When I was a kid, we lived in Muskegon for a while, which was home to the Sappi Fine Paper Mill. I clearly remember waking up many mornings to the stench of that mill, built directly upwind of the city. Sappi was finally shut down in 2009 and is now a brownfield project that is being redeveloped as a mixed-use residential waterfront complex. They even named it Windward Pointe, as if to finally acknowledge the poor location for a smokestack belching toxins into the community.
Generally, air and water quality have improved over the last 20 years. The issue now seems to be just how long some of the chemicals we produced for so long actually take to biodegrade. A prime example is the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination found on 3M sites. The Detroit Free Press did an informative write-up on the issue, which reads like a current day version of A Civil Action. The lawsuits have started, the corporate cover-ups are coming to light, and Attorney General Nessel is gearing up to take on 3M. Perhaps the Flint water controversy has brought increased energy into addressing these issues.
While environmental regulation has been around for 50 years, I think change on the ground probably comes along only after decades of more favorable caselaw, more developed administrative procedures, and enforcement with some actual teeth. It will be interesting to see whether 3M actually ends up incurring environmental liability.