News Feature | January 9, 2019

Michigan Governor's First Directive Dedicated To Preventing Water Crises

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

In a sign of just how significant water quality concerns are in Michigan, the state’s governor elect signed an executive directive related to the issue as her first such move in office.

Michigan Governor Elect Gretchen Whitmer, who was sworn into office on January 1, dedicated one of her first official actions to preventing another water crisis in the state, which saw the city of Flint suffer from dangerously high levels of lead in drinking water for years.

“Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in response to the Flint water crisis and more recent concerns about drinking water quality, signed an executive directive Wednesday requiring state employees to immediately report to their bosses any threat to public health or safety,” the Detroit Free Press reported. “The directive goes further than a letter from Gov. Rick Snyder sent state employees in 2016, near the height of the Flint drinking water crisis, but it doesn’t set out penalties for violations.”

While it may generally be assumed that public employees would report health and safety threats to their superiors, this official directive puts more onus on those superiors to take the reports seriously and serves as a message that Whitmer and the state still have the lessons of Flint at top of mind.

“The directive requires department directors to immediately investigate whether the concern is a valid one and take further actions to mitigate or eliminate the threat if they determine it is valid,” per the Free Press. “That includes reporting the threat to the state’s chief compliance officer if agency officials don’t have the resources to address it on their own.”

It’s hard to say whether such a process would have helped avoid Flint’s lead contamination crisis, though it certainly wouldn’t have hurt. The issue stems from a 2014 decision to switch water sources to the Flint River, which corroded outdated infrastructure and brought lead into the homes of residents and local businesses and institutions. The issue was compounded when local officials ignored resident complaints and lead tests. Finally, the issue came to a head when Governor Snyder and President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in January 2016.

The directive also comes as Michigan — like many other states — wrestles with the issue of perfluorinated chemical (PFC) contamination.