Flint water crisis – Among the many failures of government highlighted by the Flint water crisis is the fact that the DEQ failed in its basic responsibility to ensure safe drinking water. For those of us in the environmental community, this is one shocking chapter in a sadly familiar tale.

For years, despite a litany of environmental disasters such as the Enbridge oil spill, the Pall-Gelman dioxane contamination, Marathon Oil’s Pet Coke in Detroit, Michigan has slashed its budget for environmental protection and systematically undercut its ability to protect its own people and natural resources.

For those of us who have worked closely with the DEQ for years, something like the disaster in Flint was almost guaranteed to happen.

What went wrong?

Flint water crisis shows need to restore Michigan's environmental agency, 3 MarchFirst, the regulatory agencies themselves have been broken apart. In 1995, Gov. John Engler split the Michigan Department of Natural Resources into two separate agencies, the DNR and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). In 2009, Gov. Jennifer Granholm briefly merged the agencies back. Just two years later, Gov. Rick Snyder’s very first executive order split the agency in two yet again.

This repeated restructuring created chaos, forcing staff and leaders alike to spend time and energy reorganizing the bureaucracy rather than protecting the environment.

Second, the state has decimated the DEQ’s budget. In the past 15 years, state general fund contributions to the DEQ have been cut by an incredible 59 percent. Full-time equated positions have been cut by 25 percent. Many DEQ staff are now doing the work of three people, with far fewer resources to do it. Many feel demoralized and disempowered.

Third, when Engler created the DEQ, he gave it the mission to “support a sustainable environment, healthy communities, and vibrant economy.” In practice, DEQ leadership has leaned toward the last of these priorities — creating a business-friendly regime that emphasizes corporate self-reporting and cursory permit reviews, and discourages gathering or applying scientific evidence.

In my work to protect the Huron River, I see the influence of those changes almost every day. We receive dozens of calls from citizens impacted by poor permitting, natural resource destruction, or pollution violations. They have called the DEQ seeking assist and, failing to find it, turn to us and other organizations. Unless we investigate the issues and push the agencies to act, nothing improves.

Even the most well-intentioned, competent DEQ employees are able to respond to only the most pressing issues, and they feel stress to get out of the way of financial development.

The Flint crisis will be the worst outcome of a system that prioritizes limited government, low costs, and expediency ahead of fundamental protections for the individuals and environment. In response we have to push the governor and Legislature to restore the DEQ’s spending budget, take on and train much more staff, and give muscle to its primary function of guarding our land, air, and water.

We within the environmental movement have to build more bridges with social justice organizations to much better advocate for clean air and water in all of our communities. We have to recognize at both the state and nearby level that simply slashing budgets and cutting expenses does not usually save cash; rather we need to invest strategically in infrastructure and systems that foster a healthy environment.

Finally, we should insist that the government agencies charged with guarding us stop ignoring scientists, advocates, citizens and the disempowered, and listen to all our voices.