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As funding dries up, how should the state pay for cleanup of polluted sites?

Mar 24, 2017

Each year the state of Michigan spends about $15 million to clean up abandoned industrial sites. Contamination can threaten water sources and public health.

Now, however, the state is about to run out of money to do that clean up.

James Clift is policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. He said in the past, Michigan used around $20 million a year from the General Fund – the state’s big checking account filled with tax money – to clean up these sites.

When that general fund started to dry up around 2008, Clift said voter-approved environmental bond money was used for cleanup. That's the money the state's running out of now.

Governor Snyder has a proposal to fix this problem for one year by pulling from the Refined Petroleum Fund, which pays for cleanup of old underground fuel tanks.

“Unfortunately you’ll see a lot of this in state budgeting in general,” Clift said, “and a lot of it within the Department of Environmental Quality budget … always kind of seems like they’re scrambling around to figure out, ‘Where do we have some available funds to deal with the problem that we think is most immediate?’”

To address the funding gap long-term, Clift said some in Lansing are talking about introducing another bond proposal to voters in 2018, which would “cost us at least one and half times” the cost of cleanup. 

But that's not the state's only option.

“So, if you look around the country, we’ve kind of liked the Minnesota model,” Clift said. “A few years back what they did is they dedicated a quarter of one percent of the sales tax to dealing with their environmental issues. It actually funds their whole environmental agency.”

Right now, Clift said there are approximately 15,000 polluted sites throughout the state.

Over the last few decades, he said the state of Michigan has worked to address the worst of these sites – the ones “threatening public health today.”

“So they’ll kind of rush in and spend a lot of money on that site,” he said. “But they really haven’t put a big dent in the backlog of sites.”

Clift said the state began addressing this backlog around three or four years ago by checking out 250 sites a year.

Around 10% of them, he said, threatened public health and needed immediate attention. He said 30-40% needed work, but not immediately, and half of the sites surveyed did not pose threats to public health at the time.

(That means it’s possible around 10% of un-surveyed backlogged sites could pose a threat to public health now.)

For the full conversation, including Clift's rundown of options the state has to fill the funding gap long-term, listen above.

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