LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday used her first full day in office to mandate that state employees speak up when they discover urgent threats to public health and safety — an effort she hopes will bolster their morale and prevent a repeat of scandals such as the Flint water crisis.
In another nod to environmental protection, the new governor also announced her first steps toward disrupting her predecessor’s recent approval of an oil pipeline tunnel below the Straits of Mackinac.
Fresh off her inauguration a day earlier, Whitmer, a Democrat, signed an executive directive requiring state employees to immediately report to their department director or agency chief any “imminent threat to the public health, safety or welfare.”
The directive also requires agency higher-ups to swiftly assess — and take action — on credible reports while communicating with the governor’s chief compliance officer, creating a pipeline for the information to reach Whitmer.
“We’re here today to make sure that our state employees — our dedicated public servants — are empowered to do their job for the people of Michigan,” Whitmer told reporters Wednesday, calling the directive a “failsafe” for employees who feel they are not being heard.
The directive applies to all state agencies, but the Department of Environmental Quality loomed particularly large in the announcement.
Liesl Eichler Clark, the new DEQ director, and several other agency employees flanked Whitmer as she signed the directive.
The agency is still trying to rebuild public trust after its series of errors helped trigger the Flint water crisis in 2014, which led to charges against 15 state and local officials. The DEQ is among several agencies, Whitmer said, where employees are facing “serious morale problems.”
“The people of Michigan deserve peace of mind that their government is working to protect them,” Clark said in a statement. “I am committed to having an open-door policy, listening actively, empowering employees to speak up, and reassuring them that they have protections under the law if they believe there are threats to public health and safety.”
Robert Delaney, a DEQ Superfund specialist, was among those standing behind Whitmer on Wednesday. He’s the staffer who grew frustrated with his superiors’ years of inaction on contamination from hazardous and indestructible PFAS chemicals — now increasingly found in Michigan’s waters — after he authored a 2012 report on the threat.
“I was so disturbed from the start that — everything that happened, I was just trying to get someone to listen,” Delaney testified in November at a PFAS-related summit organized by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters.
Whitmer’s directive states that “action to prevent threats to public health, safety and welfare should take precedence over any ill-advised attempt to protect the reputation of a department or agency.”
The directive requires agency leaders to communicate with Whitmer’s chief compliance officer — Corina Pena Andorfer — following employees’ reports of concerns regardless of whether they agree a public health or safety threat exists.
It is not clear what would happen to state employees who know of a threat but do not report it. Asked about that Wednesday, Whitmer referred the question to Andorfer, who said her office is still working on policy to respond to such scenarios.
Line 5 action
The directive wasn’t Whitmer’s only significant move in her first hours on the job. She also asked new Attorney General Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat, to weigh in on the legality of recent legislation — and dealmaking by her predecessor — concerning the fate of Line 5.
During his final weeks in office, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 359 into law, creating a new Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority to oversee construction and operation of a $350 million to $500 million tunnel that would encase Enbridge Energy’s controversial oil pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
Snyder’s plan, pushed through the Republican-controlled Legislature during a fast-moving lame duck session, would swap out the aging twin pipelines running along the bottom of the Straits for a new pipe that would be protected in a bedrock tunnel 100 feet below the lake bottom.
Snyder and his supporters have called a tunnel the best way to protect the Straits while keeping energy flowing to the Upper Peninsula.
On the campaign trail, both Whitmer and Nessel criticized the tunnel plan and vowed to shut down the pipeline, siding with environmentalists who fear a leak and have instead pushed to shut down the pipeline.
“Resolving any legal uncertainty regarding PA 359, the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority and action taken by the authority is necessary to assure that we can take all action necessary to protect the Great Lakes, protect our drinking water and protect Michigan jobs,” Whitmer said in a statement. “I pledged to take action on the Line 5 pipeline on day one as governor, and I am holding true to that campaign promise.”
Nessel said Wednesday she was eager to weigh in on the matter.
“There are serious and significant concerns regarding PA 359, which the previous governor and legislature initiated and passed without the care and caution one would expect for an issue that will have a monumental impact on our state,” Nessel said in a statement. “Governor Whitmer has rightly – and immediately – raised important questions about the legality and statutory underpinnings of this Act and my office is prepared to tackle her request for an opinion immediately.”
Some experts say disrupting Snyder’s deal in court could prove difficult for a variety of reasons — including language in the state’s recent agreement with Enbridge aimed at thwarting certain legal arguments critics have raised, such as that Enbridge has violated its lease of state bottomlands.
But in her request dated Jan. 1, Whitmer asked Nessel to evaluate six legal questions unrelated to Enbridge’s lease with the state.
Among the questions Whitmer wants Nessel to consider: whether the act was properly titled, whether the act too dramatically departed from the bill originally filed, and whether it violated state law by giving members six year terms rather than four.
Responding to the development late Wednesday, Ryan Duffy, an Enbridge spokesman, said the company “looks forward” to working with Whitmer and Nessel.
“Enbridge also believes that the time is right to build for the future. This tunnel project would make a safe pipeline even safer and reflects Enbridge’s steadfast commitment to protecting the Great Lakes while safely meeting Michigan’s energy needs,” Duffy said
House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, appeared to respond to Whitmer’s opinion request Wednesday afternoon in a tweet.
“I support building bridges AND tunnels, especially when it comes to transporting energy resources so hard-working Michigan families can heat their homes. Let’s keep our Peninsulas connected and uphold our constitutional legislation,” he wrote.
I support building bridges AND tunnels, especially when it comes to transporting energy resources so hard-working Michigan families can heat their homes. Let’s keep our Peninsulas connected and uphold our constitutional legislation. #DontForgetTheUP #ReplaceLine5 #BuildTheTunnel— Rep. Lee Chatfield (@LeeChatfield) January 2, 2019
Chatfield did not immediately return a voicemail on Wednesday.
Attorney General opinions are not binding on the courts, but can be binding on state agencies and officers.