Michigan Democrats unveil legislation to hold polluters accountable

Feb 3, 2020 at 4:42 pm
click to enlarge A park in the shadow of Marathon's oil refinery in southwest Detroit. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
A park in the shadow of Marathon's oil refinery in southwest Detroit.

Tired of corporations putting profit ahead of a clean environment, Democratic lawmakers in Michigan unveiled legislation Monday that would hold polluters accountable.

The eight-bill package would stiffen civil and criminal penalties for companies and their leaders who contaminate the air, water, or land with harmful pollutants.

“There are more than three dozen corporate polluters in our community,” state Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, whose district includes 48217, the most polluted ZIP code in the state, said in a statement. “The life expectancy here is 10 to 15 years shorter than in the suburbs because of what these people are exposed to daily. It is absurd that for years bad actors were striking down the people of this state so obviously and willfully without being held accountable. We’re finally going to stop them.”

The House Democrats introduced the legislation at a press conference at the People’s Community Services Delray Neighborhood House in southwest Detroit, one of the most polluted areas in the state.

The legislation follows several high-profile cases of corporate negligence that nearly resulted in environmental catastrophes. In late November, a long-contaminated site collapsed into the Detroit River because a company was illegally stockpiling an overabundance of limestone. In December, a bright green liquid containing hexavalent chromium — a cancer-causing chemical — oozed onto I-696 in Madison Heights. The source was a company that was forced to close in 2016 because the owner, Gary Sayers, was illegally storing hazardous waste.

The legislation also is important because Michigan has more identified PFAS sites than any other state. PFAS are a hazardous family of human-made chemicals used in many consumer and industrial products, such as firefighting foam, tanneries, cell phones, cookware, food packaging, metal platers, Scotchgard, and Teflon.

The legislation would repeal several corporate-friendly laws, including one that allows polluters to sit on panels that determine environmental regulations and permit decisions. One of the bills would enable the state to fine and even jail negligent polluters. Another would eliminate the statute of limitations to file a civil claim for environmental issues. Large corporations would face steeper fines for violating environmental laws under another bill.

“For years environmental regulations have been tilted in favor of big corporations, leaving the people and communities that are poisoned by their bad behavior feeling abandoned,” state Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, said in the news release. “Even before being elected to the state House, I fought against these major polluters, but the law hasn’t really been on our side. It’s time for change, and House Dems are going to make it happen.”

On Friday, Robinson blasted the state for allowing the expansion of a Detroit waste plant with a history of serious violations, saying the decision smacked of “environmental racism.”

Environmental activists applauded the legislation.

“As a state, the Great Lakes state and the state of Flint, we need to take concrete steps to protect public health and hold irresponsible corporate polluters accountable. This package does exactly that,” Justin Onwenu, a community organizer for the Sierra Club, tells Metro Times. “It needs to be adopted as soon as possible.”

But whether Democrats can drum up enough support among the Republican-controlled Legislature is unknown.

The legislation was introduced by eight House Democrats: Reps. Carter, Robinson, Laurie Pohutsky, Jim Ellison, Cynthia Johnson, Bill Sowerby, Padma Kuppa, and Jim Haadsma.

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