Health

Emails Reveal How Michigan Government Dragged Its Feet Before Investigating Flint’s Water

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Flint residents waiting to attend a Congressional hearing on the water crisis on March 17

Officials in Michigan and at a federal agency were aware as early as May 2014 that residents of Flint were complaining of rashes caused by the water, which had been switched from Detroit to the Flint River a month before, according to newly released emails analyzed by the Detroit Free Press. Yet a formal investigation into the rashes didn’t come until February of this year.

A resident spoke with Jennifer Crooks, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Michigan program manager for drinking water at the time. In Crooks’ email to another EPA official in May 2014 describing the conversation with the city resident, she wrote that he said “he and many people have rashes from the new water” and “his doctor says the rash is from the new drinking water.” In the email, Crooks said she told the resident to bring his concerns to the state Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), but he said he didn’t trust the state.

Later that month, Thomas Poy, a different EPA official, wrote in an email about a conversation with the same resident. “Rashes can be caused by other changes in water chemistry due to the change in source waters but the first step would be to rule out regulated contaminants,” he wrote, which could refer to things such as trihalomethanes (TTHMs) or even lead, both regulated by the EPA.

In June of that year, Crooks sent out a briefing on the issue to EPA and MDEQ officials, writing, “There have been numerous complaints to the Region 5 Ground Water and Drinking Water Branch regarding the drinking water, including rotten egg smell, swamp water smell, people developing rashes.” She also determined that raw water drawn from the Flint River “is a different quality and more variable than Lake Huron raw water that Detroit is using.” But she concluded, based on test results from the MDEQ, that although there were some TTHMs in the water, there weren’t enough to exceed acceptable levels.

A formal investigation into the rashes many residents have reported thanks to the city’s water, which didn’t have corrosion controls and filters added to prevent the leaching of lead and other contaminants, didn’t come until February of 2016. That investigation was conducted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services with aid from federal officials. The city’s water wasn’t switched back to Detroit until October of 2015, and state and federal agencies still have yet to investigate whether the water switch is responsible for a huge outbreak of Legionnaires disease.

A task force appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) released its final findings about the crisis this week and laid the blame squarely on the state — particularly criticizing the actions of officials at the MDEQ, which it found to have “primary responsibility” for the water contamination. The report said officials failed to enforce drinking water regulations, misinterpreted the EPA’s lead and copper rule, failed to investigate the situation, and waited too long before accepting intervention from the EPA, all of which led to high lead exposure for residents that lasted for months.

Other emails to and from MDEQ officials show them taking a light or even joking tone when discussing the crisis in Flint in late 2014. One sent to a fellow MDEQ official from district engineer Mike Prysby, who had repeatedly told residents that the water was safe, included the sign off, “Thanks Richard…now off to physical therapy…perhaps mental therapy with all of these Flint calls….lol” in September 2014. Another email sent from East Michigan Council of Governments Executive Director Sue Fortune to an MDEQ drinking water official in the same month said, “Tell me — WHO thought Flint’s river water was ok to drink and then ALLOWED IT? :-)))))”

The new batch of emails also shows that a top MDEQ official was concerned by an announcement from General Motors in October 2014 that it would stop using Flint water out of concern that it would corrode the company’s machine parts. Brad Wurfel, former MDEQ spokesman, wrote on October 15, 2014 that it “has the potential to put us in an awkward spot with respect to decisions Flint needs to make on its own,” also writing, “On review, let’s be really careful on this.” Wurfel resigned in December after a task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder criticized MDEQ for how it handled the water crisis.