Keith Creagh had the less-than-desirable front-row seat to much of the state’s response effort to the ongoing Flint water crisis. A longtime director of several state government agencies, Creagh was tapped to head the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality following the resignation of the previous director in January. Now the director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Creagh spoke with MiBiz in early November after his appearance on a panel related infrastructure and its relationship to health.
During your presentation, you talked about how you stepped into the role at DEQ as the Flint crisis was at its worst. What were some lessons you took out of that crisis?
It’s always easy in retrospect, but we need to be good listeners and we need to be directly engaged with communities across state government. It doesn’t matter if it’s agriculture, natural resources, public health or corrections. It’s really incumbent on state government to have good community relationships and I think there’s a little lack of clarity.
What do you see as the consequences of that lack of clarity?
When you’re in the middle of a crisis, to define those roles and build those relationships, it’s too late. One thing I’ve tried to do in my career is to have the network established before the crisis. That’s been really beneficial.
As we stood up emergency operation centers and instant command centers, it was good to have relationships built so you could call on instant commanders or people could do geographical information systems, or someone who had water expertise could assure that there was an integrated response.
The hope would be that a Flint-like crisis would never happen again, but what should public leaders be doing right now to have those lines of communication open when the next crisis comes around?
(Crises) will happen and I think that the time has passed where there is any one entity that has all the answers. As the issues become more complex, as it becomes more involved to become fully immersed and integrated into communities, we need to identify those in leadership positions and opinion leaders and make sure we establish that network.
Flint certainly highlighted the need for long-term infrastructure upgrades. There’s been conversations at the federal level regarding that, but do you think funding for those projects will filter down into state and local governments?
As one of my old bosses said, ‘Hope’s not a strategy.’ Let’s put together the framework for the conversation. Part of that is informing individuals that we do have an aging infrastructure.
What’s being done about it?
One thing the Infrastructure Commission is really talking about is the need for increasing efficiencies and having an integrated asset management plan. What does that mean? Everyone has seen examples of where you pave the road and then you cut the road up for sewer and water. That makes no sense.
So why does that wind up happening so frequently?
It occurs because the road guys don’t talk to the water guys and they don’t talk to the utilities. They don’t talk about the energy needs or the broadband capabilities. So one thing we’re talking about is how taxpayers and ratepayers get the best return on their investment. In this country, there has been significant infrastructure investment, but it’s been a long time and it all has a life cycle. And I don’t think everyone understood that until Flint raised the issue about aging infrastructure.
Infrastructure investment seemed to be one of the rare areas our presidential candidates agreed about this cycle.
Both candidates (talked) about the need to invest in infrastructure. People in this state on both sides of the aisle are talking about the need to invest in infrastructure. I think it will become a bipartisan issue to deliver safe drinking water, to make sure we can fish and swim in our lakes and streams. So I’m cautiously optimistic that we can develop a system that’s more efficient so you get better returns.
A year ago, the Michigan Legislature passed a roads funding package. There’s been a lot of debate over whether that’s enough to meet our needs. Do you think we’re committing the necessary resources to get things done?
The Legislature passed the road funding bill, which is a start. I think everyone agreed that we appreciated the leadership both out of the governor’s office and the Legislature to make some initial investments. I don’t think anyone at the time thought that would solve all the problems, whether it’s roads and bridges or other infrastructure issues. That’s why I appreciate us saying here are some additional resources.
How did your time with the DEQ influence your work now at the DNR?
I’ll go farther and say (as former Department of Agriculture) director, too. If you want to save a food processor in a small town that doesn’t have a wastewater system that can handle it, that crosses all of those because it impacts natural resources, the environment and the producer. That’s where I think collectively we need to look at that. If we can do green infrastructure, repairing corridors, clean up the rivers, that helps with fish passage, helps with high quality lifestyle. It helps with 25 million visitors at the state parks.