CHICAGO — Michigan environmental officials are hoping to divert up to $200 million from $1 billion of voter-authorized clean water bonding to replenish a bankrupt brownfield cleanup program.
A bill pending in the Senate would expand the intended use of a chunk of $1 billion of Great Lakes Water Quality bond authorization approved by voters in 2002 to include the cleanup of contaminated sites.
Opponents of the bill — including the Michigan chapters of the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action — say the move is “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and the bigger problem is that state’s chronic structural deficit.
The 2002 bond authorization was intended to allow the State Revolving Fund to issue general obligation bonds and loan the proceeds to local governments to upgrade sewer infrastructure.
In eight years, the state has issued only $146 million of the $1 billion debt authorization.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment’s decision to try to tap into the Great Lakes bond money comes as the brownfield program, traditionally funded with voter-approved bond proposals every 10 years, has run out of money.
The brownfield program finances environmental cleanup of heavily contaminated, formerly industrial, sites and other environmental projects.
Environmental officials lobbied lawmakers throughout 2008 to put a $1.3 billion bond proposal on the ballot to replenish the cash-strapped brownfield program. Lacking legislative support, the effort died, and subsequent state budgets did not include new money for the program.
In July, Sen. Patricia Birkholtz introduced SB 1442, part of a package a of six bills, that would allow the state to tap $200 million of the sewer debt authorization to finance cleanup of so-called polluted nonpoint source-water sites, where the water source is not from a pipe.
“From our perspective, we’re using this money to address sites where there is a threat to water sources, and that’s consistent with the original [bond proposition] objective,” said Lynelle Marolf, chief of the remediation division at the natural resources department.
“Also, we took into account the amount of money available, and made certain that we wouldn’t redirect any of the money over the next five years that would interfere with a community’s ability to meet their needs over the next five years,” Marolf said. “The vast majority of the money made available under [the Great Lakes proposition] is still available as there has been less demand for it than the state expected.”
Clean Water Action and the Sierra Club wrote to the Senate urging lawmakers to oppose the bill and instead raise new revenue to adequately fund the brownfield program.
“We have over 40 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage that’s entering the state’s waterways, and people believed that the bonds they were approving in 2002 would go toward fixing that problem,” said Cyndi Roper, Michigan director of Clean Water Action. “It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. The bigger issue that we should be addressing is that the state has a very serious structural deficit that needs to be addressed.”
Roper said that the apparent low demand for the sewer money stems from the state’s lack of pushing governments to update their sewers as well as the difficulty local governments have in accessing the revolving fund program.
Until 2008, Michigan typically spent about $100 million annually to finance the brownfield program, which includes partnering with local developers.
The program was last funded through a $675 million bond issue that was approved in 1998. Voters also approved an $800 million issue in 1988.
A spokesman said the environmental department would likely renew its lobbying efforts for a bond proposal early next year after a nearly brand new Legislature is seated after November’s election.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in legislation to do this sort of thing right now,” said spokesman Mary Dettloff. “We’re thinking that we can start fresh in November with a new group of folks who aren’t tired of us begging for money.”