Emails Show State Thought Flint Water Crisis Wasn't Its Problem
By John Wisely, Paul Egan and Jennifer Dixon
Gov. Rick Snyder's staffers worried in September that the issue of lead in Flint's drinking water was being politicized and that the state's responsibility for the crisis was being exaggerated.
"I can't figure out why the state is responsible except that (then-treasurer Andy) Dillon did make the ultimate decision so we're not able to avoid the subject," Snyder's chief of staff Dennis Muchmore wrote to Snyder in a Sept. 25, 2015, e-mail.
He followed it up the next morning, writing: "The real responsibility rests with the county, city and KWA," referring to the Karegnondi Water Authority. "But since the issue here is the health of citizens and their children, we're taking a proactive approach."
Muchmore's e-mail came after a Hurley Medical Center pediatrician reported finding elevated blood lead levels in Flint children.
Muchmore's e-mails were included in 274 pages of Snyder's e-mails released today in the wake of the water crisis that has led protesters to call for the governor to resign. House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said he was very disappointed with redactions in the e-mails and the fact Snyder only released what he said were his own e-mails, instead of all Flint-related e-mails to and from officials in the executive office.
The first e-mail in the file released by Snyder is from Michael Gadola, then Snyder's legal counsel, and includes 2 1/2 pages of blacked-out text. Most of the other redactions are of e-mail addresses.
"It's very disappointing to see the governor play these types of games," Greimel said.
Muchmore, who retired Tuesday as Snyder's chief of staff, told the Free Press that when he wrote that Dillon made the ultimate decision, he meant that the Flint emergency manager reported to Dillon and Dillon "signed off on it."
Muchmore said he was referencing Flint's decision to join the Karegnondi Water Authority, a new pipeline now under construction to Lake Huron. That decision was supported by the locals and the Flint City Council, which endorsed it with a 7-1 vote.
After the vote, Detroit notified Flint that it was terminating water service to Flint in 12 months, which prompted a scramble for an alternative source. A year later, Flint began drawing and treating water from the Flint River for distribution to the city. The river water immediately drew complaints of discoloration, odor and rust.
Dillon said in an e-mail to the Free Press he was initially reluctant to sign off on Flint moving to the KWA because he didn't think the change would save the cash-strapped city money. He said he changed his mind after he was told in a briefing with the Department of Environmental Quality that the new pipeline would be a cost-saver, and after determining that the Detroit water system was not prepared to give Flint a better deal.
"However, this was a different decision than the decision to use the Flint River," Dillon said. "I don't recall that decision coming to me."
Muchmore said Wednesday that the Flint River had always been the backup water source and while there was some disagreement about the issue, no one really talked about the significance of using the river water until after it happened and complaints started pouring in.
"Everybody thought professionals will treat this water and they will make it good," Muchmore said today. "Andy ultimately signed off on the KWA because he felt it was acceptable financially, No.1 , and the DEQ had signed off on the technical part of it, and more importantly, the local people wanted to do it."
The e-mails were released after Snyder made a pledge in his State of the State address Tuesday. Normally, the e-mails would not be disclosed publicly, but Snyder agreed to release them after pressure from the Detroit Free Press and others to make his communications public in the wake of the public health emergency.
In the e-mails, Muchmore wrote that U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, was "engaged in his normal press hound routine" after the congressman issued a press release noting he'd asked the EPA to help the state deal with the crisis. Muchmore added that then-mayor Dayne Walling "went out on a CYA effort due to the election."
They also show doubts about returning Flint to the Detroit system and even questioning if the reports of higher lead levels are accurate.
"They can't reconnect to DWSD even if they wanted to as they sold the connector line," Muchmore wrote Sept. 26. "And, especially with the new rate increases in Detroit, their citizens would be less able to pay than they already are. Now we have the anti everything group turning to the lead content which is a concern for everyone, but DEQ and DHHS and EPA can't find evidence of a major change per Geralyn's memo below."
