Read the full article by Jim Malewitz and Craig Mauger (Bridge MI)
“LANSING — In a single year, a self-described ‘lawyer-lobbyist’ went from working on behalf of a company accused of poisoning groundwater to writing a law that could weaken Michigan’s standards for pollution cleanups.
A joint investigation by Bridge Magazine and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network found that attorney Troy Cumings last year represented Wolverine Worldwide in behind-the-scenes negotiations concerning litigation brought against the company by then-Attorney General Bill Schuette over contamination from one of the company’s tanneries in Rockford.
At the same time, Cumings was board member or record keeper for fundraising accounts tied to Schuette, who was running for governor as a Republican.
More than 500 pages of internal emails produced under the Freedom of Information Act also show that Cumings, a 44-year-old lobbyist from Warner Norcross and Judd of Grand Rapids, later helped write legislation that makes it more difficult for state environmental regulators to update pollution cleanup standards for hundreds of chemicals.
The Legislature cleared the 50-page bill, Senate Bill 1244, in the final week of the 2017-2018 session. Outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed it into law on Dec. 31. That came days after dozens of Department of Environmental Quality staffers, in a rare public veto plea, said the changes would ‘threaten the health and safety of the people of Michigan.’
‘The polluters responsible for poisoning drinking water were in back rooms writing the legislation,’ said Bob Allison, deputy director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
‘It appears that we decided to bring them into the offices and let them sit around and write the rules here — all when the health of millions of Michiganders is at risk.’…
The situation raises the possibility that a polluting company could pay someone to write legislation to reap future benefits — all without the public knowing.
Cumings downplayed that possibility, noting that he made compromises with environmentalists. Internal documents show he relented on some points of contention. He compared his work to “model legislation” used to introduce similar ideas as bills in multiple states.
‘At the end of the day, whatever any lawyer drafts, it’s still vetted out,’ Cumings said.
‘The Legislature still has to review it. The administration. Everybody gets a chance in the process,’ he continued. ‘A lot of legislation starts with model legislation, right? Well, who drafted that model legislation? Right?’…
At issue is how Michigan regulators determine unsafe levels for chemicals polluting air, soil and water — and how much cleanup a polluter or developer must perform. The state is tracking nearly 7,000 sites in need of cleanups, nearly half of which are likely ‘orphans,’ meaning the original polluter is gone and taxpayers bear the burden.
Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, introduced the bill to overhaul how regulators set the standards.
Stamas, who did not return a message seeking comment, at the time echoed arguments from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Michigan Chemistry Council and other industry groups: the previous rules gave too much leeway to state employees and discouraged developers from rehabbing polluted sites.
Jason Geer, director of energy and environmental policy for Michigan Chamber of Commerce, argued in his committee testimony that businesses had faced uncertainty when it came to determining how much it would actually cost to clean up a contaminated site.
‘It’s impossible to finance that,’ he said. ‘It’s impossible to justify an investment.’
Democrats and environmentalists said the bill would add red tape to chemical updates as scientists warn cleanup criteria for hazardous chemicals such as PFAS might need strengthening.
Nick Occhipinti, a lobbyist for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, was among those asking lawmakers to tap the brakes during a House committee meeting in December.
‘The combination of toxicological, remediological, bureaucratic and legal skills needed to understand the impact of this bill is immense,’ he said before questioning a carveout for ‘polychlorinated dibenzodioxin and dibenzofuran congeners,’ commonly known as dioxins, from certain standards.
The bill said those chemicals, which have long polluted the Tittabawassee River in Saginaw, weren’t likely to leach from soil into groundwater. Occhipinti said experts should weigh in on whether that and other provisions were true.
The House committee approved the bill five minutes later, and the full House sent the bill to Snyder later that day.
Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, who served on the House committee that weighed the bill, said he worried about not knowing who Cumings was representing…
Emails show staffers in Snyder’s office prioritized the bill during his final days in office. They invited one environmentalist — James Clift, then with the Michigan Environmental Council — into the final negotiations over the language, and he won a few concessions…
But Snyder’s office leaned heavily on Cumings.
That included one lengthy weekend exchange days before the House sent the bill to Snyder. Angela Ayers, Snyder’s director of strategy, wrote that his staff wanted to finalize the language by Sunday, with Cumings and Clift offering their support in writing.
What ensued was a debate between Cumings and Clift over how much freedom to give regulators to determine what science to use in determining unsafe levels for specific chemicals.
Cumings labeled one of Clift’s ideas for giving state regulators more leeway compared to federal standards as ‘not acceptable’…
Cumings drafted the bill nearly a year after the state sued one of his clients in federal court: Wolverine.
That followed revelations that toxic PFAS chemicals leached into hundreds of drinking water wells from a former Wolverine Tannery in Rockford and dump sites in neighboring Belmont…
The state’s lawsuit on Jan. 10, 2018, came four months after Schuette announced his run for governor.
Cumings, who directed Schuette’s transition team in 2010, has been involved with numerous fundraising accounts tied to the former attorney general. Cumings is listed as the treasurer for one Schuette-tied nonprofit, On Duty for Michigan, and the secretary for Serve First Foundation, a nonprofit that funded the publication of a 2015 book written by Schuette called ‘Big Lessons From A Small Town.’
The U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids does not list Cumings as an attorney in the ongoing lawsuit by the state against Wolverine. But Bridge and MCFN obtained emails and text messages showing he arranged behind-the-scenes talks on Wolverine’s behalf in the weeks and days leading up to the lawsuit. In one email thread from December, a state attorney said Cumings wanted to talk about a potential settlement…”