Whitmer focuses on clean water, climate change in environmental department overhaul

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, environmental department director Liesl Clark and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist on Feb 4, 2019.

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday announced plans to overhaul the Michigan environmental department to more closely focus on protecting the Great Lakes, ensuring clean drinking water and combating climate change.

Using a series of executive orders to make her first major shakeup of state government, the East Lansing Democrat said she was fulfilling a campaign pledge to be “more responsive to the people of Michigan” amid ongoing fears over the Flint water contamination crisis and emerging PFAS “forever chemicals” in groundwater.

“Right now communities across our state don’t trust the water coming out of their taps, and there is a real lack of trust in state government,” Whitmer told reporters at a press conference with department director Liesl Clark. “It is time for that to change.”

Whitmer’s first non-emergency executive order creates the new Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. It incorporates an existing Office of the Great Lakes that had been housed in the Department of Natural Resources and a new Office of Climate and Energy that will swallow the former Agency for Energy.  

The revamped department will also house new public advocates for clean water and environmental justice that will accept and investigate complaints from residents, along with a new  Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team.

A second executive order will make permanent and give new responsibilities to the Michigan PFAS Action Response team created by former Gov. Rick Snyder.

Michigan will also join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of governors from 19 other states who have committed to fighting climate change after the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the international Paris Agreement.

As part of the pledge, made by the governor through an executive directive, Michigan will work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and carbon pollution, Whitmer said. It’s not clear how much those efforts could cost.

“It essentially says to the world that Michigan is going to live up to the promise that we as a country made at one point — that Michigan embraces science and recognizes the threat,” Whitmer said. “We’re going to do everything we can to mitigate human impacts that are warming the globe and changing our climate.”

Whitmer’s executive order allows the new environmental department to create new scientific advisory boards. But it also abolishes commissions created under Snyder and the Republican-led Legislature, including the “environmental rules review committee” that included business and industry executives.

Those commissions “created more bureaucracy,” Whitmer said. The business community “like anyone in our state will have the ability to have a seat at the table and have some input,” but “we think that this makes a lot more sense to have people who are truly accountable to the public making the decisions.”

The GOP-led Legislature could potentially attempt to block the move. The Michigan Constitution gives the governor the authority to reorganize state government through executive orders, but it also gives the Legislature 60 days to reject them. 

Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, "is reviewing the details of the governor's proposed reorganization," said spokeswoman Amber McCann.  The Senate may hold hearings on the order so that the public and the Legislature can better understand how this will impact the state."

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a powerful business advocacy group, is encouraging the Legislature to "seriously consider" using its power to reject the executive order, calling it an attempt at "silencing the voices of environmental stakeholders."

“The Michigan Chamber is disappointed that Gov. Whitmer decided so early to reduce openness, accountability and transparency in the state government regulatory process," Chamber CEO and President Rich Studley said in a statement. 

Jason Geer, the chamber's director of energy and environmental policy said the executive order "sends a negative message to Michigan’s business community."

But environmental advocates praised Whitmer's moves, including elimination of the rule and permit commissions.

“The removal of these committees puts the control of Michigan’s environmental protections back where it should have been all along, into the hands of elected officials who can be held accountable by voters," said Michigan Environmental Council Policy Director James Clift, who had been appointed to the rules panel. 

The new Michigan Office of Climate and Energy will be tasked with coordinating a “climate response” by state departments and providing mitigation recommendations to state and local units of government. It will also provide guidance and assistance for reducing greenhouse gas emissions while increasing renewable energy and efficiency.

Under the Paris Agreement, former President Barack Obama’s administration had pledged to cut U.S. emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025.

Efforts to meet that goal in Michigan will start with a survey of existing emissions and polluters, along with a review of state government policies, “because that’s what we can control directly,” said Clark, the environmental department director who previously ran the 5 Lakes Energy consulting firm.

“We have ideas, but that’s the reason we have an Office of Climate and Energy, because we think it’s really important,” Clark said. “We’ve got to spend some time on it.

Snyder created the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team by executive directive in 2017. Whitmer is making the response team permanent by using an executive order to make it an advisory body within the environmental department.

Whitmer has not yet named a PFAS Response Team director to replace Carol Isaacs, who retired at the end of last year. The new order directs the team to identify contamination sites and “implement an action plan” and individualized response strategies.

The state is investigating at least 40 individual sites where there are known levels of PFAS, a chemical long used in firefighting foam, tanneries, metal platers, Scotchgard and Teflon.

The state environmental department includes 1,100 employees with staff overseeing 11,000 inland lakes, 7,600 thousand miles of rivers and streams and more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, Clark said, noting she has spent her first month in office talking to residents across the state, as well as business and environmental groups.

“Many of the problems that communities are facing can be solved by streamlining state government and eliminating unnecessary and ineffective offices and commissions,” she said. “Additionally, we can take proactive measures to prevent future environmental risks.”