In Government Shake-Up, Safe Drinking Water a High Priority for Michigan Governor
By Paul Egan
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday announced a reorganization of state government she said is largely aimed at ensuring safe drinking water for Michigan residents and fighting climate change.
Whitmer announced the restructuring of the Department of Environmental Quality as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. She also announced the creation of the following new offices within the restructured department: Climate and Energy, Clean Water Public Advocate and Environmental Justice Public Advocate.
Michigan was rocked by the Flint drinking water crisis in 2015 and more recently by statewide threats to drinking water safety from PFAS -- per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances used in firefighting foam and other substances.
Now, "we need to be laser-focused on cleaning up water in our state," Whitmer said at a news conference in Lansing.
Though mostly a shifting around of existing resources -- officials said no net gain in state employees will immediately result from the shake-up -- Whitmer's reorganization, which is effective April 7 and could face rejection from the GOP-controlled Legislature, does create new offices with new responsibilities.
The Clean Water Public Advocate will investigate concerns related to drinking water and establish "a statewide uniform reporting system to collect and analyze complaints about drinking water quality for the purpose of publicizing improvements and significant problems," according to one of the two executive orders Whitmer issued.
The Environmental Justice Public Advocate will investigate complaints related to residents who face discrimination based on factors such as race or income with respect to environmental issues.
A task force appointed by former Gov. Rick Snyder found in 2017 that environmental injustice was a factor in the Flint drinking water crisis. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission made a similar, but even stronger, finding in 2017, saying that the public health crisis had its roots in a history of systemic racism in the majority-black Michigan city. Among other findings, the commission said that implicit or unconscious bias among state officials could have influenced the inadequate response when Flint residents complained about the color, odor and taste of their drinking water.
The state has not yet named who will hold either of those posts.
Whitmer, a Democrat who took office Jan. 1, also announced that Michigan will be joining the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of governors from 19 other states who have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and said she is strengthening a state team responding to the threat of PFAS.
The change establishing the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team as a permanent advisory body within the environmental department is effective immediately.
Whitmer said the new offices she has announced will help ensure swift responses to concerns and complaints about drinking water and help restore public trust in what comes out of taps.
"This is about finding real solutions to clean up our drinking water so every Michigander can bathe their kids and give them a glass of water at the dinner table safely," Whitmer said.
Whitmer said she is abolishing the Environmental Rules Review Committee, which was created in 2018 through Republican-sponsored legislation and was dominated by industry appointees who would review proposed environmental rules. Critics described the committee as a "polluter panel."
"They created more bureaucracy," Whitmer said, when asked why she was eliminating the committee. "The business community, like anyone in our state, will have the ability to have a seat at the table."
Abolishing a committee established by statute -- as well as any other measures in the executive orders requiring the force of law -- could be overturned by majority votes in both chambers of the Legislature, if lawmakers act within 60 days. Whitmer spokesman Tiffany Brown said thatif either of the executive orders setting out the reorganization is rejected by the Legislature, it will be rejected in its entirety.
Citing as a concern recent wide swings in Michigan weather, in which temperatures went from 40 below with wind chill last week to the low 50s on Monday, Whitmer said her actions are aimed at fighting climate change, in addition to protecting drinking water.
"The science is in, and it's time to get to work to mitigate the impact of climate change for the sake of our kids and future generations," she said.
The new Office of Climate and Energy will do the work currently carried out by the Michigan Agency for Energy, plus coordinate state government responses to climate change and provide guidance on how to reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate the impact of climate change.
The reorganization won't immediately involve additional state employees, said Liesl Clark, who headed DEQ and will head the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. There will be "some shifting," with most functions and employees of the Michigan Agency for Energy moving from the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to the new environmental agency and the functions and employees of the Office of the Great Lakes moving there from the Department of Natural Resources, Clark said.
Whitmer's office didn't have an estimate of the costs associated with the reorganization, such as changing departmental letterhead, but Brown said it's expected to be minimal.
Environmental groups reacted positively to the announced changes, while Michigan's most powerful business group urged lawmakers to reject it.
"Gov. Whitmer's action sets a clear tone for how her administration is going to tackle climate change, protect the Great Lakes and our communities," said Mike Berkowitz, legislative and political director for the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter. "We applaud Gov. Whitmer for taking a strong stance on climate change and fighting for our air, land, water and public health."
Mary Brady-Enerson, Michigan director for Clean Water Action, described the measures as "a step in the right direction toward reducing dangerous pollution in our Great Lakes, rivers, streams and drinking water and speeding up Michigan's transition to clean, renewable energy.
Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, expressed disappointment with Whitmer's proposed elimination of the Environmental Rules Review Committee.
"The Michigan Chamber is opposed to silencing the voices of environmental stakeholders," and lawmakers should "seriously consider" voting to reject the change, Studley said in a news release.
Republican legislative leaders said they were still studying the details.
"The governor has proposed some significant changes to state government and we're in the process of reviewing the details," said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.
In setting out the reorganization, Whitmer issued the second and third executive orders of her administration and the 12th executive directive.
Executive orders can be used to reassign functions among state agencies, create temporary agencies, commissions or task forces, or proclaim a state emergency.
Executive directives establish basic internal policies or procedures for state agencies.
The state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars responding to the Flint water crisis, in which Flint's drinking water became contaminated with lead during the administration of Snyder, a Republican.
(c)2019 the Detroit Free Press