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"Polluter Pay" bills to amend state cleanup laws introduced in state Legislature

Partial map of plume of groundwater and affected private wells in Ann Arbor contaminated with 1,4 dioxane
Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy
A partial map of a pollution plume shows groundwater and private wells in Ann Arbor contaminated with 1,4 dioxane. The polluter, Gelman Science, is being permitted to do a partial cleanup.

Democrats in the Michigan House and Senate introduced stricter "Polluter Pay" bills on Wednesday.

Supporters say the legislation would set more stringent cleanup standards, increase transparency, prevent sites from becoming “orphaned” and make it easier for those harmed by pollution to seek justice. 

The bills (Senate Bills 605-611 and House Bills 5241-5247) would require companies that pollute to clean the contamination up completely, if technically feasible. Current state law permits partial cleanups, or no cleanup at all, if access to the polluted site can be restricted and thus the pollution is deemed of little risk to the public.

People exposed to pollution could bring claims against polluters to cover the costs of medical monitoring for conditions linked to the exposure, and the bills also set a statute of limitations for suing over harms from pollution to when the person discovers the claim.

Democratic State Senator Jeff Irwin said the bills will also limit "secret" or "self-regulated" cleanups. He said current law lets companies clean up pollution without notifying the state until after the cleanup is done.

"The public deserves better," he said. "The public doesn't deserve to hold the bag, they deserve better accountability and better cleanup."

Another bill in the package would require businesses with large amounts of potentially polluting materials to post up-front financial assurance to cover any cleanup. 

Mike Alaimo is director of environmental and energy fffairs with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. He said the state's current pollution cleanup laws take a "risk-based" approach to cleanups, and strike a balance between protecting the environment and protecting the economy.

His group opposes the bills.

"We're moving back to a regulatory system that will make it cost prohibitive to develop our brownfield sites," he said. "I do fear that it sends a clear message to Michigan businesses, or businesses trying to invest in the state, that Michigan isn't open for business."

Irwin said he disagrees with that point of view. He said a cleaner environment helps the state's economy, and the bills also take into account the costs of not cleaning up up pollution, such as people's exposure to health risks like cancer.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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