Members of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice say Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration is listening on issues ranging from pipelines to the pandemic.
A Michigan council established a year ago to advise Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration on environmental justice has helped guide the state’s responses to the climate and the pandemic, according to members and other activists, although that some would like to see him play a more important role in the future.
“We saw a major influence coming from our table that not only guided but encouraged the governor to make decisions that she otherwise would not have had the support to make,” said Monica Lewis-Patrick, director of We The People of Detroit and member of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice.
Whitmer announced the 21-member board in January 2020 in response to a myriad of injustices and challenges related to pollution and access to energy. Members represent a range of interests, including water, energy, tribes, low-income communities, organized labor, and industry.
The board had only held its first monthly meeting when COVID-19 hit. He quickly started holding emergency meetings every two weeks and “brought a sense of urgency” to issues like access to water, said Regina Strong, public counsel for Whitmer’s environmental justice. who works with the Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and also with the Advisory Council.
“Even in the face of a pandemic, we immediately saw the value of having advocates at the table to discuss how to address these issues in JE communities,” Strong said, adding that racial disparities and everything else. a series of existing challenges were exacerbated by the pandemic.
Some of the successes reported by board members include moratoriums on water cuts enacted by Whitmer and the Legislature, and a commitment by the City of Detroit to end the closures for good.
His ideas are communicated through various channels to the upper levels of the Whitmer administration and to the nine departments of the state. The council gave its opinion on the latest state climate plan and supported Whitmer’s use of an Order in Council to shut down the Line 5 pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac.
Meanwhile, the state is developing an “environmental justice scouting tool” to help it identify communities disproportionately affected by environmental threats.
The advisory board “isn’t just for the show, it intends to produce something of value,” said member Bryan Lewis, who is also director of EcoWorks in Detroit, but he would still like it to be. have “more teeth”.
“We have enough information on environmental justice, we have done enough study and knowledge, so now is the time to act,” Lewis said. “The committee is important as an intermediary, but it cannot replace direct action that must be taken by the administration, legislature and local and state bodies.
The Michigan Environmental Justice Council (MEJC), a separate coalition of about 50 state groups, hailed the state advisory board as a good first step, but director Michelle Martinez wants a bigger role for the board, in particularly with regard to the regulation of public services.
“We need bold approaches to rebuild Michigan’s economy in a way that saves lives and our future,” she said. “We must make no apologies for our approaches and go beyond bureaucratic procedures for real changes that will bring bread at home to Michigan families.”
The MEJC sent a letter to the Whitmer administration urging it to use the advisory council’s in-depth knowledge on energy issues to help the Michigan Public Services Commission implement the Governor’s Order in Council to address environmental justice issues in the regulation of public services.
The advice could also be used to help tackle high energy prices, utility outages and hazardous waste sites, or help advance renewable energy policy and ensure Flint residents have clean water, Martinez added.
Lewis also said he wanted to see the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice tackle the affordability of utilities in its second year. Before the pandemic, DTE Energy cut power to tens of thousands of residents every year, and still continues to cut power to thousands every month.
“We need to find a solution that, at the very least, takes into account the serious income issues that black and brown residents face in Detroit and Highland Park, and provide an avenue such that we can reasonably say that 100% of the people have reasonable access to electricity, ”Lewis said.
The board is better positioned to tackle such issues in its second year, Strong said. She acknowledged that “some aspects of change in state government never move as fast as people want,” but said there is a strategy and a long game to what the council does, and she believes it will “move the needle significantly” in 2021.
“Things didn’t turn out that way overnight, and some things were intentionally put in place to put people at a disadvantage,” Strong said, “So we don’t just work, but we do it right to make it happen. institutionalized. ”