Michigan Gov. releases more than 270 pages of Flint emails

Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday released his 2014 and 2015 emails in an attempt to demonstrate what he knew about the lead water crisis in Flint and when (WOOD).
Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday released his 2014 and 2015 emails in an attempt to demonstrate what he knew about the lead water crisis in Flint and when (WOOD photo).

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday released his 2014 and 2015 emails in an attempt to demonstrate what he knew about the lead water crisis in Flint and when.

>>PDF: All the emails

The first to reference Flint’s water in the 273-page batch of emails both to and from the governor is an April 25, 2015 press release from the city announcing it had switched to the Flint River for its water. That release promised that despite concerns, the water was safe to drink.

After Flint started to get complaints about the water and realized there were problems, it asked the state for $30 million for infrastructure and capital improvements. According to the notes for a a Sept. 15, 2015 conference call with the city, members of the administration were initially worried about giving Flint that money. The Treasury department claimed “state funding of the city’s $30 million request will likely invite requests from many other communities with similar needs.”

It appears the first email to reference lead in the water specifically is from Sept. 25. In it, Dennis Muchmore, the governor’s chief of staff, says that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and health department “feel that some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football claiming the departments are underestimating the impacts on the populations and particularly trying to shift responsibility to the state.”

Muchmore goes on to say he “can’t figure out why the state is responsible except (then-state Treasurer Andy) Dillon did make the ultimate decision so we’re not able to avoid the subject.”

“The real responsibility rests with County, city and KWA (Karegnondi Water Authority), but since the issue here is the health of citizens and their children we’re taking a pro-active approach putting DHHS (the state health department) out there as an educator,” Muchmore wrote.

Later that day, another email said the governor wanted to speak to the leader of the DEQ about the situation.

That was the same day the City of Flint issued a Lead Advisory for the water and advised residents to flush cold-water pipes by running the water for about five minutes, using only cold water for drinking, cooking and making baby formula, and installing a water filter.

At the same time, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services still seemed critical of lead water concerns brought up by a doctor at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, saying the department was reviewing the data but that it had checked five years of data opposed to two partial years and a larger sample size that Hurley’s and that the department “saw no increase outside the normal seasonal increases.”

The next day, Sept. 26, another email from Muchmore lays out how returning to the Detroit water system would be impossible — Flint had already sold its connector line and the water rate would be more expensive and outside of Flint citizens’ ability to pay.

“The water certainly has occasional less than savory aspects like color because of the apparently more corrosive aspects of the hard water coming from the river, but that has died down with the addition of main filters. Taste and smell have been problems also and substantial money has been extended to work on those issues,” Muchmore’s Sept. 26 email continues.

“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 … Of course, some of the Flint people respond by looking for someone to blame instead of working to reduce anxiety. We can’t tolerate increased lead levels in any event, but it’s really the city’s water system that needs to deal with it. We’re throwing as much assistance as possible at the lead problem as regardless of what the levels, explanations or proposed solutions, the residents and particularly the poor need help to deal with it.”

The email goes to say that the most viable option continued to be find the money to pay for home filters. Muchmore says residents were “caught in a swirl of misinformation and long term distrust of local government unlikely to be resolved.”

It didn’t seem to be until October that the state DEQ first admitted it handled the situation inappropriately. Then-DEQ Director Dan Wyant wrote to the governor, “I believe now we made a mistake.”

“Simply said, our staff believed they were constrained by two consecutive six-month tests. We followed and defended that protocol. I believe now we made a mistake. For communities with a population above 50,000, optimized corrosion control should have been required from the beginning,” Wyant wrote.

“Because of what I have learned, I will be announcing a change in leadership in our drinking water program. I’ve spoken with Dennis about this, and will be making that announcement as part of the Detroit News article that will likely be out tomorrow.”

It was shortly after that the governor ordered a task force to review actions taken at the local, state and federal level that led to the water problems and find solutions.

The documents following the DEQ’s admission explain what went wrong with the lead tests and interaction between the federal Environmental Protection Agency and DEQ about what was being done and what should have been done.

