Opinion: Whitmer environmental order helps broaden input

Rahul Mitra

After the Michigan Legislature voted last week to kill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders reorganizing the Department of Environmental Quality, she reissued them – but backed down on abolishing two environmental oversight panels dominated by industry representatives.

For now, at least.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Whitmer’s reorganization of the DEQ is widely noted to be in the best interests of ensuring Michigan’s water security, specifically focused on enhancing transparency and accountability around environmental policymaking.

Almost a year after clean drinking water has ostensibly been restored to Flint, community trust in state leaders and institutions remains abysmally low. This mistrust is not helped by comments from high-level policymakers and DEQ spokespersons downplaying local concerns, which cement fears that Lansing is not just out of touch but simply doesn’t care.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, a recent report released by the Hass Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society of Policy, at the University of California Berkeley, supports local activists’ claims that current institutional arrangements to distribute water are lopsided in favor of elite economic interests, resulting in water insecurity for thousands of residents.

Since 2013, almost 100,000 Detroit families have had their water connections shut off for not paying bills inflated by recurrent water infrastructure failures, mounting late fees, and lack of adequate consumer protection systems. However, delinquent commercial landlords—who often owe far more than residential customers—enjoy payment extensions and avoid the guillotine.

Chief among the Hass Institute’s policy recommendations were to halt the water shutoffs, implement legislative reforms, and reevaluate Detroit’s service agreement with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), instituted since the city’s bankruptcy, which tends to favor economic over holistic decision-making for water security.

By creating a new Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy from the ashes of the DEQ, Whitmer signaled she understands that Michigan’s water security requires a holistic engagement of socioeconomic disparities, infrastructure upgrades, and environmental risks.

Lead and PFAS contamination go hand-in-hand with water affordability and institutional accountability. Given past experiences where industry representatives have blocked environmental reforms supported by local residents, or used community insecurities to shore up their corporate responsibility credentials, Whitmer’s original orders abolished industry-dominated oversight panels. But, of course, this is where she butted heads with Michigan’s Republican Legislature, who sought to retain their clout in environmental rule-making.

To be sure, meaningful water security needs inputs from diverse stakeholders—including businesses. At the same time, it is not prudent to disproportionately stack these panels with members of the business community when crucial voices from local residents, scientists and environmental activists go unheeded.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the Michigan Legislature have in the past bemoaned the lack of adequate community input in environmental policymaking, so that it is not the existence of oversight that is the bone of contention but its makeup.

While Democrats urged including more “regular” community members than businesspeople on the oversight panels, Whitmer reportedly had plans to create an inter-agency team to prioritize environmental justice. Her decision to retain the two industry-dominated panels, while sacrificing the science panel, might well be part of a larger carrot-and-stick strategy to induce Republican lawmakers to let her latest executive orders remain – especially in light of overwhelming public opinion to restructure the DEQ.

Rahul Mitra is an assistant professor at Wayne State University, who researches environmental organizing and policymaking.