Michigan lawmakers are turning their backs on the state’s greatest asset — fresh water.
This past Tuesday, lawmakers in the Michigan House passed a package of three bills that will, among other things, allow for the “recycling” of toxic coal fly ash (aka coal ash) as a base material in the repaving of Michigan’s roads.
Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-104), the primary sponsor of the keystone piece of the legislative package, HB-5400, was joined by a couple dozen lawmakers favoring the bill, including a few Democrats, some who later pulled their support for the measure.
This legislation, if passed by the Senate, would amend the Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act to allow for a variety of uses for newly classified “low-hazard” substances — which are defined as materials with low potential for ground water contamination if handled in accordance with the law.
Schmidt, like many of his GOP colleagues, has earned a poor score from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. The non-partisan environmental organization previously assigned him a lifetime score of only 40 percent. This latest legislation is sure to bring that grade down even further. But Schmidt, like the honey badger, simply doesn’t care.
Coal fly ash is a toxic byproduct from coal-fired energy plants. Michigan produces more that 1.7 million tons of the stuff each year. Safe disposal has always been problematic. There are 29 known coal ash sites in Michigan, with all of them in close proximity to a body of water — 19 within five miles of a great lake. The group Clean Water Action reports that nearly 86 percent of the regulated sites are known to be contaminated or are considered likely to be contaminated. A lack of federal regulation, coupled with weak state regulations, and poor oversight of aging storage facilities has created a disaster waiting to happen.
Republican legislators, with the help of lobbyists, have cooked-up this plan to simply bury the coal ash under roads instead of properly funding a strong regulatory system for its safe disposal. Under roads and parking lots, the toxic waste could potentially leach into ground water, and much like Poe’s Telltale Heart — come back to haunt lawmakers.
Schmidt offered this feeble assurance:
“We have the testing standards in place, and we’re doing the same thing as surrounding states. We’re not going to be putting it into playground sand or anything like that. We’re making sure it’s used for roads or projects where it can be contained in a safe way.”
The House Legislative Analysis Report summarizes the allowable uses in road construction as such:
Road base or soil stabilizer that does not exceed four feet in thickness, except for areas where exceedances are incidental to variations in existing topography, is placed at least four feet above the seasonal groundwater table, does not come into contact with a surface water body, and is covered by concrete, asphalt pavement, or other material approved by the department.
Road shoulder material that does not exceed four feet in thickness except for areas where exceedances are incidental to variations in existing topography; is placed at least 4 feet above the seasonal groundwater table and does not come into contact with a surface water body; is sloped; and is covered by asphalt pavement, concrete, six inches of gravel, or other material approved by the Department of Environmental Quality.
James Clift, Policy Director of the Michigan Environmental Council had a different take on the legislation in his testimony to the House Committee on Natural Resources.
“Those roads and parking lots will eventually crumble. Some will be rebuilt, others will be left for future generations to figure out how to repurpose. The placement of industrial byproducts at those sites will make their redevelopment more challenging and be a burden on local units of government.”
In a press release, Clift wrote the following:
“These bills essentially allow a contractor to use hazardous materials under your parking lot and limit the property’s future use without your permission. People need to be provided full and accurate information upfront. These bills unfortunately hide critical information from the landowner until it’s too late.”
“Road Builders are going to be putting toxic coal fly ash as a base material under roads on people’s private land. That’s going to diminish the value of that land, and that’s going to require [the] land owner to disclose that information to any future buyers.”
Irwin offered an amendment that would have required the disclosure of coal ash usage by pavers and allow property owners the opportunity to decline application of the toxin.
The amendment was not adopted.
Prior to the Tuesday vote, lawmakers were supplied with the Clean Water Action report, Toxic Waste Exposed – Coal Ash Pollution in Michigan, which describes the dangers of the substance. In their haste to pass the bill, it’s questionable if they even bothered to recycle the report instead of simply pitching it.
Why then, after being presented with facts that should have given a reasonable person pause, did Schmidt and 67 other lawmakers vote for the legislative package?
The bill was supported by the Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Groundwater Association, and the Michigan Manufacturers Association. Downgrading coal ash from a hazardous category to a low-hazard, and further allowing the substance to be applied in what are referred to as “beneficial uses” would have certainly benefited particular industries — energy companies and road construction companies.
It should come as no surprise that Schmidt just happens to have some friends in those sectors. The lawmaker is termed-out in the House this year and is currently running for the Senate’s 37th seat. Between his 2012 House campaign fund and his Senate fund, he’s hauled in nearly $15,000 from political action committees affiliated with industries that may have an interest in HB-5400. Schmidt received contributions from two known supporters of the legislation, Michigan Manufacturers Association and the Michigan Farm Bureau, along with $9,600 from various energy PACs and $4,750 from road construction-related sources.
The watchdog group, Michigan Campaign Finance Network, reports that in this election cycle, as of this February, energy and infrastructure PACs have already raised a little under $1.3 million in fairy dust to sprinkle around. In 2012 this group cycled through about $1.9 million to gain the ear and the vote of Michigan politicians.
So, just exactly what is in this toxic substance lawmakers want to pave Michigan’s roads with? From the Clean Water Action report given to lawmakers:
The toxic substances commonly found in coal ash, including mercury, lead, vanadium, selenium, and arsenic, are known to pollute water and air and pose public health risks. For example, a person who drinks water polluted with arsenic has a cancer rate as high as one in fifty. Lead, mercury, and other heavy metals in coal ash may cause developmental disabilities in fetuses and children. Coal ash may harm wildlife, too; for example, selenium can cause mutations in fish. These toxic elements can migrate from disposal sites and pollute the environment. Dry coal ash can blow away as “fugitive dust” and wet coal ash can percolate through soil and pollute drinking water. Coal ash also can mix with stormwater and drain directly into Michigan’s waterways.
Clean Water Action recommended the following policy changes:
➜ Phase-out unsafe structural disposal of coal ash as construction and road fill
and ensure “beneficial reuse” exemptions apply only to encapsulated coal ash
➜ Require storage of all coal ash (including legacy coal ash) in lined landfills that
have, at a minimum: composite liners or synthetic membranes; leachate collection
systems; and require standardized water quality monitoring for all contaminants of
➜ Ban new construction of “contained waste” storage ponds and assess structural
safety of all existing impoundments and ponds.
➜ Clean-up all leaking coal ash sites with at least active remediation when
excavation is infeasible.
➜ Control fugitive coal ash dust at all sites, including excavation of historic coal ash
sites and Type II municipal landfills.
➜ Ensure water quality testing results are easily available to the public.
➜ Increase funding for MDEQ, including providing adequate resources for
enforcement actions on leaking Brownfield coal ash sites.
Surprisingly, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality endorsed the legislation allowing for “beneficial uses” of coal ash. The department’s enforcement powers seem to be at a low ebb since it was formed in 1995.
In 2014, the “Pure Michigan” campaign enjoyed a $29 million appropriation from the state’s General Fund — up by $4 million from the previous year. That’s about the same amount the Michigan Department of Environment Quality receives out of the General Fund as part of their half-billion dollar budget. The Pure Michigan campaign budget is slightly more than the amount MDEQ has lost in General Fund appropriations over the last decade.
Pure Michigan ads highlight the state’s abundant fresh water resources to attract tourist dollars. Ask the Gulf Coast states about what a major contamination would do to Michigan’s tourism market.
Coal ash in road beds and parking lots = pure stupidity.