Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, environmental department director Liesl Clark and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. Photo: Jonathan Oosting

Yesterday we wrote about how the people responsible for the Flint water crisis have not yet been held accountable. Partially because justice has not been brought to the city, a new Democratic governor (Gretchen Whitmer) was elected last fall and just last week announced a broad commitment to environmental issues including environmental justice. The Detroit News reported that Whitmer announced plans to overhaul the Michigan environmental department to more closely focus on protecting the Great Lakes, ensuring clean drinking water and combating climate change. Using a series of executive orders to make her first major shakeup of state government, the East Lansing Democrat said she was fulfilling a campaign pledge to be “more responsive to the people of Michigan” amid ongoing fears over the Flint water contamination crisis and emerging PFAS “forever chemicals” in groundwater.

She explained that “Right now communities across our state don’t trust the water coming out of their taps, and there is a real lack of trust in state government. It is time for that to change.” Whitmer’s first non-emergency executive order creates the new Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. The revamped department will also house new public advocates for clean water and environmental justice that will accept and investigate complaints from residents, along with a new  Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team.

But this top-down overhaul isn’t the end of the story. While Flint residents were given bottled water in the immediate aftermath of the lead contamination (and Gov. Whitmer is still calling for this program to continue) trust has been broken and residents are still wary about drinking tap water despite new tests stating that it’s safe. Officials had lied to Flint residents previously about the safety of water and trust isn’t automatically repaired just because a Democrat is in the governor’s seat. Additionally, Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha (who tested kids’ blood lead levels after the disaster) still believes that Michigan’s state legislature is failing Flint, laying the groundwork for another disaster.

Why This Matters: Serious commitment from Michigan’s governor to help Flint and ensure that low-income communities in Michigan are protected against this sort of environmental injustice is critical but ultimately Gov. Whitmer needs federal support. As a nation, we must ensure that other cities like Flint aren’t betrayed in this way. We must make environmental justice a federal priority and our President and Congress must begin addressing the issue and using their powers to provide clean drinking water and a safe environment for all Americans. The 2020 election cycle is beginning to heat up and every candidate must be pressed on what he or she is going to do to ensure vulnerable communities are made a priority by our government.

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