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You pay about a penny per gallon of gas to clean up pollution, but is that money spent well?

Every time you fill up, you pay seven-eighths of a cent per gallon of gas for a “regulatory fee” that was originally set up to help clean up the thousands of old underground storage tanks in Michigan.

Those pennies you pay at the pump add up to a $50 million pot of money each year.

It’s called the Refined Petroleum Fund. The fund worked initially. The money helped remove tens of thousands of old underground storage tanks in Michigan. When those old tanks leak, they can pollute the soil and ruin nearby water sources.

But there is still a lot of work to do in Michigan.

Today, we have more than 8,800 underground tanks that have leaked fuel and other chemicals into the ground. In the U.S., only the state of Florida has more underground tanks that need attention. They’re not all actively leaking, but the tanks did leak at some point and the pollution is still in the ground and needs to be addressed.

The majority of these tanks are from old gas stations. There’s probably one in your community. Here’s a link to a map showing where these sites are.

And if you look at the ground near one of these old sites, here’s a telltale sign that some type of pollutant has leaked into the ground:

One of many. A monitoring or remediation well across the street from the 8,000 gallon gas spill near Battle Creek.
Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
One of many. A monitoring or remediation well across the street from the 8,000 gallon gas spill near Battle Creek.

It’s the cap of a monitoring well, and there are often several of these wells around a polluted site. It’s the way regulators test pollution levels.

So state regulators know where the pollution is, but their program to deal with these sites has been lagging for some time.

The number of polluted sites that are cleaned up each year has lessened considerably. Here’s a chart showing the slowdown from Bridge Magazine published in 2012:

Two things were blamed for the slowdown: bureaucratic red tape and a lack of money.

Here’s what Mark Griffin of the Michigan Petroleum Association told me in 2012:

"You could not find a more inefficient, stupid way to run a cleanup program," said Griffin.

Griffin said regulators constantly moved cleanup goals for the polluted sites:

"It was a moving target. I heard that over and over and over again. And I heard it, interestingly, most loudly, from the majority of the folks who do environmental cleanup, the consultants themselves," said Griffin.

Griffin says that problem was recently addressed by the Michigan Legislature, and cleanups are beginning to pick up again.

But the second problem still needs to be addressed.

Lawmakers have used the money collected at the pump for things other than environmental cleanup over the years.

More from Jim Lynch at the Detroit News:

The current budget directs some of the more than $50 million appropriated to the Refined Petroleum Fund for other uses, such as: $4.1 million for the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s weights and measurements division. $3 million for the state Department of Treasury to pay down bond debts unrelated to storage tanks. $5.6 million for Department of Environmental Quality for non-storage-tank remediation. DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said the Legislature decided to divert the storage tank clean-up funds over the years. “The move to redirect money from the fund was made as the state was in pretty dire financial straits,” he said in a response to questions. “... Since Gov. Snyder took office, the administration has focused on steadily moving money out of things like debt service and back to the RPF cleanup work.”

That diverted money has contributed to the significant slowdown in the number of underground tanks that have been cleaned up.

Now the Legislature is working to address that problem as well. Michigan Senator Mike Green, R-Mayville, is sponsoring a bill that would direct the money consumers pay at the pump back to its original purpose.

“And when they’re paying a tax for a specific item to happen, and government doesn’t spend it on that, then they throw their hands up and say, ‘that’s typical government,” said Green. “And you know, I want to be a part of making good change, not a part of making bad change.”

Green’s bill would put limits on how the money could be spent, and would create the “Underground Storage Tank Authority” within the Department of Environmental Quality that would oversee how cleanup funds were spent.

People who follow Michigan’s underground tank cleanup program say things have improved in the last year or two, and if this bill passes, they expect to see a lot more underground tanks cleaned up.

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.