By SHERI MCWHIRTER, GARRET ELLISON and SIMON SCHUSTER
MLive Media Group and Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING, MI (April 19, 2022) — Bipartisan legislation that would modernize Michigan solid waste management to boost recycling and composting has languished for nearly a year in a Senate committee chaired by a Republican leader who, according to campaign finance records, took sizable donations from landfill owners as the bills were moving through the House.
A political action committee for Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, received $30,000 in contributions last spring from three members of the Balkema family of southwest Michigan, whose businesses include the Orchard Hill Sanitary Landfill in Berrien County and Best Way Disposal, a Kalamazoo-based waste-hauling service that operates across the Midwest.
The donations to Nesbitt’s Leadership PAC occurred four days after the 8-bill package cleared the House Natural Resources Committee, according to records analyzed by the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network in partnership with MLive.
The bills passed the House with significant bipartisan support last April and were unexpectedly referred to the Senate committee on regulatory reform, which is chaired by Nesbitt, who said he asked for them because “there’s a lot of questions on these bills.”
Nesbitt, who is considered a top contender for Senate Majority Leader next term, has yet to hold a committee hearing. Advocates and sponsors are frustrated. They’re worried about the prospects for the legislation, which involved 70-some stakeholders and was six years in the making.
The bills are rooted in efforts started under Gov. Rick Snyder. They managed to bring together Republicans, Democrats, business and environmental groups — a rare feat in Lansing — and passed the House with comfortable bipartisan majorities.
Influential business groups such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Chemistry Council say they want to see the bill packages move this year.
However, Nesbitt said he has philosophical differences with certain elements in the legislation. He denied that political contributions played a role in his decision to stall the bills.
“I deal with policy,” Nesbitt told MLive. “The least thing I like doing is actually fundraising. But it’s something where it’s necessary because the Democrats are doing it, Republicans are doing it. You got to be able to compete against those folks that are out there.”
Representatives who worked on the package aren’t having it.
“That’s unethical. That’s wrong,” said Rep. William Sowerby, a Democrat from Clinton Township who co-sponsored the package as minority vice chair in the House committee, when told about the donations Nesbitt received from landfill owners.
“I’ve got over three decades in elected office and I have stood back and watched the disgusting amount of money thrown by people in the waste industry at elected officials for wining and dining, sports tickets and large campaign contributions over the years,” Sowerby said.
“It’s very obvious and the public is tired of it.”
Landfill cash flows to Nesbitt as recycling bills advance
On March 25, 2021, the House Natural Resources committee advanced the 8-bill recycling and waste package to the House floor after holding its initial hearing on March 18.
A month later, on April 22, the House overwhelmingly passed the bills, HB 4454 through 4461.
It was a momentous moment for legislation which failed to clear the House twice before — as well as a signature achievement for Rep. Gary Howell, a Republican from Lapeer who championed the package as chair of the House Natural Resources committee.
“It’s something he strongly would like to see on the governor’s desk and signed into law,” said Mike Goschka, a former state senator who is Howell’s legislative director. Howell referred questions to Goshka last week following a family emergency.
Days after the bills cleared Howell’s committee, landfill money began flowing into Nesbitt’s Leadership PAC. On March 29, campaign finance records show Nesbitt received three $10,000 donations — one apiece from John Balkema, Michael Balkema and Daniel Balkema.
John Balkema is retired as president of Best Way Disposal, a company that operates waste and recycling services in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.
John’s son, Michael Balkema, is vice president of Landfill Management Co., which operates the Orchard Hill Sanitary Landfill along I-94 near Watervilet in Berrien County.
Michael’s cousin, Daniel Balkema, is president of Balkema Excavating, a Kalamazoo-based company “experienced in landfill development” that’s affiliated with Aggregate Resources Inc., West Plains Mining LLC. and Best Way Disposal, according to its website.
Messages left with Michael and Daniel Balkema at their company offices were not returned last week. John Balkema could not be reached.
