State environmental council to Whitmer: Ensure water for all amid pandemic

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Members of the state's new environmental justice council are urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to issue an executive order that would ensure all Michigan residents have access to affordable and safe drinking water during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice sent a letter to Whitmer Friday asking her to take "urgent action" during the unprecedented crisis to aid state residents without running water in protecting themselves against contracting or spreading the virus.

A service notice from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is left at a home on Lillibridge Street in Detroit, Wednesday, March 25, 2020.

"With large numbers of residents being unable to follow basic public health recommendations, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to rapidly spread throughout Michigan," the letter, signed by 15 of the group's 21 members, reads. "Thousands of people across the state are living without running water. This problem calls for your decisive action."

Whitmer established the council in January as part of her overall effort to address ongoing environmental justice issues and build trust in state government. The appointed members including advocates, professors, attorneys and researchers who note in the letter that they support the governor's initial measures to stem the spread. 

"This is the time for something firm," said Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer in Detroit for the Sierra Club. "We've had conversations with the administration but people don't know where she stands on the issue."

Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer, said late Friday that the state would review the council's request. 

The council is asking that Whitmer require all public water systems in Michigan to immediately begin supplying water to any and all households that have had services terminated for any reason as well as institute a flat rate of no more than $25 per month to customers that had been cut off, as long as COVID-19 remains classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

Further, the group wants all shutoffs discontinued for the time being and public water stations established for residents. 

As of Friday, Michigan reported 3,657 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 92 deaths. 

The request comes a week after welfare rights advocates submitted a similar request to Whitmer, asking that she deploy special help to vulnerable residents in Detroit and Flint. 

The People's Water Board Coalition in its March 20 request asked the governor to pull together resources, including the National Guard, to set up water stations and provide bleach and other cleaning supplies in the two cities. 

Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan earlier this month unveiled an interim policy to restore service to Detroit customers without water at a discounted rate. The city gained national attention in 2014 when about 33,000 homes lost water access over unpaid bills. The crackdown on widespread delinquencies happened during Detroit's financial crisis.

Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department in early March said it identified several thousand accounts that it believed had been without water for more than a year.

The water department has crews dedicated to restoring service and fixing plumbing, and it hired a firm to knock on doors to distribute fliers to 5,000 more houses that may be occupied and without water service. 

The state justice council's Friday letter to Whitmer notes governors in nearly 20 other states have issued orders making sure residents "have running water at this critical time."

"We know there's a lot going on but we felt this is important enough to raise to the top of the priority list," Onwenu added.