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EGLE Director testifies before Michigan House Appropriations Committee on Electro-Plating Services incident
January 15, 2020
Following are the written remarks (not transcribed) by EGLE Director Liesl Clark before the Michigan House of Representatives' Appropriations Committee at the State Capitol on Jan. 15, 2020.
Everyone in this room wants to protect Michigan's environment and public health. The State Legislature and Governor demonstrated that in our FY 2020 budget with more than 100 new FTEs. I can't thank you all enough for that and I promise you that we'll deliver on the faith you placed in us.
We're all here to do the right thing, as we see it, for the 10 million residents of the State of Michigan and our amazing natural resources. So, I want to dive right into a discussion of "the right thing." I want to share what the Electro-Plating Services incident -- and related experiences -- has taught me about where we stand and how we should move forward.
Before I do, I want to introduce the two EGLE colleagues that have joined me here today: Mike Neller and Tracy Kecskemeti. They will speak later and clean up any messes I make.
PRIORITIZATION AND RISK
When it comes to protecting Michigan's 10 million residents and our state's amazing natural resources from the risks posed by contaminated sites, you have to start with an understanding of the scale of the challenge.
We have some number of thousands of contaminated sites in Michigan. If EGLE had modern IT systems -- something I'll address more in a minute --I would be able to give you a much more precise number. But whether it is five or eight or ten or more thousand sites, it's a hell of a lot of sites -- depending on how you categorize and count them.
When it comes to inspections and other oversight, we prioritize those sites and pay the greatest attention to those that pose the greatest risk to human health.
Under our status quo budgets, we have the staff and other resources we need to monitor the sites that pose the greatest risk. That's good news. And it would be irresponsible and counterproductive to paint a picture for Michiganders that grave health risks from contaminated sites are hiding around every corner.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, there is no amount of money that would allow EGLE to closely and routinely monitor every site on the list. Even if you gave us a blank check, EGLE couldn't find and train enough qualified staff to inspect our way to the bottom of the pile.
So, whether we like it or not, prioritization of sites is a simple fact of our lives.
Given that, the question for all of us becomes where we should land on the continuum of risk -- where on that continuum we reach the point where we determine the costs no longer justify the investment.
That sounds cold and I hate to say it, but it's reality and it means that I can't promise and none of us can expect to never experience an incident again like the one we're experiencing now in Madison Heights.
But, clearly I've heard from the public and many of you that you want more investment in whittling down that risk – investment not just in dollars, but in streamlining and enhancing our risk management procedures, changing the culture of the agency, and more aggressively tackling sites that -- like Electro-Plating -- did not rise to the top of that list where money and resources are available for assessment and cleanup.
Given the reality of prioritization and risk, what does this single case of EPS tell us about how EGLE is performing in addressing contaminated sites.
I am both disappointed in what transpired at the Madison Heights site and proud of how many members of our team have responded.
PROUD OF RESPONSE
My pride stems from the sophistication, hard work, and long hours our team has invested in this incident since we were alerted to the fact that contamination had escaped the building.
The commitment of our staff, our EPA colleagues, and hard-working locals to serving the public has been remarkable. Their professionalism and technical expertise has been on full and consistent display as they have worked the problem step-by-step and piece-by-piece with a keen understanding of what to look for, how to sequence the various steps of their response, and where to focus their attention to protect against any potential harm to human health.
It should be noted that while staff working on this issue have been under the white-hot spotlight of scrutiny, there are at the same time dozens -- hundreds -- of EGLE staff quietly going about their jobs inspecting, testing, and working with Michigan businesses to ensure that our grandchildren's children do not inherit the kind of mess that Gary Sayers was allowed to get away with for a quarter-century. Thank you to them, as well.
DISAPPOINTED IT GOT THIS FAR
If you go inside that building today -- and you hear the stories about the state of the property in 2017 when EPA and our team initiated a major cleanup -- it's hard to imagine how that property was allowed to get and remain that way.
It's really hard to believe that more red flags shouldn't have been raised sooner and more frequently since we first learned of the existence of the sordid "pit" where Gary Sayers deposited chemicals illegally. It's hard to accept that a company was allowed to handle and store toxic chemicals in the way and in the environment EPS did. I know Mr. Sayers is serving time now for his negligence, but how was he allowed to get to that point? And how did 25 years of enforcement activities still fail to rectify the problem?
This situation is a disappointing and stark demonstration that the processes I inherited from the recent and more distant past simply are not good enough.
I'm looking forward to getting to the bottom of what happened in this case. And I'm looking for the top-to-bottom review of our enforcement procedures that Governor Whitmer directed us to conduct in light of the EPS matter.
We are moving forward with focus and purpose to conduct a thorough and comprehensive process -- guided by a third party -- over the next few months. I am anxious to share the results of that assessment with the Governor and all of you.
Enforcement is just one area in which our business procedures at EGLE will benefit from greater standardization, consistency, and predictability. And we plan to apply lessons from this immediate review to other aspects of our operation.
But after a year at EGLE and hundreds of conversations with our staff and leadership team, I'm committed to working on BOTH process and culture.
Our staff is filled with problem solvers. As a team, they are anxious to and adept at working with people who want to do the right thing to arrive at and implement solutions that protect our environment and public health and enable businesses to prosper. Assisting people in complying with the law is our first and best instinct.
But when it comes to dealing with problem facilities that aren't acting in good faith, the message has been too often and for too long to pull punches.
As EGLE moves forward under my leadership, we're going to enforce our environmental laws in a reasoned and consistent way.
That is something that everyone in this room should welcome and support, because if we don't enforce our laws today when the compliance assistance route fails, we're essentially putting in place the conditions today for a future moment when a reckless facility that was let off the hook comes back to bite us with green ooze on an expressway, or god forbid, something far worse.
FORWARD FROM FLINT
I'm not blind to the fact that I'm leading an agency that suffers from a lack of trust and still operates in the shadows of the Flint water crisis. Our team is constantly working to refill the trust bucket knowing that we must always go above and beyond and won't often enjoy the benefit of the doubt.
I'm working to build a culture at EGLE in which we meet residents where they are and see things through their eyes -- where we respond to situations as if members of our own families were the ones experiencing them.
In recent incidents like the one in Madison Heights -- and the riverbank collapse along the Detroit River -- I'm proud of how quickly and comprehensively we're responding and how much better we're doing at keeping the public informed and remaining faithful to the principles and benefits of transparency.
In my view, we're all in this together when it comes to protecting Michigan's environment and public health. EGLE deserves and welcomes fair constructive criticism of how we handled the EPS over the years and in the past few weeks. But we also need your support to do our job better in the future.
You can help us rebuild trust in our agency by embracing our desire to communicate openly and consistently with you, so you can engage your constituents with a greater understanding of our decisions and actions, giving us fair treatment in addition to holding our feet to the fire.
You can also help us make wise investments in our future, and spend less time and energy addressing symptoms instead of causes.
The process improvements I mentioned earlier will serve as the foundation for major investments in modern, integrated IT systems at EGLE. EPS demonstrating the urgent need for these investments, in that rather than looking up the site's comprehensive history and background in a dynamic online database, our team had to dig through a stack of files described as more than a foot high. I could share 100 stories like that -- in a world in which people conduct their daily business on their smart phones, our systems aren't anywhere near good enough -- especially considering the importance of our mission.
For the entire meeting, watch the video of the Appropriation Committee meeting.