Health

Leaked Emails Claim Snyder Administration Withheld Lead Testing Results

CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) meeting with volunteers handing out water on February 5

In emails obtained by The Flint Journal, local health officials in Flint accuse the administration of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) of withholding the results of lead testing in the city’s schools before making them public.

Flint switched its water source in April 2014 to the Flint River and failed to use corrosion controls, steps that are now known to have caused dangerous levels of lead to leach into the city’s water system. On October 2, 2015, a day after Snyder says he learned that there were elevated lead levels in the city, he initiated lead testing, including at the schools.

But the results of those tests weren’t released to the public for six days, despite the numerous health risks associated with consuming lead-contaminated water. In one of the emails, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Jim Henry, the county’s environmental health supervisor, wrote, “MDEQ [the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] explained that the Governor prohibited releasing all Genesee County lead results until after the press conference,” which took place on October 8.

In an interview this Wednesday with the Journal, Henry elaborated that Genessee County officials like him didn’t learn about the test results until they were distributed at the press conference. “They should have alerted the schools and they didn’t,” he said.

The tests, when made public, showed that three school district buildings tested above 15 parts of lead per billion, the threshold above which the Environmental Protection Agency recommends taking corrective action, although researchers say there is no safe level of lead. One school tested at 101 parts per billion, more than six times that level.

After the press conference, Henry and drinking water chief Liane Shekter Smith met with DEQ officials on October 16, and according to an email Henry sent on the 18th summarizing it, they apologized for not publicizing the results earlier and claimed that Snyder ordered them to delay the release.

Snyder is adamantly denying his administration improperly delayed the release of the test results. In a Facebook post, he wrote, “Gov. Rick Snyder never ordered a state agency to withhold information about lead testing in Flint schools, but instead quickly announced the results of water tests in 13 school buildings at a press conference in the city on Oct. 8… The Governor’s Office unequivocally denies allegations published online by MLive on Wednesday that Snyder ordered the Department of Environmental Quality to withhold results of testing in the schools.” Instead, he said, “As soon as the water samples were tested and the results verified, Snyder announced the results at a press conference in Flint on Oct. 8.” His press office could not confirm to the Journal what was said in the follow up meeting on October 16.

Three days after that meeting, the DEQ announced that Shekter Smith was being reassigned, and she was eventually suspended and then fired on February 5.

The emails obtained by The Flint Journal allege that there were other delays in releasing test results. In the last week of October, further testing was conducted at Freeman Elementary School. Henry emailed the DEQ’s Laboratory Director George Krisztian on November 3 requesting all of those results through a FOIA, but Krisztian declined, saying the samples presented an “incomplete picture of the plumbing system.” He said they wouldn’t be ready until November 4. In a November 6 email sent to someone else, Henry claims that Krisztian told him he had been ordered to withhold the information until a FOIA deadline on December 2.

Those results were eventually made public on November 9 by Flint Community Schools in a press release. They found that from 31 samples taken at the school, nine fixtures had lead levels exceed the 15 parts per billion threshold.

Under Michigan law, Snyder is not subject to FOIA requests, although he has voluntarily released emails related to Flint from January 2014 to December 2015. But other emails made public have surfaced troubling information.

An email exchange obtained by Progress Michigan between Harvey Hollins, a principal adviser to Snyder, and DEQ Communications Director Brad Wurfel in March 2015 indicates that Snyder’s administration was made aware at that time of a significant uptick in Legionnaires disease outbreaks, a water-borne bacteria. The email says that 40 cases had been reported since April, more than the previous five years combined, and notes that April is when the water source was switched to the Flint River. It also says that Henry made a direct link between the switch and the uptick in cases, although the source has still not been confirmed. Snyder has previously said he wasn’t made aware of the outbreak until January of this year, and it is not clear whether Hollins informed his boss any earlier.

Additional emails obtained by Progress Michigan show that a state agency decided to haul water coolers into a state building located in Flint in January 2015 out of concern over the city’s water quality, a year before bottled water was made available to all residents.

It is still not clear who made all of the decisions about using the Flint River as an interim water source without taking extra precautions and when exactly everyone became aware of the crisis. There are multiple ongoing investigations into the situation.