It took Michigan state officials several months to determine that the city of Flint’s drinking water might be seriously contaminated with lead, emails released yesterday show.
Top brass in Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration dismissed concerns of serious problems with the city’s water supply up until last fall, often viewing calls for aid as a political ploy or an attempt to squeeze money out of state coffers.
Following through with a promise made in his State of the State address Tuesday, Snyder released a trove of emails from 2014 and 2015 relating to the lead-contamination crisis.
The emails suggest state leaders were hesitant to believe Flint officials about the risks of switching the water supply from Lake Huron, through a contract with Detroit’s water utility, to the Flint River while a new pipeline to the lake was under construction. The river’s corrosive waters ate away at lead service lines, increasing levels of the metal in tap water. Flint switched over to river water in April 2014. Shortly after, residents began complaining about the smell and color.
"It appears the mayor [of Flint] has seized on the public panic (sparked, frankly, by their poor communication of the violation notice) to ask the state for loan forgiveness and more money for their infrastructure improvement," stated a February 2015 Michigan Department of Environmental Quality background memo.
The document was referring to a Safe Drinking Water Act notice a month earlier, which said the city’s drinking water had too-high levels of trihalomethanes, which are toxic and carcinogenic compounds.
The Snyder administration has appointed a number of "emergency managers" to help remedy Flint’s finances. Though its infrastructure was in dire need of upgrades, the city of 100,000 had difficulty obtaining federal loan money.
Adding to the troubles, two separate court rulings last summer invalidated the city’s decision to hike water and sewer rates by 35 percent, costing Flint about $30 million.
Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling asked the state last year for $30 million for infrastructure upgrades, a figure state Chief Deputy Treasurer Thomas Saxton suggested on Sept. 16, 2015, would be used to make up for retroactive payments stemming from the litigation.
"They asked about the status of the $30mm request to the Governor. Which coincidentally is the ballpark number they are at risk for in the rate lawsuit(s)," Saxton wrote to a number of top Snyder administration officials, including DEQ head Dan Wyant, who resigned on Dec. 29.
Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, who is set to retire at the end of this week, on several occasions portrayed the situation in Flint as a political game.
"The DEQ and [the Department of Community Health] 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 wrote Snyder.
The governor was scheduled to speak later to U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) and state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D). The Democrats have since criticized Snyder’s response.
"Kildee is asking for a call with you. That’s tricky because he’s sure to use it publicly, but if you don’t talk with him it will just fan the narrative that the state is ducking responsibility," Muchmore wrote.
"The real responsibility rests with the County, city and [the Karegnondi Water Authority], but since the issue here is the health of citizens and their children we’re taking a pro-active approach putting [the Department of Health and Human Services] out there as an educator," he added in the email to Snyder.
The emails also show that the Snyder administration was dismissive of a study from pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha. Her findings of unusually high lead levels in children’s blood confronted the Michigan DHHS’s own conclusions that the lead levels were not unusual given the seasonal variations in the element’s presence in water.
"MDHHS epidemiologists continue to review the ‘data’ provided by a [Hurley Medical Center] hospital physician that showed an increase in lead activity following the change in water supply," wrote Geralyn Lasher, deputy director of external relations and communications at the state’s health department.
"While we continue to review this data, we have stated publicly that Hurley conducted their analysis in a much different way than we do at the department," Lasher wrote.
It took until early October for Snyder to make a switch back to Lake Huron water a top priority.
"We need Treasury to work with Dan [Wyant] and Flint on a clear side by side comparison of the health benefits and costs of [Great Lakes Water Authority] vs. a more optimize Flint system," the governor told his then-communications director, Jarrod Agen.
"Also," wrote Snyder, "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."
EPA briefs lawmakers
U.S. EPA will be on Capitol Hill this morning to brief House staff on two oversight committees about the crisis in Flint as federal coordination efforts ramp up.
The EPA session with House Energy and Commerce Committee and Oversight and Government Reform Committee staff members — confirmed by a House aide — is the latest sign of increasing congressional interest in the crisis. It also suggests House lawmakers could become more involved with the federal response when they return from recess next week.
Michigan Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, along with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver (D), huddled yesterday with Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary of preparedness and response at Health and Human Services, whom the White House appointed earlier this week to coordinate the federal response.
Lurie outlined several HHS agencies that would play a role, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and Administration for Children and Families. She said two federal public health officers would be sent to Flint. Lurie also promised operations centers to manage the response in both Michigan and Washington, D.C.
Both Stabenow and Peters have said state and local governments should take the lead in the response with federal support, blaming the crisis on Snyder.
Weaver said a "whole government response" is needed to combat the impact of long-term exposure to lead contaminated water. The senators said HHS is the right choice to lead the response.
"I am pleased that HHS is coordinating a multilayered federal response, but those efforts must be met with a substantial financial commitment from the state of Michigan, whose shortsighted decisionmaking led to this crisis," Peters said.
Stabenow, who called the situation a "historic public health emergency," said HHS was the appropriate lead because it would focus on the children in Flint, who face potential long-term medical problems from contaminated water. She, along with Peters, has called for the state to create a special fund to secure money for children’s long-term health care needs.
Lurie also told lawmakers of Federal Emergency Management Agency involvement, even as President Obama has declined to declare Flint a federal disaster area. Snyder has sought the designation, which could free up more federal funding and resources, and has appealed to the White House to reconsider (E&ENews PM, Jan. 20).
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said yesterday that the anger over the situation in Flint is shared on both sides of the aisle.
"I think anytime we’re dealing with a tragic situation, that’s going to be emphasized and deemed fit by those on both sides of the issue," said Inhofe, who declined to assign blame for the crisis.
Reporter Sam Pearson contributed.