One of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first executive orders was to change the name of the Department of Environmental Quality into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).*
For EGLE director Liesl Clark, the change brings together her expertise in both energy and environmental conservation.
In an exclusive interview, Michigan Advance sat down with Clark last month and talked to her about the myriad challenges her department is facing, including PFAS contamination in drinking water, the Flint water crisis and the Line 5 oil pipeline.
This is another part of the Advance’s video series, “Inside Michigan Government,” interviewing key state department directors and taking you behind the scenes of your government and how decisions are made.
Public and private sector
Clark has worked in the public and private sector for 20 years.
She served as deputy director of the now-former Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth under Gov. Jennifer Granholm. She also was the Department of Agriculture’s legislative liaison.
In 2011, Clark created 5 Lakes Energy, a consulting firm focused on clean energy policy. As a result of that work, she also founded the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, the first trade association in Michigan for clean energy industries.
Clark served on Whitmer’s transition team in 2018.
“Because I was doing that work [on the Whitmer transition], I was already having conversations with the governor about what her vision was, what her priorities were,” Clark said. “When I really got excited was when we started to talk about commitment to state employees.”
Clark saw parallels between growing talent within the department and her experience in growing her own consulting firm. She spent much of her first four months as director meeting with EGLE staff.
“My short-term priority has been to deeply build my foundation in the experts of the department,” Clark said.
Part of the transition plan was consolidating the Michigan Energy Association and the DEQ into EGLE.
At the forefront of departmental expectations will be creating a plan for the clean up of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and other drinking water contaminants. Michigan is one of the first states to begin policy development for what is beginning to be recognized as a national issue.
The EPA has reported the most common result of PFAS exposure is increased cholesterol levels, with the more serious impacts being low infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption.
PFAS is a term describing a variety of chemicals. The two primary chemicals of concern are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).
Current EPA health advisories suggests that a combined PFOS and PFOA level below 70 parts per trillion “offers a margin of protection for all Americans throughout their life from adverse health effects resulting from exposure to PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.”
“Our work is in risk mitigation, we cannot eliminate risk,” Clark said, “in the same way that you will drive home tonight in your car and something can happen to you. There are things in our environment that can cause things to happen to us, as well.
“What we need to do is we need to get as cleaned up as possible. We have to make drinking water as safe as possible for the citizens of the state of Michigan. Then the question becomes is what does ‘safe as possible’ mean?”
The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team currently has scientists researching PFAS in order to recommend a maximum contaminant level (MCL), or the highest level of a contaminant that is allowed in drinking water. The approximate timeline for the recommendation to be made is early summer, Clark said. The MCL will then serve as the basis for regulating PFAS.
“This has not happened in very many places,” Clark said. “There is some science for us to draw on, [regulation] is not common across the United States. It’s not something that our colleagues at EPA have moved out ahead of us on either. We’re working with the EPA in the course of doing this, and we’ll be at the forefront.”
New Jersey is the only other state with an established MCL for PFAS. Minnesota has also begun conducting research.
“We think that as time progresses and other states start to do more looking for it, it will be interesting to see how we stack up,” Clark said.
Michigan’s industrial heritage and manufacturing history lend to Michigan’s increased probability of facing PFAS issues according to Clark.
The tragedy of the Flint water crisis and the DEQ’s role in it is firmly etched on the minds of Michiganders. Clark does not shy away from the problems facing the state or the limitations of the new EGLE, but tries to offer pragmatic solutions.
“Like anyone else on the face of this earth, I can’t guarantee that we won’t have another [Flint] crisis. What I can work to do, with the experts in this department, is go out there and find problems. We can commit to finding those problems and solving those problems. We can also commit to building more communication components into the work that we do.”
Part of the communication plan built into the reorganization of EGLE was to establish the Environmental Justice Public Advocate and the Clean Water Public Advocate. Both positions are charged with establishing a statewide uniform reporting system to collect and analyze complaints as well as inform public policy creation.
U.S. Climate Alliance
On Feb. 4, Whitmer signed an executive directive declaring that Michigan would be joining the U.S. Climate Alliance.
The alliance is composed of 20 governors committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in alignment with the Paris Agreement. The primary goal of the Paris Agreement is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.
“It’s a commitment, but there’s no legislation or statute to implement it,” Clark said.
“The first step around the Office of Climate and Energy is going to be an inventorying component,” Clark said. “There will also be a need to look backwards to the 2005 benchmarking.”
According to Clark, EGLE already records most of the data needed to create an accurate picture of Michigan’s current greenhouse gas emissions.
“The second step, in my mind, is demonstrating with our own action,” she said. “That means conversations with my colleagues at the cabinet level, across state government, and determining what programs are there and where can we really make progress.”
Clark points to energy improvement the Department of Corrections made in 2018 to several of its prisons resulting in “enough electricity to power 244 houses and heat 496 homes,” according to Consumers Energy estimates.
The Michigan Department of Transportation has also begun studying traffic data to begin planning for a statewide electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Additionally funding through a Volkswagen lawsuit settlement has been put towards transitioning school bus fleets from diesel to electric engines.
Talks between Whitmer and Enbridge have broken down over a new oil pipeline tunnel the Canadian company wants to build under the Straits of Mackinac. But there are still many issues that EGLE is involved in.
Whitmer recently issued an emergency ruling to both the Department of Natural Resources and the Coast Guard, to create safety regulations for ships passing through the straits. These rules would require the securing of anchors on ships are in response to an anchor striking the pipeline in April.
Clark said policy decisions regarding Line 5 occur primarily within the governor’s office, with each department being called on when it is needed.
“It’s definitely something that the folks in our water resources pay a lot of attention to,” Clark said. “I think that the important thing to remember is the natural resources impact and the habitat concerns that would happen if we had an accident in the straits.”
Clark’s philosophy when it comes to balancing private and public interest is to embrace open communication between interests group where possible.
“I think that in order to make the best decisions in this department you have to balance a lot of different interests,” Clark said.
“Also there are a variety of players involved, in terms of the permits — best use of the environment; there are just a lot of things that come into play,” she said. “In my mind, you’ll get to the best decisions by having as many voices at the table as possible as early as possible, so that’s what we try to do.”
* This story has been corrected with EGLE’s correct name.