In December, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force said it believed the blame for the crisis lay with the DEQ:

“We believe the primary responsibility for what happened in Flint rests with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ),” the task force wrote in a letter to Gov. Snyder. “Although many individuals and entities at state and local levels contributed to creating and prolonging the problem, MDEQ is the government agency that has responsibility to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan. It failed in that responsibility and must be held accountable for that failure.”

The problem, the task force said, was a “culture … in which ‘technical compliance’ is considered sufficient to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan.” It called that a “minimalist approach” that was “unacceptable” and “simply insufficient.”

“It led to MDEQ’s failure to recognize a number of indications that switching the water source in Flint would — and did — compromise both water safety and water quality,” the letter reads in part. “The MDEQ made a number of decisions that were, and continue to be, justified on the basis that federal rules ‘allowed’ those decisions to be made.”

It said the department’s approach should instead be “founded on what needs to be done to assure drinking water safety.

The emails seem to show the governor’s office was slow to realize the scope of the problem, but once it did, it worked to try to find a solution and help Flint residents. The office also seemed to work to share a lot of information with the public, like lead testing data and information about resources and help. There were several mentions of releasing information on Thursday rather than Friday, recognizing that information released on Friday is less likely to get the same attention.

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT

The governor promised to release the emails during his annual State of the State address on Tuesday. He didn’t have to give them up. Under Michigan law, the governor and his office are exempt from requests under the Freedom of Information Act, which provides an avenue for members of the public to access government-controlled documents and data. Among states, only Michigan and Massachusetts protect their governors’ offices from FOIA.

But was been public pressure for Snyder to release the documents to show when he was informed about what was going on.

In a brief note released with the emails, Snyder said he was providing the documents “in the spirit of transparency and accountability.”

“The Flint water crisis is an extraordinary circumstance and therefore I’m taking this unprecedented step of releasing my emails to ensure that the people of Michigan know the truth,” the note continues. “I am committed to solving this crisis and look forward to working with all Michiganders to help the residents of Flint.”

FLINT WATER CRISIS

Flint’s water troubles have been ongoing for nearly two years, but the state didn’t really start taking action until last autumn and the crisis has received national attention only in recent weeks.

It started when the city switched to the Flint River for its water in April 2014 in an effort to save money while it was under the control of a Snyder-appointed emergency financial manager. There were immediate complaints about the look, smell and taste of the water. Then tests found Flint children had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

It was eventually discovered that the highly corrosive water from the river had damaged the city’s aging pipes, drawing lead from them. State officials initially challenged or dismissed the suggestion that there was lead problem, but eventually, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services confirmed it.

In October 2015, the state government approved funding to switch back to the Detroit system, but it was too late. The damage to the pipes had been done and lead continues to contaminate the water being sent to residents’ homes.

Lead exposure can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in children, and kidney ailments and other issues in adults.

The city declared an emergency on Dec. 14, 2015, the county on Jan. 4, 2016, Snyder on Jan. 5, and President Barack Obama on Jan. 16, clearing the way for federal aid to the city.

WHO’S TO BLAME?

Snyder said his office was assured repeatedly by the DEQ and DHHS that there was nothing to worry about — which the emails seem to confirm — which is why it took so long to act. Top leadership at the DEQ resigned and was replaced by Snyder in the wake of the crisis.

But Snyder has also claimed responsibility as governor.

“I let you down,” he said during his State of the State address on Tuesday. “You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know the buck stops here with me.”

Flint residents were skeptical of Snyder’s apology: “He poisoned us. He doesn’t care about us,” one resident told 24 Hour News 8 on Tuesday.

Also during the State of the State, which focused largely on Flint, Snyder:

  • Announced a bill to provide $28 million more in aid to the city (the House approved it on Wednesday afternoon, sending it to the Senate for consideration);
  • Said he was sending more Michigan National Guard members to Flint to help with water distribution efforts;
  • Promised that every Flint household in need would be checked as soon as possible;
  • Said he would appeal President Barack Obama’s request of federal disaster declaration (which he did Wednesday).

–The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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