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Polluters Paying for Their Pollution: A Simple Solution that Michigan's Congress Refuses to Adopt

Michigan House Bill 4314 will hold polluters accountable for their pollution of our beloved and fragile natural resources - unless our representatives continue to ignore it.

On July 29, 2022, an employee at Tribar Manufacturing’s Wixom plant made a series of terrible decisions. The employee overran Tribar’s on-site alarms 460 times between 4:59 and 7:46 p.m. that night, all during a period when the plant was not in production. Those actions allowed 10,000 gallons of hexavalent chromium solution - a highly toxic carcinogen - to empty out of a tank and into disposal channels that lead into Wixom’s sewers and the Huron River.

Regulators initially feared that 4,100 pounds of hexavalent chromium contamination had been dumped into the Huron River. This fear prompted a two-week “no contact” advisory; fortunately, only 20 pounds made its way downstream into the Huron.

The Detroit region absolutely dodged a bullet with the limited extent of this leak. However, this is unfortunately not Tribar’s first violation with polluting the Huron. In 2018, Tribar was identified as the primary polluter of polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAs”) - toxins capable of affecting the growth and behavior of children, lowering a woman's chance of pregnancy, interfering with the body's natural hormones, increasing cholesterol levels, affecting the immune system, and increasing cancer risk. Most concerning of all is that PFAs are “forever chemicals” that break down very slowly over time. Unsurprisingly, a "do not eat" advisory has remained in effect for over four years now for fish caught in the Huron River and its connected streams, lakes, and ponds.

How Habitual Polluters are Currently Punished under Michigan Law

In this instance, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (“EGLE”) has issued violations to Tribar and accelerated enforcement actions related to the July leak. While EGLE’s actions are necessary, advocates for environmental protection around the Great Lakes region, and specifically the Detroit region, agree that the current legal and regulatory framework is insufficient for deterring and reprimanding gross acts of pollution.

Enter Michigan House Bill 4314, first introduced by Michigan House Representative Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor), on February 23, 2021. Bill 4314 would amend the “Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act,” 1994 PA 451 (the “NREPA”), to require environmental polluters to restore land and water to the highest standard required for residential land use and drinking water. Bill 4314 also provides the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality with the authority to establish and mandate more stringent, remedial actions to be completed by polluters.

The NREPA as currently enacted generally only allows for courts to grant preventative relief for stopping the spread of or access to contaminated areas. As such, taxpayer dollars are largely utilized for the clean-up efforts that corporations are largely responsible for. Regardless of the NREPA drafters’ original intentions, the remedies within the Act have unfortunately proven themselves to be insufficient for deterring negligent or reckless pollution.

What You Can Do to Advocate for House Bill 4314

In our democracy, the two most powerful tools that citizens can utilize to effectuate change are our dollars and our votes - especially given the upcoming Mid-Term Elections on November 8th. While it’s unlikely that you are a significant customer of a large industrial polluter, any such customers can (and should for ethical and economic reasons) move their business to a more environmentally-conscious partner. The more tenable approach is to contact your representative to demand that they sponsor legislation intended to promote conservation. Several environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and FLOW: For Love of Water, have made this action easy via the preparation of online contact forms. Voters often forget that our elected representatives work for us; with enough “reminders” from their constituent bosses, politicians will inevitably align with and advance their interests.

As of the date of this article, Bill 4314 has not progressed in any capacity within the Michigan House of Representatives since the day after it was first introduced and shared with the Committee on Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation. While it is undoubtedly true that it takes an immense amount of time and resources to pass meaningful legislation, this total inaction regarding the progression of Bill 4314 is absolutely unacceptable. The July 29th spill further highlights the sense of urgency that all outdoor stakeholders should feel towards the passage of effective and environmentally-protective legislation.

The Expedition Detroit team vows to do everything in our power to discourage someone from overriding a contamination warning alarm once, let alone 460 times. We hope that you will join us in doing the same.

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