A long-buried chemical tank discovered in April beneath a Franklin Village dry cleaner, suspected of leaking harmful vapors into nearby businesses that had gone undetected for decades, illustrates the need for the state to step up measures to protect residents from thousands of sites with the potential for similar pollution.
The chemicals, known commonly as TCE and PCE, often associated with some dry cleaning and certain degreasers, are some of the latest chemicals to come under the scrutiny of state and federal health and environment regulators, and are considered a human carcinogen associated with several types of cancer and other health problems.
Officials with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) say there's more than 4,000 sites in the state that have the potential to be contaminated with the chemicals, including more than 400 in Oakland County. While they don't expect to find contamination at each of those potential sites, many thousands more people may be unwittingly exposed to the chemicals from the vapors they produce that can permeate into air inside of buildings.
The DEQ is now taking steps to tackle the backlog of inspections needed at potentially contaminated sites in the state. However, current funding allows for only a fraction of those sites to be inspected. Funded in part by the state's bottle deposit law and former Clean Michigan Initiative bond funds passed by voters in 1998, the bond has since run its course, and little money is left for investigation into these contaminated sites.
While lawmakers have appropriated about $3 million over the past two years to begin tackling the problem of contaminated sites, there remains a lack of dedicated funding for the problem. Outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder – perhaps learning a lesson about contamination from the Flint water crisis – is now proposing a fix that would address environmental cleanup and other remediation and redevelopment issues in the state.
Dubbed the Renewing Michigan's Environment initiative, the proposal would provide $45 million annually to the DEQ for environmental cleanup, brownfield redevelopment and the addition of 20 full-time employees to support the program. Funds would be generated by raising the fee amount the state collects for the disposal of solid waste, commonly known as "tipping fees." The proposal, which in late April was still in a state Senate appropriations subcommittee, would raise the fees from about 36 cents to $4.75 per ton.
The increase is one we believe lawmakers should support.
The proposed increase would be on-par with other states in the region. The current average is about $5.30 per ton, with surrounding states all higher than Michigan’s. Michigan's low fees make it a dumping ground for others' trash, with about 25.5 percent of the state's solid waste coming from other states or countries.
The proposed fees would equate to an increase of about $4.75 per household annually. That's a fair price to pay for what is proposed in return. In addition to addressing thousands of potential vapor intrusion sites, the funds would be used to address other contamination, including more than a dozen confirmed sites contaminated with PFAS, a chemical used in some firefighting foams that have led to a bevy of health issues in the state.
The state proposal would be key in addressing the issue of vapor contamination. However, local municipalities should also consider taking steps to limit contamination in the future. That can be done without state approval through zoning ordinances and requirements, a step that many municipalities are already taking by either restricting or requiring special use permits for dry cleaning processing centers and other industrial uses that involve potentially harmful chemicals.
We are pleased that new commercial districts in Rochester have specifically restricted dry clean processing centers around the downtown area; and Rochester Hills requires special use permissions from the planning commission and city council for such industrial uses. While Birmingham allows such uses in all its business districts, the city placed restrictions in its latest transitional district zones that fall between residential and commercial areas.
Such zoning restrictions or special requirements ensure that businesses have less potential to affect surrounding businesses or residents. It also allows a municipality to make sure that any business using potentially harmful chemicals is taking the necessary precautions.
While the state, nor this publication, intend such precautions to be an indictment of the dry cleaning businesses or others using TCE, PCE and other such solvents, we do believe in the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Not only will such prevention help to ensure human health, it may help to reduce clean-up costs in the future.