1st Friday Focus on the Environment: The growing need for new 'polluter pay' laws in Michigan
ABOUT LANA POLLACK:
Lana Pollack, appointed by President Obama, served nine years as Chair of the U.S. Section, International Joint Commission. This bi-national commission is charged with advising Canada and the United States governments on matters primarily relating to their shared waters.
Throughout a diverse career, Ms. Pollack has demonstrated leadership on a range of public policy issues. She served 12 years as president of the Michigan Environmental Council, a coalition of organizations determined to protect the Great Lakes and Michigan’s environment. In three terms as a state senator, Ms. Pollack became a leading advocate for women, children and the environment. In this capacity she earned praise as the architect of Michigan’s landmark 1990 polluter pay law, which saved taxpayers $100 million in just five years by requiring polluters to pay for the cleanup of toxic waste.
In addition, Ms. Pollack was a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, taught at the University of Michigan and was elected to the Ann Arbor Board of Education. Other experiences included co-founding a successful magazine, Michigan Monthly, and co-directing an elementary school in Lusaka, Zambia.
She served on a number of educational, non-profit and corporate boards, including the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board, which annually directed $35-50 million in public funds to protect, purchase and enhance Michigan’s parkland and open space. Ms. Pollack, who grew up on the shore of Lake Michigan in Ludington, earned two degrees from the University of Michigan, a BA in political science and an MA in Education. She is married to Henry Nathan Pollack, with whom she raised two children.
ABOUT LISA WOZNIAK:
Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a bachelor's degree and two ensuing master's degrees in social work and Education.
Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to the September edition of First Friday Focus on the Environment. I'm David Fair, and monitoring continues in the Huron River after a Wixom-based auto supplier spilled a carcinogenic chemical in the waters, potentially putting the river, wildlife, and human health at risk. Tribar Technologies is the same company that contaminated the Huron River with PFAs that continues to result in a Do Not Eat fish advisory for nearly the entirety of the Huron. You know who's responsible for cleanup and really make remediation? You. Us. Taxpayers. Joining me in this First Friday conversation is my co-host, Lisa Wozniak. Lisa is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And I wish we were meeting under better circumstances.
Lisa Wozniak: Me too, Dave. Me, too. You know, there was a time in Michigan where state law would have required Tribar to be held financially liable for cleaning up its mess. But the polluter pay laws were dismantled in a wave of deregulation, or, as I like to think of it, policies aimed at serving polluting corporations and industry. And our guest this morning is a former state senator from Ann Arbor, the author of what were once the polluter pay laws in the state. She remains an advocate for passage of a new set of state laws holding polluters accountable. Lana Pollack, thank you so much for making time for us today.
Lana Pollack: Thank you. I'm pleased to be here.
Lisa Wozniak: Well, I'm betting. Lana, that you don't find the situation we find ourselves in with Tribar or the numerous other polluting entities and the pollution contamination issues that we're facing in Michigan at all surprising.
Lana Pollack: No, and they are disappointing. It's frustrating because they don't have to be the way they are. We don't have to be facing this repetitious, unfortunate series of events where, "Gee, can we swim in the water? Can we drink the water? What's wrong with the water today?" When, if there were responsible players, we would not have these challenges.
David Fair: When the legislation you introduced passed and became law, Michigan had a period from 1990 to 1995 in which it had the very strongest polluter pay laws anywhere in the country. It ended when John Engler was elected governor, and the laws were quickly dismantled. Then, in 1998, Michigan voters approved the Clean Michigan Initiative, and that allocated about $385 million to clean up contaminated sites. But that money is all but gone and really didn't touch all that needs to be done. So, while some sites have been cleaned up, there have been many others created without liability. Looking back almost a quarter century now, did you imagine we would still be without a polluter pay law?
Lana Pollack: I am at heart an optimist. That's why I stay in the kind of work that I have been privileged to do. I think the public, if they understood and paid attention, would definitely want to see the kind of reenactment of polluter pay that we had for a brief period in Michigan's history when Michigan was a leading state in the country, not just for cleaning up, not just the fact that $100 million was collected from known polluters within a five-year period, but, more importantly, during that five-year period, behaviors changed. People who owned businesses, entities who knew that they were going to be held accountable, behaved differently. There's nothing like liability, fair liability, for polluters to make people think ahead of time and take steps and provisions, so that they don't pollute. And I'll say this, too. Even when you clean up, it's never really as good as it was if it hadn't been polluted in the first place. Take the Kalamazoo River of 2010. The spill from Enbridge was horrific. They've spent a couple of billion dollars on it, and it's not as good as new. It's too bad it was ever so polluted.
David Fair: You're listening to WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment with the author of Michigan's original polluter pay legislation, Lana Pollack, and my co-host, Lisa Wozniak from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
Lisa Wozniak: So, Lana, two members of the Michigan Legislature right here in Ann Arbor have been trying to put a new version of polluter pay legislation on the books for the last few years. State Senator Jeff Irwin and State Representative Yousef Rabhi are both well aware of what you accomplished. And they have been trying to reinstate pieces of that. They can't even get the measures out of committee. Have you had conversations with them about it? And what do you think will happen moving forward?
