Making Polluters Pay in Michigan

CMI Cleanups Map

From 1990 until 1995, Michigan had the strongest “polluter pay” law in the country. If a corporation was responsible for contaminating our land, air, or water, that corporation was also responsible for cleaning up the mess they made. In 1995 the administration of former Governor John Engler, backed by their allies at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, gutted the polluter pay law, and funding for environmental cleanups in Michigan has suffered ever since.

Since 1995 Michigan taxpayers have been financially responsible for cleaning up sites that are contaminated by corporate polluters. In 1998 Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved the Clean Michigan Initiative to pay for cleanup of contaminated sites since corporations were no longer paying for their pollution. The Clean Michigan Initiative included $385 million for cleaning up contaminated sites, and today that money has been nearly all spent. While there has been a sharp increase of contaminated sites in Michigan, there has been a major lack of investment towards cleaning up those sites.

This is particularly disturbing in the case of water contamination. We know that contaminated water does not just sit in one place – our water bodies are connected, and water will always move downstream. When a corporation pollutes a waterway, they should be fully responsible for cleanup. Right now, state agencies often have to win in court by proving exactly when and where an instance of contamination occurred before corporations can be required to pay for cleanup. If for instance, an oil company spills oil into a river near one of their facilities, state agencies would have to prove exactly where and when the spill occurred, even if the oil company in question was the only possible source of the contamination. With our legal system, this process plays out over the course of years, while the contamination goes unaddressed, or cleanup is paid for by taxpayers instead of the responsible party.

In 1990, when Michigan established our polluter pay law, we were leading the way in environmental protection. Other states looked to Michigan as an example of how to fairly and fully protect our natural resources from corporate polluters. Today we are no longer a leader in environmental protection. There are contaminated sites across our state that have gone unaddressed for too long. The current PFAS crisis, the Gelman 1,4 dioxane plume in Ann Arbor, and increasing algal blooms in the Great Lakes from nutrient pollution are all warnings that we must do more.

Right now there are hundreds of contaminated sites in Michigan that were contaminated by corporate polluters, and yet Michigan taxpayers are on the hook to pay for cleanups. In February 2019 Senator Jeff Irwin and Representative Yousef Rabhi introduced bills in the State Legislature to reinstate a strong polluter pay law for Michigan. These bills would go a long way towards ensuring that contaminated sites are addressed quickly and thoroughly, and that corporate polluters are paying for the damage they cause. Unforuntately these common sense bills were not allowed to proceed to a vote by the Michigan legislature. Learn more from our MI Water, MI Future Polluter Pay townhall, and let your Michigan Senator and Representative know you consider reinstating polluter pay a priority during this current legislative session.