Whitmer, Duggan reverse course on water shutoffs amid coronavirus concern

City of Detroit offices, Coleman A. Young Municipal Center | Susan J. Demas

In an apparent change of mind, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) announced on Monday a plan that will restore water service in Detroit at “no initial cost to customers” for the duration of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Last week, Whitmer’s administration and state health department officials had declined to take action to end water shutoffs in the city and denied the possibility of shutoffs leading to elevated risk for waterborne disease — despite outcry from social justice groups around the state who argued otherwise.

Those groups included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan; Edwards & Jennings; Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice; Detroit Justice Center; Jerome D. Goldberg; Marine Adams Law P.C.; and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

Whitmer’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As Michigan preps for coronavirus, groups demand end to Detroit water shutoffs

The “Coronavirus Water Restart Plan” is a preventative move, since there have not yet been confirmed positive cases of the illness in Michigan. 

But diseases like shigellosis, hepatitis A, campylobacter and giardia also can be transmitted through water, and areas of Michigan impacted by the Flint water crisis and water shutoffs have seen a surge of shigellosis cases in recent years.

DWSD customers whose water service was recently interrupted due to non-payment, and those who have received a notice that they are at risk of service interruption, are eligible for the plan. Those customers will need to call the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency at 313-386-9727 and schedule an appointment in order to participate.

Once enrolled in the program, customers’ water service will be restored at no cost to them for 30 days. After that point, they will need to pay $25 per month to avoid service interruption. The plan will be in effect for as long as the coronavirus outbreak continues.

Water shutoffs have affected more than 141,000 residential accounts in Southeast Michigan since 2014.

Groups call on Whitmer to end Detroit water shutoffs

Demeeko Williams, founder and chief director of the water relief nonprofit Hydrate Detroit, said that the announcement was made Monday without any advance notice to activists working on the issue.

“I feel that this announcement is the first preventative step to ensuring people are safe, but it doesn’t go [far] enough. … We want a long term solution. The long term solution would be to declare a public health emergency, because we have a hepatitis A outbreak that has been happening for the past two to three years,” Williams told the Advance.

Williams also believes the plan is a political stunt for Duggan to avoid bad press for Detroit.

“Mayor Duggan doesn’t like bad press. … Because the mayor wants to play political chicken, we do believe that this was a stunt.”

Legal activists urge state to suspend Detroit water shutoffs

Mark Fancher, Racial Justice Project staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, said that “water is a human right, regardless of whether there is a threat of any particular disease.

“Hand-washing and access to clean running water are essential under the threat of COVID-19 just as they always have been, in order to prevent the spread of illnesses such as influenza which can have serious health implications,” he continued.

“Many families coping with shutoffs were never able to afford market rates. After receiving one-time financial assistance from the WRAP program during the threat of COVID-19, it is likely they will find themselves in debt and facing loss of water service yet again. This COVID-19 situation proves once and for all that water shutoffs are a public health emergency, and it is past time to enact a water affordability plan to end this crisis.”

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, civil rights and criminal justice. She is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or listening to podcasts, she loves art and design, discovering new music, being out in nature and spending time with her two very special cats.