The Flint Water crisis is on everyone’s mind. We can’t get over that it happened, the long-term impacts, the tragedy, and where we go from here. At HRWC we are saddened and angry, but not that surprised. Over the last year many environmental debacles point to a serious threat to clean water and a safe environment. Starting with Volkswagen’s admission of cheating on emission testing to the natural gas leak in California, and now to the Flint drinking water contamination, they all highlight a lack of trust, judgment, and oversight on human health and safety issues. What shocks me the most though, is the lack of accountability and regulation. I shouldn’t be surprised given Michigan’s recent derision of regulation, budget cuts to environmental protection, and a focus on shrinking government. Michigan ranks 50th among state in government transparency.
In the U.S., drinking water regulations were first enacted by the federal government in 1914 addressing the bacteriological quality of drinking water. This regulation was later strengthened in the 1960s as it became clear that industrial processes were threats to clean water and human health. Local governments were to provide clean water and safely dispose of waste. Oversight of local governments and industry was an expected role of state and federal government.
Despite dozens of statewide environmental disasters (Enbridge oil spill, the Pall Gelman contamination, industrial clean-up sites), the State of Michigan has been shrinking the budgets and staff of the oversight and regulatory departments. In 1995 Governor John Engler split the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) into the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and MDNR. The DEQ mission is to promote the wise management of Michigan’s air, land, and water resources to support a sustainable environment, healthy communities, and vibrant economy. Governor Engler said the split secured more direct oversight of state environmental policy, but then he reduced the number of state environmental employees through budget cuts. A year later, oversight for drinking water protection was transferred from the Michigan Department of Health to the MDEQ. In 2009, Governor Jennifer Granholm briefly merged the MDNR and MDEQ again as the DNRE. In 2011, Governor Rick Snyder’s first-ever executive order, Executive Order 2011-1, split the DNRE, returning DNR and DEQ into separate agencies.
Additionally, the MDEQ’s budget and resources have been dramatically reduced. In the past 15 years, the general fund contributions to the MDEQ have been cut by 59% and the full-time equated positions have been cut by 25%.
The impacts of these cuts and the general disdain for regulation is prevalent in MDEQ leadership and has led to a minimalist approach by most staff. It is clear that the primary responsibility for what happened in Flint rests with the MDEQ, despite the Governor’s efforts to spread the blame. MDEQ failed in its responsibility to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan and, again, in its dismissive and scornful tone toward residents’, health care professionals’, and scientists’ discoveries and concerns. Worse yet, the blatant misrepresentation of facts and manipulation of data to cover for bad policy decisions at the cost of children’s health suggests an agency well off the rails of its stated mission.
I see these problems regularly in our mission to protect and restore the Huron. Permits are quickly issued with little review. Corporate and municipal self-reporting with little, if any, review is common. The pursuit of scientific understanding and application is given low priority. The MDEQ staff that regulate inland lake and streams are overwhelmed with permit reviews and enforcement activities resulting in rubber stamped permits that rarely get more than a cursory review (see HRWC’s winter newsletter for an example). HRWC receives dozens of calls annually from citizens impacted by poor permitting and design, natural resource destruction or pollution violations that, having called MDEQ staff, want some help. Without our staff reviewing the problems, making site visits, and/or making phone calls and using our connections and influence, nothing would happen. Even the most well-intentioned and competent MDEQ staff are only able to respond to the most pressing problems, and much pressure is put on them to get out of the way of economic development.
What can we do to avoid these same disasters from happening again? We need to remind the Governor about MDEQ’s responsibility to ensure clean water and push him to restore budgets, add staff and training, and support staff who serve that mission. Providing clean drinking water is a series of steps, a chain of events and actions starting with the source water. We need to empower citizens and agency staff to speak up and advocate effectively. We need to use science and water quality monitoring to develop policy and action. Finally, we must listen to the disempowered, to continue to take their concerns seriously, ask the questions and not take it for granted that expertise, good judgment and oversight are a matter of course.