Flint water crisis, PFAS inspire new gov.’s first action

Gretchen Whitmer signs her first executive directive, Jan. 2, 2019 | Nick Manes

Environmental activists were quick to applaud Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first action, which is aimed at preventing future public health and environmental crises like the Flint Water Crisis and PFAS contamination.

The executive directive signed on this afternoon by Whitmer, a Democrat who took office Tuesday, mandates that department-level state employees “who become aware of an imminent threat to public health, safety or welfare must immediately report it to their department director or agency head.”

Speaking to reporters at the signing of the executive directive, Whitmer cited Flint, where many people still depend on bottled water, as well as PFAS contamination of local water supplies, as inspiring the action.

“These both happened in the DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality], but they are public health concerns that are not isolated to one area or one issue. And that’s why we thought it was important to and this directive statewide, to all our state workers,” Whitmer said.

“I think it’s important to make sure that my first act really is to communicate with our state employees who are on the front lines, who are the first to see if there is a problem — who I think have important voices that have not been encouraged or perhaps listened to on occasion.”

Whitmer shared a similar message with her social media accounts as well, tweeting that the cabinet she’s assembled will “empower state employees to speak up.”

Whitmer was joined at the executive directive signing by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, newly-appointed DEQ director Liesl Clark and multiple DEQ employees, including Bob Delaney, a geologist with the organization who had tried to warn of the dangers presented by PFAS back in 2012.  

Delaney, who did not respond to a request for comment for this report, has previously told the Advance that it’s still unclear how much it will take to tackle PFAS, that’s now been identified as contaminating groundwater all across Michigan.

“We’re stressed for personnel right now,” Delaney said last month. “There’s just a lot coming at us, and even though they’re hiring new people, there’s just [only] so much any of us can do. We’re in kind of a whole new world now.”.

Environmental groups were quick to applaud the directive as a “terrific first step” and sends a strong message about her priorities as governor, according to Anne Woiwode, chair of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club. She added that she believes it makes for a stark contrast to the way departments were run under now GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder.

“It sends a very clear signal that her expectation is that the  people who work for the people of Michigan are there to protect the interests of the people of Michigan and to take all appropriate actions to do that,” Woiwode told the Advance this afternoon. “It’s something that shouldn’t have to have been done, but given the history of the past eight years, we clearly needed it a strong message that state employees are being asked to do the job they signed up to do.”

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters agreed with that assessment.

“As communities across Michigan that face the very real dangers of polluted air and water can attest, the stakes for bad environmental decision making are incredibly high. Governor Whitmer’s directive sends a clear message to state agencies: clean drinking water and protecting public health must be top priorities,” Lisa Wozniak, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement to the Advance.

“As we saw with the Flint water crisis and now PFAS contamination, the state’s failure to act on early warnings can lead to disaster. We are committed to working with Governor Whitmer and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to ensure all Michiganders have safe water to drink and clean air to breathe.”

Whitmer, for her part, largely sought to stay away from blaming the environmental issues on the Snyder administration. But she did say that the often strained relationship between Snyder’s administration and Attorney General Bill Schuette — who she defeated in the 2018 gubernatorial election — didn’t help matters. The new AG is Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat.

“The dynamic with the previous administration and the attorney general was something that had a huge impact I think on what was happening on how state employees felt and how concerned they were about doing their job,” Whitmer said. “We don’t have that dynamic anymore.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.

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