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Gretchen Whitmer reshapes Michigan environmental watchdog agency

Feb. 20: Gov. Whitmer remakes Michigan DEQ again, but leaves oversight panels intact
Feb. 15: What's next after Republicans kill Whitmer’s environmental shakeup?
Feb. 14: Michigan Republicans kill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s environmental overhaul plan
Feb. 13: Few love MDEQ. But are oversight panels worth Whitmer-GOP showdown?
Feb. 12: Whitmer changes course, blocks $10M grant that helps former GOP chair

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is overhauling the Michigan agency charged with environmental regulation, citing the need to more urgently  protect the state’s water, bolster the response to climate change and direct more resources to communities disproportionately harmed by pollution and other environmental threats.

The Department Environmental Quality (DEQ) will be reshaped and rebranded as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), one in a series of executive actions the Democrat signed Monday.

The orders drew applause from advocates for the environment and renewable energy such as wind and solar power, but concerns from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The orders may also draw pushback from a GOP-controlled Legislature, which last year made it tougher to craft state regulations stricter than those of the federal government and weakened standards for cleaning up toxic sites across Michigan. The Legislature could seek to overturn some of the Whitmer provisions.

One order, for instance, abolished an Environmental Rules Committee, passed by Republicans to give industry more of a voice in crafting environmental regulations. Republicans created the private sector panel — largely populated by industry officials — as pushback against what they contend was overzealous regulation by state officials. Environmentalists called the GOP-created panel a major threat and dubbed it the “Fox Guarding the Hen House Act.”

"The Michigan Chamber is disappointed that Governor Whitmer decided so early to reduce openness, accountability and transparency in the state government regulatory process,” Rich Studley, president and CEO of the powerful group said of the move.

But Cyndi Roper, a Michigan policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said shutting down the panel “put experts and scientists back into the driver’s seat” of environmental regulation.

Republican legislative leaders said Monday afternoon they were still reviewing Whitmer’s announced overhaul, which takes effect April 7. 

“The Senate may hold hearings on the order so that the public and the legislature can better understand how this will impact state government,” Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, told Bridge Magazine.

Whitmer’s move comes nearly five years after residents of Flint were exposed to high levels of toxic lead in their drinking water, a crisis largely attributed to failures in state government, including at DEQ, that battered the agency’s reputation and morale within its ranks.

Under Gov. Rick Snyder, Whitmer’s Republican predecessor, DEQ listed its role as a partner in economic development as one of its “guiding principles.” Whitmer’s order appears to refocus the agency foremost as an environmental and public health watchdog.

“We applaud Gov. Whitmer for showing true leadership on protecting our air and water by revamping the DEQ to return it to its true mission: protecting the health of Michiganders,” Mara Herman, health policy outreach coordinator for the Ecology Center, an Ann Arbor-based environmental and public health nonprofit, said in a statement.

Whitmer’s orders do not add new funding for environmental regulation. The DEQ has faced consistent budget cuts over the years, and a state task force following the Flint crisis noted the agency’s drinking water office may have had the least funding in the region despite "having one of the largest, if not the largest, number of community water systems to regulate."

Whitmer, who campaigned on a pledge to prioritize water, said Monday’s overhaul will help Michigan more efficiently address an onslaught of threats to its environment. That includes the harmful industrial contaminants called PFAS that communities are increasingly finding in their waters, and the wide ranging effects of climate change on the Great Lakes, which hold 21 percent of the world’s surface freshwater.

“We need to be laser focused on cleaning up the water in our state,” she told reporters Monday. “Right now communities across our state don’t trust the water coming out of their taps, and there’s a real lack of trust in state government.”

The new environmental agency will include a “Clean Water Public Advocate,” “Environmental Justice Public Advocate” and an “Office of Climate and Energy,” Whitmer’s administration announced. Advocates will accept and investigate and analyze complaints related to drinking water and environmental justice problems, and work within state government to address them, under one executive order.

The new agency will also house an interagency team — composed of agency directors across state government —  to draw up a statewide environmental justice plan. The aim is to fix policies that disproportionately stick low-income and minority communities with pollution from power plants, factories and other sources.

“This is better than a combined Christmas and birthday present,” said Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, retired president and CEO of Mott Children's Health Center in Flint, and former member of the Michigan Environmental Justice Work Group, which Snyder assembled following the Flint water crisis. “I think of my friends in Southwest Detroit who suffer cumulative insults to their environment and quality of life” as well as residents of still-recovering Flint.

Whitmer’s executive order enacts some of the work group’s recommendations. Michigan has developed environmental justice plans in the past, only to see them scrapped, Reynolds noted.

Meanwhile, an Office of Climate and Energy inside Whitmer’s new environmental agency will absorb the duties of the Michigan Agency for Energy, which will be abolished. The new office will “coordinate activities of state departments and agencies on climate response” and recommend ways to limit and adapt to climate change, which poses major threats to public health, agriculture and wildlife in Michigan.

A separate Whitmer directive enrolls Michigan into the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group with 19 other states that have pledged to lower their greenhouse gas emissions.

“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” of climate change, Whitmer said.

Another executive order makes permanent the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, which Snyder created on a temporary basis to flag pollution from PFAS, a group chemicals had been used to manufacture everything from Teflon and Scotchgard water repellent to firefighting foam. The group of so-called “forever chemicals” are linked to cancers, thyroid disease and other ailments.

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