By NICK MCWHERTER
Capital News Service
LANSING-A tax on gasoline is not being used to clean and excavate Michigan’s dangerous underground storage tanks as it was intended.
Instead, it has been used to pay for state staffing costs and to repay environmental bonds.
And now lawmakers are looking for ways to speed the cleanups at the trouble some sites that experts say can contaminate drinking water.
The questionable use of the funds troubles environmental groups.
“In this year’s budget it has been used for both repayment of bonds in the department of treasury budget and for paying about $17 million dollars in staffing costs in the Department of Environmental Quality,” said James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council.
The funds are being diverted because the money is not in a fund that is constitutionally protected and the legislature can then move the money for other purposes, he said.
The tax expires in January 2013. A recent study indicates that the public favors reauthorizing it for its intended purpose, Clift said.
Approximately 10,000 tanks are leaking in the state of Michigan, some dating back to 1998, according to state records. These leaking sites are cleaned up as often as new ones appear. Approximately 400 sites are resolved, but the same numbers of new sites appear each year.
Gasoline contains a number of hazardous materials including carcinogens and benzenes that are leaking into the ground and, if found in drinking water, can have detrimental health impacts including cancer.
“We’re saying that (lawmakers) should be doing two things; take their hands out of the cookie jar, stop using it for unintended purposes so that we can address these sites,” said Clift. “Reauthorize it, and then use it for the reason it was intended.”
Meanwhile, State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, has presented legislation to revamp the program. A priority is to avoid wasting the funds by shortening the time it takes to clean up the sites.
“We think there needs to be some definite closure,” Casperson said.
The lengthy cleanups are a problem for business owners because the property value is taken away from them when extensive construction and repairs are necessary, he said.
Casperson said he is aware that the funds are being diverted and understands why, but does not agree with it.
“Money is tight; people are trying to find ways to pay bills and taking from sources they think are available to them,” Casperson said. “I think it should be nailed down, definite, and specific as to where it goes.”
The diverting of funds is an issue, but the extent of the cleanup and the amount of resources it requires is just as big of a problem, he said.
“Whether the money is diverted or some of the money is diverted, if we keep all the money there and make sure it gets spent where it is supposed to, that’s good,”Casperson said. “But at the same time if these things keep getting dragged out I don’t think we will ever be able to raise enough money to pay for that type of endgame, because there is no endgame.
“The bigger problem with the funding of the money is how we are going about these cleanups and how we are dragging them out,” he said. “Which is costing money, costing money. And we are not being very efficient with it.”
All articles © 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By NICK MCWHERTER