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Michigan Politics

Setting The Stage for the Flint Water Crisis

Governor Snyder issues an apology for the role the state played in the water crisis (Via MLive)

On Dec. 29, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, appointed by Governor Rick Snyder to find a solution for and investigate the Flint Water Crisis, announced in a public statement that the majority of blame for the crisis ought to be laid on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).

Citing the MDEQ’s “responsibility to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan”, the Task Force then went on to detail the three ways they believed the MDEQ failed the city of Flint: regulatory issues, response issues, and interpretation of law issues.

While they point towards the State of Michigan’s culture of “technical compliance” towards environmental regulations, and go as far as saying “This minimalist approach to regulatory and oversight responsibility is unacceptable”, they do the people of Michigan a disservice by failing to communicate to them the origin of this “culture”.

In Nov. of 2012, the State of Michigan Executive Office released “A Special Message from Governor Rick Snyder: Ensuring our Future: Energy and Environment”, and it is within these pages that some insight as to the nature of this culture can be found.

The MDEQ appears to have impeded Governor Snyder’s “pro-business” plan for Michigan to the point that he must have felt obligated to release the following information about the MDEQ under his administration: “As anyone who runs a business or a farm can tell you, environmental issues don’t come in neat packages called ‘water’ or ‘air’… for those who are worried about falling into an endless pit of red tape, I want to promise you that isn’t the case. Since April 2011, a total of 105 unnecessary DEQ rules have been taken off the books, including regulations that were outdated, had excessive reporting requirements, or were related to inefficient government programs”.

On top of eliminating environmental report requirements in the State of Michigan, Snyder’s administration also reduced the MDEQ’s budget by a total of 15% ($3.8 million dollars) according to the 2011 Michigan Environmental Report.

These budget cuts manifest themselves in Snyder’s “Special Message” as well: “DEQ, DNR and MDARD—have all improved in timeliness even while their staff levels have gone down”.

Not surprisingly, the MDEQ’s lack of a timely response to the Flint Water Crisis is also subject of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s December report.

While the Task Force is right in recognizing that the MDEQ’s job was to ensure safe drinking water for the people of Flint, they are wrong in placing the blame of the Flint Water Crisis squarely upon its shoulders. Budget cuts, staff reductions, and ineffective reporting requirements crippled the MDEQ’s ability to be an effective government agency, and this is undoubtedly contributed to the Flint Water Crisis.

Governor Snyder unknowingly provided us with a bit of foreshadowing in his “Special Message” when he told the people of Michigan “You can’t go anywhere in Michigan without seeing communities reconnecting with their waters”.

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Setting The Stage for the Flint Water Crisis