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WMEAC: Renew Michigan initiative proposes cleaning up PFAS with landfill money

• Oct 19, 2018 at 3:00 PM

The Renew Michigan initiative proposes to clean up PFAS sites with revenue from landfill tipping, the state-mandated cost for waste to be deposited in landfills. Although the funding mechanism relies on the proliferation of waste material in state landfills, Michigan Environmental Council Deputy Policy Director Sean Hammond is optimistic about the proposal.

“Realistically, just given the political dynamics in the state, this seems to us like a good, stable funding solution. You get a couple birds with one stone; you get a clean-up program and better recycling funding,” he said, adding, “but I think the biggest thing is to look at this holistically and try and find a good solution.”

Renew Michigan will allocate $45 million a year to cleaning up existing and future contamination sites, $9 million to solid waste management, $15 million to recycling grants, $5 million to water quality monitoring grants and another $5 million to updating state park infrastructure.

Snyder’s proposal picks up where the 1998 Clean Michigan initiative ended, a $675 million bond aimed at cleaning up brownfield areas across the state.

“Over the last 20 years we’ve spent that down,” Hammond said. “As of last year, all of the money had been allocated with the program and we were essentially out of brownfield redevelopment money.”

Snyder’s Renew Michigan policy will raise the landfill tipping fees from 39 cents, the lowest tipping fee in the Midwest, to $4.75, generating $79 million a year. That fee may change as the bill goes back and forth between the governor’s office and the Legislature.

Hammond expects the funding mechanism for Renew Michigan will be more sustainable. The state imported more than 10 million cubic yards in 2017 alone, and it doesn't look like that number will shrink much in 2018 even with a higher tipping rate.

“We expect (trash) to reduce a little bit,” Hammond said, “but I don’t expect a large drop off from (Canada). The way their waste system is set up, it’s still going to be cheaper to send it to Michigan for the most part. We would have to raise it a lot more.”

Hammond added that the tipping increase will most likely dissuade out-of-state trash imports.

“I’m guessing we’ll see drop-off from Indiana because the tip fee here will be significantly higher than in Indiana,” he said, which could prevent the Hoosier state from sending Michigan another 598,361 cubic yards of landfill material like they did in 2017.

Likewise, Michigan’s tipping fee will also out-price Ohio’s current fee, a state that exported 1.4 million cubic yards of trash to Michigan last year.

With so much trash coming into the state, Hammond said it’s possible Michigan is importing more hazardous pollutants.

“We know U.S. Ecology out in southeast Michigan takes in PNORM, which contains naturally occurring radioactive materials,” Hammond said. “It’s basically a very concentrated radioactive wastewater from fracking, and that is coming in from Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvania’s tipping rate currently sits at $6.75, making it cheaper to export landfill material to Michigan even if the tipping rate is raised to $4.75.

“We did have, in our estimation, a better fee proposal up until the late ‘90s for the EPA,” Hammond said. “Federally, they would have had a fee on chemical feed stocks.”

The proposed fee would have taken into account any hazardous chemicals contained in imported waste like PFAS and PNORM.

“That was repealed federally,” Hammond said. “I think it was seen is a complete political non-starter, the thought being that businesses in the state would 100 percent not go for that, whereas they would be willing to talk about (Renew Michigan).”

While gaining environmental clean-up money from imported trash might seem contradictory, Hammond pointed out the funding mechanism is common.

“Our neighboring state of Ohio does use part of their tipping fee to clean up brownfield areas, as well, so it’s not unprecedented,” he said.

At $45 million, the biggest chunk of money in the proposal will be allocated to remediate brownfield sites, partly in response to Michigan’s current PFAS crisis.

But will this plan do enough? Will it cover all the costs associated with cleaning up PFAS? Hammond said he’s unsure.

“That’s a difficult question to answer because it’s unclear what the full need is,” he said. (Renew Michigan) produces about $45 million a year. When you look at it, it’s not too far off of what we’ve been spending every year on average.”

Hammond added state estimates of the scope of the clean-up could be on the low end.

“Right now, we estimate 3,000 to 4,000 sites that are orphaned that the state is going to be responsible for,” he said. “That’s the state’s number. We think that number is low because, over time, we haven't been looking for contamination. If you’re not looking for something, how are you going to find it?”

But even if there are more than 4,000 brownfield sites in the state, Hammond again points to the sustainability of the proposal.

“Unlike the bond, this is not going to run out rapidly,” he said. “It will be a slower tail-off as trash volumes go down, but it won’t be a ‘we’re out of money at this time.’”

In addition to cleaning up brownfield sites and tripling recycling, Renew Michigan will also allocate $5 million to water monitoring grants and another $5 million to addressing a backlog of state park infrastructure maintenance.

“The biggest thing is that (Renew Michigan) covers a lot of different areas all at once,” Hammond said. “It’s sustainable and it’s a way to interrupt the on-going PFAS and other contaminated sites around the state. So we think, as we go forward and we get a fully sustainable funding solution, we’ll get a better idea of just how big of a problem this is and have the money at the same time.”

About the writer: Dylan Tarr is the ecojournalism intern for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

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