DEQ employees urge Snyder to veto shift in toxic site cleanup criteria

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
FILE - In this July 24, 2018 file photo, Gov. Rick Snyder answers questions after a press conference in Portage, Mich. Snyder has signed Republican-backed laws to significantly scale back citizen-initiated measures to raise the minimum wage and require paid sick leave for workers. The term-limited Republican governor's move Friday, Dec. 14, 2018, is sure to prompt a lawsuit over an unprecedented strategy adopted by lame-duck lawmakers. (Daniel Vasta/Kalamazoo Gazette via AP File)

Lansing — In an unusual move, more than 80 state employees are urging GOP Gov. Rick Snyder to veto legislation that would change the state's cleanup criteria for contaminated sites.

The 82 Michigan Department of Environmental Quality staffers cited Snyder’s plea to employees after the Flint water crisis to “raise to the highest levels, including my desk, any situation that you feel threatens the health or safety of the people of Michigan.”

“The amendments will make many of the criteria less protective than the current criteria which, with a few exceptions, are based on scientific information published before 1998,” according to the letter signed by the DEQ employees sent Wednesday evening to Snyder.

The changes, the employees said, were developed by those who would be governed by them and would profit companies responsible for contamination sites throughout Michigan.

The proposed alterations are based solely on the cost of those companies’ cleanup efforts and resulted after the DEQ and the industries couldn't reach consensus over several years of negotiations, the DEQ staffers wrote.   

“When they were unable to convince other stakeholders and the department that their recommendations were based on sound rationale, the best available science and in the best interest of Michigan’s citizens, this special interest group took their issues to the Legislature,” the letters said.

The cleanup criteria changes were approved in a tight 56-53 vote in the Michigan House Tuesday and were sent to Snyder’s desk Wednesday after gaining procedural approvals from the Senate.

Snyder will review the final version of the bill carefully before deciding whether to sign, his spokesman Ari Adler said.

Crews work on a contaminated site near House Street in Plainfield Township.

Supporters said the legislation clarified and sped up the cleanup process by using toxicity values from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, for cleanup criteria. If IRIS has no toxicity value for the substance, the bill identifies other sources for those benchmarks in order of precedence or allows the Michigan DEQ to develop cleanup criteria.

GOP Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said his bill would “ensure Michigan will remain a national leader in cleaning up brownfield properties.”

Opponents said the bill would tie the hands of departments from adopting criteria unique to Michigan’s environment and remediation needs. Further criticism arose from the bill’s hurried approval in the lame-duck session, as foes argued it would actually increase the amount of bureaucracy involved in the cleanup process.

The new criteria would place state employees in an “untenable position of defending and implementing a state statute that is not defensible,” the letter said. Further, Michigan residents will carry the burden of a “false sense of security,” a damaged environment and costlier contaminant cleanup.

“This will allow the contamination that these companies released to remain in place without any type of warning for anyone, current or future generations, who has the potential to be exposed to the unacceptable risks,” the letter said.

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