Health

Snyder Aide Says Governor Knew About Flint Water Issues A Year Before Action Was Taken

CREDIT: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (D)

Aides close to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and his top lawyers discussed concerns about water quality in Flint and its impact on health as early as October 2014, a full year before the water source was switched back to Detroit and away from the Flint River, according to a review of 550 newly released emails by the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News. At least one aide says the concerns were brought directly to the governor himself.

Valerie Brader, deputy legal counsel and senior policy advisor to Snyder, argued after the city left the Detroit water system and began drawing its drinking water from the Flint River that it should return to Detroit in an October 14, 2014 email to the governor’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, and two other top aides. It was at that time that General Motors announced it would stop using Flint River water because it was corroding its machinery, and Brader cited bacterial contamination in the water, all of which made the situation an “urgent matter to fix.”

She wrote, “As you know there have been problems with the Flint water quality since they left the DWSD [Detroit Water and Sewerage Department], which was a decision by the emergency manager there,” adding, “Specifically, there has been a boil water order due to bacterial contamination… What is not yet broadly known is that attempts to fix that have led to some levels of chlorine-related chemicals that can cause long-term damage if not remedied (though we believe they will remedy them before any damage would occur in the population).” Those chemicals are trihalomethanes (TTHMs), a carcinogen that can cause kidney and liver damage, among other issues, and two months later the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a notice in Flint that it had violated the allowable levels of TTHMs in the water. It violated that level two more times after that.

While the city acknowledged GM’s decision to stop using Flint River water on October 16, it said the move “ensures that Flint residents will continue to have safe quality drinking water but minimizes the impact on GM’s machining work.”

In an email response to Brader also sent to the governor’s top aides the same day, Michael Gadola, Snyder’s legal counsel and a former Flint resident, said, “To anyone who grew up in Flint as I did, the notion that I would be getting my drinking water from the Flint River is downright scary,” and said the city “should try to get back on the Detroit system as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control.” He also added, “Too bad the [emergency manager Darnell Earley] didn’t ask me what I thought, though I’m sure he heard it from plenty of others.”

Brader said in an interview this week with the Detroit News that she never raised the concerns in her emails with Snyder directly, nor did Gadola. But Muchmore told the Free Press that they did reach the governor at the time of the October 2014 email exchanges. “We shared them,” he said. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the emails.

But it took a year before anything changed for Flint residents. Muchmore said Thursday that cost was the biggest hurdle in discussions about whether the city should go back to using Detroit’s water. He told the Detroit News, “A lot of us felt like ‘I don’t care what it costs’ and ‘we have to go back’ because people didn’t have any faith in the water system at the time.” The Treasury Department said the cost of reconnection would be an extra $1 million a month, more than what the city could afford.

In January of 2015, Flint’s emergency manager Earley rejected the idea of switching back to the Detroit water system. Brader said Earley told her the problems with the Flint River water were expected to improve and weren’t likely to come back. In a February 5 email, Muchmore brought up the idea of putting a $2 million state grant for Flint toward reconnecting to Detroit. “Since we’re in charge, we can hardly ignore the people of Flint,” he wrote to communications officials in the governor’s office, the DEQ, and Treasury Department. “After all, if GM refuses to use the water in their plant and our own agencies are warning people not to drink it…we look pretty stupid hiding behind some financial statement.”

But the water source wasn’t switched back until October of 2015, after Snyder approved using an estimated $12 million in city, state, and private funding. At that point, the harm had been done and lead and other contaminants are still leaching into the water from damaged pipes. It has now been acknowledged as a widespread public health crisis.

There have been some indications before that the governor may have known about the problems in Flint long before action was taken. State officials brought bottled water to a state building in the city in January 2015 out of concern over the water quality, a year before bottled water was made widely available to residents. Other emails previously indicated that the administration was made aware of a Legionnaires outbreak in March 2015, with a potential connection to the water contamination, even though Snyder said he didn’t know about it until early this year. But these latest emails are the clearest evidence yet that Snyder’s administration, and quite likely Snyder himself, knew about the problems almost immediately after they began occurring.

The revelation has prompted at least one group to call for his resignation. “There’s no reasonable person who can believe at this point that every top advisor to Rick Snyder knew that there was an issue, but Snyder knew nothing. At worst he’s been lying all along and at best he’s the worst manager on the planet. Under either scenario he’s clearly unfit to lead our state and he should resign immediately,” Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, said in a statement. “Without question, Snyder and his entire administration have failed Flint and the residents of Michigan…to him Flint families weren’t as important as the bottom line on his spreadsheet. There are no more excuses and no more scapegoats. The Governor must resign.” A recall petition to remove him from office was recently approved by a state panel.