In Michigan, we have laws in place that give the state the power to essentially rope off polluted areas instead of cleaning them up. Instead, those laws tell the public: don’t drink the water or build your house here.
Sometimes these sites are cleaned up to a certain point and sometimes they’re just left polluted with some measures in place to control the risks.
Through a public records request, we've found that there are now more than 2,000 sites like this in Michigan.
In 1995, a law was amended that took polluters off the hook for polluting and shifted that cost to taxpayers. It made it easier to partially clean up a contaminated site and expanded the ability to set land use restrictions. These restrictions (also called institutional controls) let people use these sites while keeping them from coming in contact with toxic chemicals.
Sybil Kolon is retired from the Department of Environmental Quality. She worked in the Remediation and Redevelopment Division for 24 years.
Kolon had only been with the DEQ for a short time back then, but she signed onto a letter opposing the changes.
"My concern is that whenever you leave contamination in the ground or in the groundwater, you may think you have it under control, but the environment, the groundwater is very complex and it's hard to know what's going to happen over time," she says.
Kolon says there are some instances where it's appropriate to use these land use restrictions. But she says many of her colleagues at the DEQ in the 1990s were opposed to the changes.
"It just seemed like the direction we were being guided to follow was to facilitate businesses who have to comply with our laws to do less cleanup," says Kolon. "Most of the people I have worked with over the years, they joined the agency because they wanted to protect human health and the environment."
Kolon says it was possible to do partial cleanups even before the 1995 law change, but the practice has become a lot more prevalent.
Kolon says another law change that took effect in 2015 broadened the definition of how institutional controls could be used (among other things). She wrote a letter to the DEQ director at the time, Dan Wyant, saying that change was the “most misguided and lame environmental legislation Michigan has ever seen.”
"I don't know what else I could've done, if I could go back in time, because they weren't listening to us back then, and I don't know why they would," she says. "But I would just say that citizens need to be more engaged in what's going on with our department and electing legislators who are going to put their interests at least on equal footing with the regulated community."
Kolon argues that we need businesses to be successful, but not at the expense of public health and the environment.
"What I have seen over the years is that the politics have become a much bigger part of what's driving the DEQ and the regulators. They are being pressured by the legislators to let the regulated community do less in order to spend less money because they are pro-business and they think anything you can do to help business is good for the state of Michigan," she says.
"And they're not really looking at the state of Michigan as a whole, and all of the wonderful resources that we still have in our state. I don't know that they're going to listen until the political terrain changes and we get some legislators who will actually stand up for the people and the environment."
You can listen to our interview with Sybil Kolon above.