News Story

Millions Borrowed And Spent For Enviro Cleanups – But Did They Happen?

Sloppy state records mean taxpayer dollars may have been thrown away

In the northern Michigan city of Alba, with a population of less than 300 people, is the Museum of Darkness and Tunnel of Doom.

The building appears to be an old flat roof house in need of repair.

The Museum of Darkness and Tunnel of Doom has a Facebook page with 13 fans. The owners of the Facebook page did not respond to a Facebook message asking for information. But the page has been active in October as Halloween nears, with a few posts and a notice of an $8 admission.

If most Michigan residents have never heard of this business, they should know their tax dollars were earmarked at one time to clean up or remediate the property on which it sits. But current state officials appear unable to identify records that show what was supposed to have been done and whether it happened.

In November 1988, Michigan voters approved two bond proposals that totaled $800 million. They were to be used for environmental cleanup of sites and for recreational projects across the state. The environmental bonds accounted for $660 million. While taxpayers are still paying off those environmental bonds – largely due to refinancing – it’s very difficult to track many of the projects nearly 30 years later.

The state’s latest budget included $22 million to pay down the debt on those bonds. As of 2016, the debt remained at $97.9 million.

Many of the facilities are no longer in use or have long been abandoned.

Some sites have addresses that are now home to empty lots, with the businesses having been gone for decades.

For example, the state identified a cleanup of Howard’s Radiator in Jackson. The site has been abandoned and an empty building is covered with graffiti. The owner, who was not the original owner when the bond was passed in 1988, has paid the taxes on that property. But again, no records have been produced that indicate whether a cleanup ever actually happened.

“It's a shame that taxpayers are still paying for projects that are no longer useful,” said James Hohman, director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “It should be a warning the next time lawmakers ask voters to approve a statewide borrow-and-spend scheme.”

The state of Michigan says the bonds have produced many success stories. Officials cite a few examples that were funded by the 1988 environmental bonds.

  • An automobile plant that produced Studebaker cars left the property contaminated with metals, oil and gas. The bonds helped pay for $480,000 of the cleanup. That plant burned down in 2005, but it was redeveloped as housing for homeless veterans.
  • A one-acre parcel in Kalamazoo had a number of industrial and manufacturing uses in the 1980s and 1990s until it ended up as a junkyard. The property was cleaned up and a family-owned bakery moved onto the lot in 1998. The bakery expanded in 2005.
  • A 7.5-acre site in Traverse City that operated as a foundry for 110 years was demolished. It then sat vacant for 17 years with 80,000 cubic yards of contaminated foundry waste underneath. The bonds helped pay for $1.6 million in cleanup work. Riverfront offices, restaurants and condominiums now sit on that property.


Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.