Whitmer revamps environmental agency after Flint water crisis

FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2018, file photo, Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer hosts a post-election news conference in Detroit. Whitmer is restructuring the state agency that drew criticism for its handling of the Flint water crisis under former Gov. Rick Snyder. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

By JOHN FLESHER and
DAVID EGGERT
Associated Press
LANSING,– Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took steps Monday to restructure and rename the state environmental agency that drew criticism for its handling of the Flint water crisis under former Gov. Rick Snyder.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will become the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. The agency will house new public advocacy offices for clean water and “environmental justice” to investigate complaints about water quality and help ensure fair consideration of low-income and minority community interests.
While not referring specifically to Flint, Whitmer said during a ceremony where she signed three executive orders that “communities across our state don’t trust the water coming out of their taps and there’s a real lack of trust in state government.”
Despite the state’s vast fresh water resources in the heart of the Great Lakes region, “there are parents who cannot bathe their kids or give them a glass a water at the dinner table with confidence,” said Whitmer, a Democrat elected last November. “It is time for that to change.”
The environmental quality department came under fire after overseeing Flint’s ill-fated switch of drinking water sources in 2014. The city was under supervision of a financial manager appointed by Snyder, a Republican, when it stopped buying treated water from Detroit and began drawing from the Flint River. The move intended to save money while a new pipeline from Lake Huron was built.
Investigators later determined that Department of Environmental Quality officials misread federal guidelines and did not require use of corrosion-control additives.
The river water gnawed away lead from pipes, joints and fixtures that contaminated drinking water in the majority-black city of 100,000 people. In 2015, local children were found to have elevated levels of the toxin in their blood.
The department’s director and top spokesman resigned, while criminal charges were filed against several other officials. A state task force assigned primary blame to the DEQ, saying that even after its mistakes were clear, it responded with “intransigence and belligerence that has no place in government.”
Liesl Clark, whom Whitmer appointed to lead the retooled agency, told The Associated Press the change of administration offers “an opportunity to turn a page and together embark on shared priorities around protecting public health and the environment.”
The newly created public advocate offices will make it easier for citizens to register their concerns and improve accountability, Clark said in an interview prior to Whitmer’s announcement. The executive order also establishes an environmental justice team with representatives from other state departments including natural resources, agriculture and transportation.
“We get better conclusions when we have diverse voices, more voices at the table,” Clark said.
Guy O. Williams, president & CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, praised the moves as reflecting an understanding that “all Michigan citizens, regardless of race, income or zip code, should have clean air to breathe and safe water to drink.”
Mike Shirkey, leader of the Republican majority in the state Senate, is reviewing Whitmer’s plan, said spokeswoman Amber McCann. She added that lawmakers may conduct hearings “so that the public and the legislature can better understand how this will impact the state.”
The plan doesn’t change the environmental department’s core functions, such as issuing permits for air and water pollution and monitoring compliance.
Nor does it promise additional funding or beefed-up staffing for those tasks, even though state and federal reports have described Michigan’s DEQ — which has about 1,100 employees, hundreds of whom attended the signing ceremony Monday — as strapped after years of budget and personnel cuts. Clark said she would make the case for increases with the state budget office.
Another emerging threat to Michigan’s water quality: the discovery of toxic chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, at dozens of locations around the state. Under Snyder, the DEQ and an interagency task force conducted statewide testing of drinking water sources and initiated cleanups at highly contaminated sites.
Whitmer signed a separate order making the group a permanent fixture in the new department and assigning it to coordinate Michigan’s PFAS actions, including continued searches for contaminated water supplies, informing the public and recommending new laws.
The department will consider a tougher standard for initiating cleanup action than the current threshold of 70 parts per trillion that is recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Clark said.
The Michigan Agency for Energy, a separate entity under Snyder, will become part of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy — as will the Office of the Great Lakes, currently part of the Department of Natural Resources.
Additionally, the department will have a new office on climate policy that will seek ways to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and promote renewable energy while helping Michigan adjust to a warmer world.
Whitmer’s third executive order says Michigan will become the 20th member of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of governors seeking state-level action after President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw the U.S. from an international climate accord.
“It communicates that we take this very seriously, that we make decisions based on science and that we are going to do everything we can to mitigate the human impacts that are warming our globe and changing our climate forever,” Whitmer said.