Lana Pollack: Well, I have had conversations with them, and their legislation is important. And they were less ambitious than I was back in the eighties because they were hoping to at least get half of the pie instead of the whole thing. And yet, the Legislature is able to get away with allowing pollutants like Tribar and others to continue. I think that we need to....if they can't get it out of the committee, we need a different committee. We need people elected to office who will put the environment and public health and Michigan's water first. And I don't think that's impossible. We'll see what happens in November. We do have a governor who leads and is committed to Michigan's waters. And I'm hoping that, after the election, and it would be wonderful if this were bipartisan, because when we passed the legislation in 1983--no, no, that was when I introduced it when we passed it in 1990--it was definitely bipartisan. In fact, the Republicans, in fact, John Engler, who was the majority leader, the Republicans in the Michigan Senate at that time, wanted his team to go first. They wanted to embrace it. They wanted that credit for protecting Michigan's waters. And they got it done because he was going to run for governor. And he knew that clean water was a good thing to run on. People care about their water. But, once in power, unfortunately, they repealed it at the request of certain special interests. And it's stayed that way ever since.
David Fair: Now, Lisa, you have looked at recent polling that says there is, in fact, bipartisan support among the voters of the state of Michigan that favor protecting safe and accessible water.
Lisa Wozniak: Absolutely. Poll after poll after poll, over the course of the last 48-plus months, consistent polling puts clean, safe drinking water in the top three issues that people care about in the state and again, in a bipartisan way. We've seen so many contamination sites, so many areas of pollution. People all over the state are feeling the pressure on their drinking water. And I believe that if they had a voice directly into the halls of Lansing, they would have moved on this a long time ago. So, I think the public is with us 100%.
David Fair: So, to get more specific, Lana Pollack, given the political climate in Michigan and around the country, do you see a path forward post-November general election to change in corporate liabilities when it comes to environmental responsibility, what would that have to look like from the governor on down?
Lana Pollack: Well, I do see a chance, but it really, in the end, depends on who gets out to vote. As Lisa has just referenced, poll after poll shows they're just common sense are the people we talk to. We know people care about water everywhere, frankly, in the world, but most especially perhaps in Michigan with this Great Lakes identification and pride in that. So, what would it have to look like to get some action on it? I think the best way forward would be for the governor, who I hope will be reelected, because she has shown such a great commitment to Michigan's waters and much more. I think that we need gubernatorial leadership. I think we need a special commission, which would include, of course, representation from the the Legislature, including the two people who have introduced the legislation. But, also, hopefully we would have Republican representation, and I'm sure there would be an invitation to them if they were willing to serve. Let's look at this issue. It's simple in its in its concept. Polluters should pay rather than taxpayers that now collects money from the polluters, saves the taxpayers money, but it prevents, prevents, prevents. And it's also important to note that it's complex. These are legal matters. They're environmental justice matters. They're public health matters. There's technical matters of cleanup. So, you want serious consideration, as we had in the late eighties as we were developing this legislation. And I think Governor Whitmer--I haven't talked to her about it--but I think Governor Whitmer would be willing to provide that kind of leadership.
David Fair: We're talking with former state Senator Lana Pollack about the lack of polluter pay legislation in Michigan on WEMU First Friday Focus on the Environment. My co-host for this monthly conversation is Lisa Wozniak. She's the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
Lisa Wozniak: What role does corporate money in politics play in keeping the polluter liability burden on the taxpayer?
Lana Pollack: Well, it's like we see with the solar panels that are DTE Energy. Some nice people in that corporation, but the corporation is behaving badly because they are standing in the way of what needs to be done, which is more green energy, more affordable solar and wind energy. And we see that overall. We see it more in one party than the other. But, believe me, human nature being what it is and the cost of elections being just crazy out of hand for my generation of being in politics. So, yeah, the money plays a role and mostly not a very good one. But I think that WEMU plays a role. Public radio plays a role. Bridge Magazine and the traditional newspapers and radio stations. Information plays a role because the public is on the side of clean water. So, the more information we can get out, the more accountability. I think LCV--Michigan League of Conservation--plays a role because you have a very important report card that people can look up and see well this person's running for office. If they're an incumbent, what is their real record? Because when it's election time, everybody says they're for clean water, but when they're holding something back in a committee for four years, that's not clean water. It's not clean politics. And those people are not clean in their, I'd say, in their moral obligations to Michigan's waters.
David Fair: So, you've pointed out that almost everybody has a role to play in determining the future of our waters. You've spent a career working for more and better protections for the air, land, and water, and you've done so in a variety of capacities, from state Legislature to leader of the Michigan Environmental Council, to being appointed by President Obama to the U.S. International Joint Commission overseeing the health of the waters that traverse the American and Canadian borders. What is going to be your role moving forward?
Lana Pollack: Well, I'll tell you what has been probably the most gratifying role up till now is that I had the privilege over decades of working with people younger than I. And a lot of them, including the great Lisa Wozniak, you know, I claim a little mentorship, and she's outdone me. But there are others. She's one of a kind. But there are a lot of people who are younger and smarter, and I'm going to wish them well. What is my role? Oh, I guess I'll give a lot of people free advice, but I always recall what my father said. "Lana, free advice is usually what you've just paid for it."
David Fair: Well done. Well said. Thank you so much for the time today, Lana. We always appreciate your perspective and your company.
Lana Pollack: Thank you for having me and for all the good work.
David Fair: That is Lana Pollack, former president of the Michigan Environmental Council, presidential appointee to the U.S. section of the International Joint Commission and a former state lawmaker from Ann Arbor. And she was in that position when she drafted and got past the nation's strongest polluter pay laws, only to see them dismantled after only five years on the books. Of course, WEMU will be following along, and we'll keep you informed as to which direction all of this heads. And we'll do so with my First Friday co-host, Lisa Wozniak. Thank you, Lisa. We will talk to you again in October.
Lisa Wozniak: It's been a delight. Thank you, David. Thank you, Lana.
Lana Pollack: Thank you.
David Fair: That is Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. Each month, she joins us for WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.
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