Nebsitt’s leadership fund also received two smaller $500 contributions on March 29; one apiece from Balkema employees Chris Phillips of Best Way and Daniel Batts of Landfill Management. A few months later, on July 19, an employee PAC for Waste Management Inc., a major national landfill owner and waste hauler, contributed $1,000 to Nesbitt’s leadership fund.
When asked whether the landfill industry contributions were a factor in stalling the bills, Nesbitt said they are “unrelated.” He expressed concerns with unspecified “fees and mandates” in the legislation and is “looking at potentially a new draft of seeing that, can we accomplish some of these goals without the same mandates and fees and fines.”
Legislation has roots in Snyder-era initiatives
The bill package seeks to modernize waste management in Michigan and increase recycling and composting by overhauling regulations in the solid waste law, known as Part 115 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.
A primary goal is to increase Michigan’s recycling rate, which lags the nation at 18 percent of total recyclable goods that are actually recycled. The national average is 34 percent.
Landfill space for non-hazardous household garbage and commercial trash is plentiful and cheap in Michigan — which recycling advocates say is a function of outdated, decades-old laws that favor landfilling. They want to divert more organic material to composting facilities and recyclable material to markets where it can used in new products.
The Michigan Recycling Coalition, which has spearheaded the legislative package, estimates that Michiganders pay more than $1 billion a year to manage their waste, and within that flow of garbage is $600 million worth of recyclable materials lost to landfills each year.
To that end, the Snyder administration in 2015 began the first comprehensive look at updating the state’s solid waste law in several decades. Years of advisory and stakeholder group meetings resulted in a fragile alliance between environmental and business interests.
It was yeoman’s work taking place outside the spotlight, involving substantial compromise. The bills include other reforms beyond recycling. Among the package, one bill would increase financial surety costs for landfills. Other provisions allow longer “post-closure” periods on landfills, during which the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) requires monitoring and potential remediation of any emerging issues.
“I think we came to something that was extremely reasonable,” said Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor. “It’s not far to one side or the other. It’s just legislation that makes sense.”
Rabhi said it’s been “puzzling” to see it stall in the Senate.
“I’ve just wondered why — what the problem is with the bills, if there is one, because we’ve so extensively worked on this over multiple legislative sessions with other partners. I wonder if it’s not just one or two actors, maybe powerful, that are deciding to interject themselves at a late stage of this process, because they didn’t get everything they wanted or something.”
The waste industry says it is still looking for changes. Landfill representatives say they’ve spoken to Nesbitt about remaining sticking points with HB 4461, which expands the say of adjacent communities in waste planning and the ability of local governments to, among other things, pass local ordinances addressing landfill aesthetics and hours of operation.
Stakeholders say those elements are partly related to a dispute between the Arbor Hills Landfill in Washtenaw County and surrounding residents who drove the state to a $2.3 million settlement this year addressing odor complaints and other concerns.
“It’s not a perfect package for us by any means,” said Kevin Kendall, president of the Michigan Waste and Recycling Association (MWRA), a trade group representing landfills and waste services. “We would for sure need to have those concerns addressed.”
Mike Alaimo, director of environmental & energy affairs at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber also wants to see the waste industry sticking points ironed out. Nonetheless, “we definitely feel like the package is ready for a hearing,” he said.
The Michigan Chemistry Council (MCC) is also eager to see the bills move. In fact, the chemical industry lobby was able to convince Nesbitt to carve out a small piece of the recycling package related to “advanced” technologies and write a new bill, which Nesbitt championed during a Senate Environmental Quality committee hearing last week.
“Since that broader waste/recycling package has been stalled due to unrelated opposition from the landfill industry, we didn’t want to wait longer to open Michigan for potential advanced recycling investments through legislation,” said chemistry council director John Dulmes.
Should the bills die at the end of session, Rep. Howell, who is term-limited out of the legislature this year, would not be around to champion them in the House again.
Alaimo said that would “not be ideal” for the chamber.
“Given that we believe that the package, while not perfect, is ready for a hearing — that would not be an ideal situation for us,” he said. “We do think that now is the time to be having these discussions and moving it forward, before next cycle.”