Muchmore was referring to a memo from Geralyn Lasher at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that said blood lead level data examined by Hurley Medical Center Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha didn't match the state's data.
"Hurley used two partial years of data, MDHHS looked at five comprehensive years and saw no increase outside the normal seasonal increases," Lasher wrote. "The Hurley review was also a much smaller sample than MDHHS data as ours includes all hospital systems in Flint as well as outside laboratories. We have also provided the attached data chart that outlines if the elevated blood lead levels were being driven by a change in water, we would have seen the elevated levels remain high after the change in water source."
Three days later, Snyder received a daily briefing from staffers laying out the concerns in Flint. The first bullet point in the briefing noted that the most common cause of lead poisoning is from lead paint.
"Blood lead level testing results for the 12-month period just after the City of Flint changed its water source (May 2014- April 2015) showed no significant change in the pattern of blood lead levels in Flint, compared to the previous three years," Snyder was informed in the briefing. "This data suggests the recent change in water source by the City of Flint has not contributed to an increase in lead exposure throughout the community."
The briefing went on to estimate that it would cost "$60 million or more" to replace the more than 15,000 lead pipes that connect water mains to homes.
Very little of the text in the body of the e-mails was written by Snyder himself. The bulk of the messages are staffers writing to Snyder.
On Sept. 2, Snyder received an e-mail from Harvey Hollins, his director of the office of urban affairs, informing him that 1,500 donated water filters were distributed in Flint within four hours and at least 200 more people wanted them. The name of the donor who provided the filters is redacted from the e-mails though Hollins acknowledged that they "do not want any publicity or credit for their donation the donation."
Snyder responded three days later: "Factually accurate update, but how did it go over with the residents?"
"It went over extremely well with the residents," Hollins replied. "There is a demand for more."
A week after Muchmore's e-mail saying Flint couldn't reconnect to Detroit's system, the city was exploring a way to do just that.
Snyder did weigh in on the financial aspects of reconnection.
"We should help get all the facts on the consequences of changing back vs. staying and then determine what financing mechanisms we have available," Snyder wrote in an Oct. 2 message to Muchmore, adding the administration needed "a clear side-by-side comparison of the health benefits and costs of (the Great Lakes Water Authority) vs. a more optimized Flint system. Also, we need to look at what financing mechanisms are available to Flint to pay for any higher cost actions. Please get people working on these two issues ASAP."
On Oct. 6, Snyder wrote: "We need a better update system re: Flint water," noting that he learned from the media that the Department of Health and Human Services announced the distribution of water filters.
"This should have come internally with more detail. I had press questions last night," Snyder wrote. "Overall, we should have a daily report on Flint until our recommendations are fully implemented."
Snyder then cited information he wanted including water test results, blood test results, the number of filters distributed and the analysis of proceeding with water from the Great Lakes Water Authority, the Flint River or the new authority.
The e-mails show that on Dec. 28, when given advance notice of the letter from the task force that Snyder appointed to look into the issue, which was highly critical of the DEQ, incoming chief of staff Jarrod Agen told Snyder that planned staff changes at the DEQ should be made "sooner rather than later," and that Snyder should accept Director Dan Wyant's resignation, which had apparently already been submitted but not accepted.
Agen also references moving ahead with the dismissal of three DEQ officials, which he said had been planned for Jan. 4. No such dismissals have been announced. DEQ Communications Director Brad Wurfel resigned the same day Wyant did. Earlier, the head of the drinking water section had been re-assigned, but not dismissed.
Snyder had to sign off on the release of the e-mails. The governor's office and Legislature are exempt from Michigan's Freedom of Information Act, which requires public disclosure of records related to government. Michigan is one of only two states that apply a blanket exemption to electronic communication from the governor's office and Legislature.
Greimel said the situation demonstrates why Michigan's FOIA should immediately be extended to cover both the governor's office and the Legislature.
Snyder has said he would not compel members of his administration to publicly release their e-mails.
Free Press staff writers Keith Matheny, Kristi Tanner and Rochelle Riley contributed to this report.
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