Bipartisan group collaborates to prevent future environmental crises in Michigan
LANSING, Mich. — Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint; state Sens. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, Joe Hune, R-Hamburg, and Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge; and state Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, announced a legislative initiative on Thursday to increase Michigan’s environmental safety and drinking water transparency.
The seven-bill package was inspired by the events that led to the Flint water crisis. By creating a state employee ombudsman for employee reporting, establishing whistleblower protection, increasing penalties for officials who harm the public or violate the Safe Water Drinking Act, and requiring water suppliers to be transparent about how they set water rates, the bills create protective layers that will help prevent another environmental crisis and will give residents more access to information about the water they consume.
“An entire city was poisoned and more than 12 people died,” Ananich said. “The Flint water crisis is a tragedy that could have been prevented many times over if the proper care and concern was given to our water sources and infrastructure. We can’t change history, but shame on us if we don’t learn from it and change our future. This across-the-aisle collaboration shows our commitment to the belief that every single Michigander deserves access to clean, affordable water.”
Each of the bills announced on Thursday were recommended proposals in the October 2016 final report of the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on the Flint Water Emergency. Stamas, who served as chairman of the committee, hopes that these bills send the message that the Legislature is committed to protecting Michigan’s drinking water and all those who consume it.
“Across the state, residents are concerned that their community will be the next to be hit by a serious water crisis,” Stamas said. “These bills aren’t just lip service to what happened in Flint; they are initiatives with the teeth to actually protect those we serve. After all, we’re the Great Lakes state. This is one big step on the path to becoming the national leader in drinking water safety, a title we should have achieved a long time ago.”
The legislation will:
• Establish a state employee ombudsman within the Michigan Legislative Council and provide whistleblower protection for state employees who report misconduct [SB 788 – Stamas, SB 789 – Hune];
• Enhance criminal penalties for egregious crimes committed by public officials who cause bodily injury to members of the public. The crime would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison and/or up to a $25,000 fine [SB 791 – Jones, SB 792 – Ananich];
• Require water suppliers to be more transparent about how they determine their water rates, billing, and shut-off policies. Water suppliers would need to file a report annually with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and include detailed information on their website [SB 790 – Stamas, HB 4121 – Chang]; and
• Establish a new tiered system of penalties and fines for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act in order to strengthen enforcement mechanisms that help ensure compliance:
• First offense: up to a one-year misdemeanor and/or a fine not to exceed $7,500 per day.
• Repeat offenses: up to a two-year felony and/or a fine not to exceed $10,000 per day.
• Offenses that cause any person physical injuries requiring medical care: up to a five-year penalty and/or fine not to exceed $10,000 per day [SB 793 – Ananich, SB 794 – Jones].
“As a former sheriff, I know that everyone should be held accountable to the law, and public officials should be no exception to that rule,” Jones said. “Our goal is to make this abundantly clear, and we’re doing that by increasing penalties for crimes committed by public officials that harm the public. Tremendous responsibility comes with public service, and the Legislature expects each official to treat that responsibility with the seriousness it deserves.”
In addition to holding public officials accountable, the bill package attempts to remedy the culture problems at certain state departments that prevented lifesaving information from reaching the public.
“Department employees who have concerns for the safety of Michiganders need to step up and speak out, and it’s our job as legislators to make sure brave whistleblowers are protected,” Hune said. “With these bills, the days of operating in secrecy and burying critical information in fear of bad PR or retribution from the boss will be over.”
The bills have been introduced and referred to the Senate Committee on Government Operations.