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Michigan ‘polluter pay’ bills coming, following Bridge auto industry probe

Fisher Body Plant 21 in Detroit
Fisher Body Plant 21 in Detroit long has been a symbol of Michigan’s automotive decay. Developers expect to start construction of apartments in the Depression-era factory in 2024. (Bridge photo by David Ruck)
  • ‘Polluter pay’ legislation is expected soon as lawmakers seek to hold industry more accountable for contaminants on their properties 
  • That follows recent proposals to rein in the state’s business incentive program to attract large-scale industrial projects
  • The measures follow a Bridge Michigan series showing how the auto industry left contaminated sites behind as they pursue new EV plants

The Michigan Legislature is soon expected to introduce so-called polluter pay legislation to hold companies accountable for the pollution they create. The measures follow a Bridge Michigan investigation that revealed how the automobile industry has abandoned contaminated properties across the state, with taxpayers routinely left to foot the bill for cleanup. 

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have not announced when the polluter pay laws will be introduced this fall.


The promised proposals follow Democratic bills earlier this month to rein in the state’s large-scale business incentive program, known as SOAR, including a requirement that the state consider a company’s environmental track record before awarding it taxpayer incentives. 


Bridge’s investigation, published in September, showed how communities across Michigan continue to pay for the auto industry’s polluted past, while the state doles out incentives to companies to build new plants in Michigan as they transition to electric vehicles. And it considers whether the state is poised to repeat mistakes of the past if it doesn’t change its approach to business attraction

The report showed how Michigan towns like Romeo, Milan, Flint and Wyoming were stuck with hulking remnants of closed, contaminated plants as Detroit automakers left to build new plants elsewhere, often with generous public subsidies. 

“This whole idea that we're just going to trust the responsible parties to do the right thing?” Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, told Bridge of the current laws. “I don't think it's working well.”

The Bridge investigation found: 

  • Automakers and suppliers were allowed to avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental liability. State law can’t prevent such maneuvers, but experts say Michigan could require up-front financial assurances from polluting industries to better protect communities and taxpayers. 
  • More than 100 polluted sites across Michigan have been tied to the auto industry, resulting in $259 million in taxpayer-funded cleanups. 
  • Those numbers are almost certainly a vast undercount due to incomplete records kept by the state and industry-friendly laws that don’t require industries to report pollution discovered on their land. 
  • Michigan has fewer people working on contaminated site cleanup today than three decades ago, when the number of known contaminated sites was nine times smaller.
  • When companies discover pollution on their property, Michigan law generally does not require them to tell state regulators what they found or keep regulators abreast of how the cleanup is being addressed.

If you missed our investigation in September, here’s a chapter by chapter guide to the report: 

Part 1: As automakers win incentives for EV plants, Michigan pays for polluted past

While Michigan subsidizes the auto industry’s EV future, the public is still paying to clean up the industry’s polluted past.

Part 2: ‘They destroyed our little town.’ What Michigan’s auto industry left behind

As the auto industry races to build large manufacturing plants in the transition to EVs, Milan is among more than a dozen towns still sitting on vacant, contaminated sites automakers left behind.

Part 3: With thousands of tainted sites, Michigan Dems eye return to ‘polluter pay’

Democratic legislative leaders are vowing to push this fall for so-called “polluter pay” legislation that would hold companies more accountable for reporting and cleaning up pollution.

Part 4: How Bridge tallied $259M in public costs for auto industry pollution

Bridge’s first-of-its-kind analysis identified at least $259 million in publicly-subsidized environmental cleanups at over 100 sites linked to Michigan's auto industry. The true total is likely far higher. 

Part 5: Small supplier, big mess: Jackson pays the price of auto industry pollution

Small auto suppliers like Michner Plating in Jackson represent some of the state’s costliest contamination sites. They handled hazardous chemicals but were ill-equipped to cover cleanup costs. When they closed, taxpayers were left with the bill.

Part 6: 5 fixes for Michigan's polluted industrial legacy, and a cleaner future

As Michigan competes for new plants, experts say the state can do a better job clearing contaminants from old factories, and ensuring new battery and EV plants don’t leave toxic legacies.  

Part 7: Gov. Whitmer’s SOAR incentive fund, once a triumph, now faces headwinds

Enthusiasm for the Whitmer administration’s SOAR business incentive fund has waned, with bipartisan concerns about pay for promised jobs, giving away billions to large industries and what if anything the state is asking of companies in return. 

Part 8: Michigan developers find new uses for contaminated industrial sites

A small group of Michigan redevelopers are pursuing new uses for contaminated structures, leveraging a patchwork of public financing to help them remove or contain existing pollution. 

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