Michigan Democrats aim to gut pro-business environmental laws

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Lansing is coming off a change in government, which is likely to change the state Legislature’s stance on environmental issues from water access to pollution control.

After a decade of Republican leadership in Lansing focused on reducing environmental regulations and giving companies more influence in state decision-making, some Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups told Bridge they expect the pendulum to swing back as the House and Senate work together with re-elected Democratic the governor.

House and Senate leaders said they are still sorting out their priorities for the upcoming legislative session, but environmental advocates expect them to focus on overturning Republican bills they say are harmful to the environment and reintroducing languishing Democratic-sponsored bills. in Republican-controlled legislation.

A ban on local plastic bag bans could be under attack and pollution laws could be rewritten. Here’s a sample of the questions that could be up for debate in Lansing this year.

Water sealing and accessibility

After years of public pressure to end water shutdowns plaguing Michiganders who fall behind on their bills, water affordability advocates won a partial victory in 2020.

Recognizing that hand washing could prevent the spread of COVID-19, lawmakers imposed a moratorium on water shutoffs until March 2021, with some cities keeping local moratoriums in place even longer.

With Democrats now in control of Lansing, advocates say they intend to pass a statewide water affordability bill.

Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, who sponsored the 2020 moratorium bill, has repeatedly pushed legislation to increase shutdown protections and create a statewide water affordability plan.

One of several bills pushed by Chang would protect certain categories of people from incarceration, such as the elderly, pregnant women and parents of children. Another would require utilities to release more information about their water rates and shutoffs.

Chang said the issue will be her key priority in the upcoming term.

“I feel like there’s a huge opportunity to do more,” Chang said. “But because these bills in most cases haven’t come up for debate before, I think probably more vetting and more conversation is needed.”

The need for affordability comes as water systems across the state are rolling out steep rate hikes to cover much-needed upgrades to failing pipes and plants. Chang said these widespread effects of disinvestment in water infrastructure require a “broader statewide approach.”

The polluter pays

Michigan’s law holding industry responsible for cleaning up its own pollution — known as “polluter pays” — was once one of the strongest in the nation. It set aggressive cleanup standards for contaminated sites and extended liability to current and former site operators.

But in 1995, during the tenure of Republican Gov. John Engler, lawmakers significantly weakened the law. The changes shifted the focus from cleanup to containment and dramatically narrowed who could be held responsible for cleanup costs.

Michigan is now home to thousands of polluted “orphan” sites where there are no longer those responsible for the pollution, leaving the public to pay for the cleanup.

Multiple past attempts to strengthen cleaning standards in Michigan have failed. But momentum began to build for another attempt after the release of thousands of gallons of liquid containing carcinogenic hexavalent chromium from Tribar Manufacturing’s Wixom facility last August.

The spill has fueled fears of another threat to Ann Arbor’s drinking water, which is already threatened by PFAS contamination and an underground plume of dioxane emanating from the former Gelman Sciences property.

Ann Arbor Sen. Jeff Irwin has repeatedly attempted legislation to strengthen Michigan’s polluter pays law. The latest, which never received a hearing in the just-closed legislative session, would require those responsible for the pollution to meet state drinking water standards during the cleanup, as long as it is technologically feasible.

With Democrats in control of the Legislature, Irwin said he expects the issue to gain new momentum.

“I think you’re going to see us focus on kitchen table issues,” like tax cuts, Irwin said. “And you know what else goes on the kitchen table? Drinking water.”

Climate changes

Whitmer told The Bridge in November that she wants to work with legislative leaders to translate aspects of her administration’s climate action plan into law, ensuring they “go beyond a change in administration.”

The governor has so far declined to provide specific information about the climate policies she might push in 2023. But as Bridge reported this month, advocates have a long wish list.

These include requiring utilities to build more wind farms and solar panels, regulating the construction of electric vehicle infrastructure, and passing laws to make it easier for residents and communities to install solar panels or make their homes more energy efficient.

Republican legislative leaders have remained lukewarm on climate policy this year. Eight months since the Whitmer administration released its climate plan, incoming Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, told Bridge he still hasn’t read the plan.

Spending Michigan’s COVID windfall

Lawmakers are expected to resume talks early this year on how to spend Michigan’s $6 billion surplus. And the state still has money to spend from the Biden administration’s infrastructure and climate bills.

While policy changes typically face long and uncertain paths to passage in Lansing, Democrats could advance their environmental agenda by spending that money strategically, said Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan political scientist who studies environmental issues.

“The question is, how could the Legislature maximize the funding coming from Washington to make it more effective?” Rabe said.

Environmentalists are expected to push for spending on weatherproofing homes, public transportation to reduce carbon emissions, upgrading wetlands and stormwater to deal with worsening flooding and other priorities.

Water infrastructure challenges, from removing main lines to repairing pipes and treatment plants that are crumbling after decades of underinvestment, also remain a key priority.

Whitmer said lawmakers did a “really good job” of addressing water infrastructure needs in the $4.8 billion supplemental budget passed earlier in 2022. But, as Bridge reported, the money is not enough.

The upheaval of Republican politics

Several lawmakers and advocates told Bridge they expect early action to reverse Republican-made policies they see as bad for the environment.

“If Democrats are smart, they’re going to say a lot of things like, ‘We’re going back to the way things were meant to be,'” said Nick Schroeck, an environmental law expert at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Among the Republican creations that could be in the crosshairs:

• A 2016 law prohibiting local municipalities from banning plastic bags or charging fees for their use. Irwin, of Ann Arbor, told Bridge he plans to introduce a bill to repeal the ban.

• A 2018 law prohibiting Michigan regulators from adopting rules stricter than federal standards except in narrow circumstances. Environmentalists have criticized the law, saying it thwarts efforts to increase Michigan’s protections from pollution.

• The Environmental Science Advisory Board, the Environmental Permit Review Board and the Environmental Rules Review Board, three panels created under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder that gave industry new ways to intervene in state environmental decisions. Environmentalists dubbed them “pollutant panels,” and Republican legislative leaders blocked Whitmer’s attempt to repeal them during her first term.

Dam safety

In 2022, Michigan spent large sums to repair the state’s crumbling dams. But bills to strengthen Michigan’s lax dam safety laws have failed to gain similar traction despite pledges of support from Republican legislative leaders.

Members of a state-appointed task force that warned in 2021 that Michigan dams need “urgent attention” to prevent future failures said safety deficiencies at the state’s dams remain a pressing environmental and public safety issue.

Charlotte Jameson, chief policy officer for the Michigan Environmental Council, said she sees potential for the reforms to be reintroduced this year.

“It is clear to everyone that there is a problem,” she said. “And we have to do something because we can’t keep failing like this.”

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