Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced Monday another executive action, this one correcting course after nearly a decade of Republican leadership put Michigan in the national spotlight as home to a terrible water crisis, as well as allowing polluters to play fast and loose on environmental regulations.
Whitmer signed two executive orders (EO) designed to clean up drinking water, protect the Great Lakes, and combat climate change.
“The science is in on climate change, and we need to get to work on behalf of our kids and future generations of Michiganders,” she said at an event at Constitution Hall in Lansing, where the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is housed.
The first EO renames the DEQ as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), and in doing so, shifts what was a separate entity under former Governor Rick Snyder – the Michigan Agency for Energy – to be under the DEGLE umbrella. The newly named department will also take control of overseeing the health and safety of Michigan’s Great Lakes from the Department of Natural Resources’ list of responsibilities.
The first EO also creates new offices within the department, including Office of the Clean Water Public Advocate and Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate, as well as the Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team. Department Director Liesl Clark said she did not immediately expect to hire additional staff, instead restructuring and reorganizing from within.
“We need to be laser-focused on cleaning up the water in our state,” Whitmer said.
In the immediate aftermath of the Flint water crisis, legislative Democrats called for citizen oversight of the former DEQ as trust in government continued to erode for residents of communities like Flint and Detroit – the latter of which is facing its own water crisis over shutoffs to families who can’t afford those bills. It was not immediately clear whether the “Public Advocate” positions would indeed be hiring from communities, but Whitmer acknowledged those positions specifically were created due to the lack of trust in state government.
Director Clark added, “By creating offices like the Clean Water Public Advocate, we can get to work solving the problems that dozens of communities are facing with their drinking water. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work with Governor Whitmer to protect Pure Michigan and strengthen our economy.”
The second EO Whitmer signed today “strengthens” Michigan PFAS Action Response Team to inform the public about perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – chemicals that have been found in water across the state that originate in large part from plastic substances and fire-fighting foam used by firefighters. The Response Team will also be tasked with locating contamination and taking action to protect this drinking water.
Meanwhile, legislative Democrats continue to push for tougher standards on PFAS contamination – a measure being led by Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids).
This EO also creates a new Office of Climate and Energy to work with the governor to mitigate the impacts of climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and embrace more sustainable energy solutions, a statement from the governor’s office outlined. It also transfers duties related to process improvement, good government and the Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules over to what is now the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.
The Polar Vortex and Nestle Enter the Conversation
Whitmer also signed an Executive Directive to add Michigan to the United States Climate Alliance, where it will join 19 other states’ commitment to implement policies advancing goals of the Paris Agreement, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26-to-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The Alliance also promotes more clean energy and collaborates on ways to reduce its carbon footprint.
“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,” said Whitmer. “We have a chance to build a system that really works so we can protect our water and improve public health.”
Meanwhile, questions lingered about energy in light of Whitmer’s request just last week that people turn down their thermostats to fend off a natural gas shortage when a facility owned by Consumers Energy caught fire, putting a major hit on the system overall.
Whitmer continued to say she wants to take an overall assessment on what’s going on with utilities, saying there is a need for a better plan when such crises arise. The mishap by Consumers put the governor in a tough spot to call a late press conference and join the company in calls for turning thermostats down despite a bitter cold that shuttered state government for several days last week.
And as water was the main topic of Monday’s press conference, Whitmer was asked about Nestle – who has come under fire for the inordinate amount of water it takes from Michigan’s rivers, lakes and streams for an absolutely minimal price, while across the state, Flint residents continue to struggle with clean drinking water or trusting their taps.
The governor said her office is still analyzing what it can do, but made clear, “I do not think private companies should have unlimited access to bottling and selling fresh water.”