings with “stakeholders.”

Many chemicals in IRIS haven’t been updated for years or decades, even as research elsewhere — including federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — show greater health risks.

Clift said the bill’s biggest effect would be slowing down updates on certain chemicals — particularly those with outdated thresholds in IRIS.

Another controversial law GOP lawmakers enacted in lame duck may slow down the process further: It set up panel heavy with industry representation to review new environmental rules.

“I worry that this is just adding time and effort to a process that, in my mind, already had a sufficient amount,” Clift said. “Until we get those rules through, we’re worried we’re not being as protective as we could be.”

Clift said the agency plans to keep the review panel “involved in every step of the process,” to avoid any delays or efforts to block any new rules.  

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Comments

middle of the mit
Wed, 05/29/2019 - 9:14pm

I am sure, positive even, that there have been multiple conservatives that frequent this site that told me that businesses are not the ones we have to worry about.

Yet time and time again, the taxpayers have to bailout the businesses and the land they pollute yet pull a profit from.

Could you tell me where personal responsibility is?

"We" have to give these businesses tax breaks and leeway's so that they can be profitable.

Then we (taxpayers) eat the liabilities.

Is that SOCIALISM for the rich?

Better read what Jesus said about the rich.

Kathi Geukes
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 9:51am

Amen!!

Lisa Knowles
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 11:20am

Nice analogy, and very well said! Socialism for the rich.....I will be thinking about that all day.

MadMatthew56
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 12:48pm

C'mon, you know how Big Business and the GOP work -- privatize the profits, socialize the losses.

Alex Sagady
Wed, 05/29/2019 - 10:13pm

BRAVO!!! WELL DONE!!!

Bridge Magazine and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network is
especially to be honored for keeping the matter of SB 1244 alive
as an especially adverse legislative action that mandates scientific
misconduct in MDEQ's environmental remediation program's toxicology
review and risk assessments.....as recognized by MDEQ employees when
they wrote to Governor Snyder urging his veto of the measure:
http://www.sagady.com/stuff/80MDEQEMPLOYEESSB1244.pdf

GR Attorney
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 9:27am

Mr. Cumings's behavior is a clear violation of the pubic trust, and serves as an open and obvious display of wanton disregard for ethics, integrity, and human decency. Let's hope that the Michigan Bar Association's Character and Fitness Committee conducts a thorough review of Mr. Cumings. People should stand up and begin to advocate for his disbarment. The Character and Fitness Committee attacks lawyers and prospective attorneys for petty crimes committed a teenagers (such as minor in possession violations), DUIs, mental illness, and other issues that pale in comparison to the actions undertaken by Mr. Cumings.

Bob Potocki
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 9:35am

After all these years I am still shocked by some of the activity in Lansing. Just selling our water, health and well being for profit. With full knowledge. There ought to be a law.

Paul Jordan
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 5:08pm

Unfortunately, with Michigan's legislature the way it is, the law would probably be written by corporate lobbyists.

Jim V
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 9:58am

"Cumings and Wolverine said he didn't write the bill on behalf of the shoemaker."
I'm sure that it was just a coincidence. Said nobody.

John Darling
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 10:29am

Exhibit A for why we need more sunshine laws everywhere our tax dollars are being spent.

Lennie
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 10:47am

Sorry, as a citizen that got caught up in a misguided and ridiculous environmental law, you don't understand that some of these laws are pure pander politics. As much as the intent is to save the world, all the public gets out of poorly written legislation is a method to screw the innocent. In my case, I was threatened with bankruptcy by a state agency because I happened to inherit land that was suspected of being involved with a toxic spill. Never mind that the state had absolutely no evidence of any misdoing by me or the person that owned the property, the state wanted to show it's posture.

Take it for what it's worth but some lawmakers enact some real screwed up legislation that has no positives for thr public but the same bozos will make endless speeches about how they saved us when all they really do is screw a few innocent bystanders.

BTW, in my case, I ended up abandoning the property. And later that property was proven to be NOT the source of concern. It would have cost be more to defend myself that what I would have realized if I retained ownership. Thanks Michigan, you screwed up again.

Kay
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 10:48am

It has often been difficult to determine whether Mr. Cumings was representing the DEQ or the Michigan Chamber of Commerce on any given day.

Paul Jordan
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 5:14pm

The sad fact is that, in regard to the Michigan legislature, he was probably representing both at the same time. Since the beginning of the Engler administration, Michigan's government has become more and more corrupt. As far as environmental and consumer protections are concerned, we are being victimized by regulatory incompetence by design. The objective of government has become serving corporations instead of residents (and, by the way, corporations NOT people until they can experience guilt, love, give birth, and die).

Jeff Wescott
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 4:18pm

I want to know how much ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), a conservative group financed (in part) by the Koch brothers, "helped" with the model legislation Cumings refers to. His child's game of "he started it" is illustrative of his lack of ethics, as is his quick desire to hide behind "lawyer-client privilege."

Lansing Needs Reform
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 4:22pm

This excellent article just emphasizes why Lansing needs reform -- especially lobbying reform. How much did Senator Stamas, the bill's sponsor, knowingly allow this to happen? How much was he even involved in the writing of the bill? How much money did he take from chemical companies and their lawyers? These questions still need answering. Hope you do another piece on this!

TJH
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 6:59pm

While disturbing and clearly unethical this behavior should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid any attention to the way the legislative and executive branches have operated in Michigan for the past eight years. Rather than a "tough nerd" Gov. Snyder turned out to be just another slimy swamp weasel like Schuette has always been.

Anonymous
Fri, 05/31/2019 - 2:37pm

More of the same from the GOP (Grand Olagarc Party). Where do these 'people' and their families plan to live, on Mars with Trump?
We have some of the greatest natural resources in the world (Universe?) and the GOP is fine with selling it off for a 'pittance'.
GOP - Dead Party Walking.

Vince Caruso
Fri, 05/31/2019 - 8:56pm

When you go to Mars please take the Turtle Man. And please go soon.

Joel
Mon, 06/10/2019 - 8:19am

Sen. Jim Stamas portrays himself to his NE Michigan constituents as a caring environmentalist, but legislation he introduces and his votes prove otherwise. He is in the pocket of Dow Chemical and other bad players like Wolverine World Wide.

Michelle Hurd R...
Tue, 10/08/2019 - 7:45pm

For decades it has always been the same players/villains.: Warner, Norcross and Judd, the Chamber of Commerce ; Bill Schuette , Stamas, etc. They cut their baby teeth defending Dow Chemical's egregious lies, pollution and public health assault. Republicans from mid Michigan never met a polluter they didn't revere. Revere more than public health, clean water or justice. Congressman Camp spawned a whole host of industry shills sans conscience: Stamas, Horn, Moolenaar, Kahn, Schuette, Goschka to name a few.