In an effort to offer answer mounting questions about who is at fault for the contamination of Flint’s drinking water, Governor Rick Snyder broke with his exemption from Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act and released emails he sent and received regarding Flint during 2014 and 2015.
The 274-page trove (PDF) published Wednesday evening offers new insight into the evolution of the Flint water crisis from the state’s perspective, including efforts to deflect and later begrudgingly acknowledge state responsibility.
In one noteworthy email dated September 25, 2015, Snyder’s then-Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore offers an answer to perhaps the biggest question that has loomed over Flint for the past two years: who decided to switch the city’s water supply from Detroit to the Flint river?
According to Muchmore, it was former state Treasurer Andy Dillon who made the fateful call.
“I can’t figure out why the state is responsible except that Dillon did make the ultimate decision so we’re not able to avoid the subject,” Muchmore wrote to Snyder, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and other top gubernatorial staff.
Muchmore’s finger-pointing email came one day after Pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha released a report showing a rise in lead levels among Flint children over the period of time since the river water switch.
On September 29, nearly a year and a half after Flint residents began expressing concerns about the quality of their tap water following the April 2014 switch to the Flint river, Snyder acknowledged the city’s lead problem for the first time.
But the governor had hardly been in the dark about the situation before that point. The newly-released emails reveal behind-the-scenes discussions between the Snyder and his staff about the Flint water issue dating back several months.
An email chain from January 22, 2015, shows Snyder staffers planning to two separate meetings to discuss “the flint water topic” internally and with Flint officials.
On February 1, before Snyder was slated to announce the state’s plan to award Flint $2 million in “Distressed Cities” grants “for water system improvements,” Press Secretary David Murray sent the governor a particularly insightful briefing that now provides new clues as to what Snyder actually knew about the Flint situation at that time and how the state chose to respond
Among the attached documents intended to get the governor up to speed, is a copy of a Facebook post by Flint Mayor Dayne Walling about a letter he’d recently sent to Snyder asking him to “quickly implement” his proposed “Flint Water Improvement Plan,” to ensure that “Flint’s water is 100% safe.”
In the Facebook post, Walling calls on Flint residents to do their part in urging the governor to enforce the plan as well, writing,“access to clean, safe, affordable water is a basic human right.”
“The struggle with our water has gone on for far too long,” reads Walling's Facebook post. “The state must take action and do its part.”
The briefing points out that Mayor Walling reiterated his requests for state and federal assistance, as well as a personal visit from the Governor to Flint, in a guest column at the Flint Journal.
Murray notes that the governor has also received a letter from state Rep. Sheldon Neeley, a Flint Democrat, who wrote that his constituents are “on the verge of civil unrest.”
An attached backgrounder provided by the Department of Environmental Quality pins the river water idea on the city of Flint and attempts dispel concerns about water safety in light of a recent public notice that high levels of total trihalomethanes, or TTHM, in Flint tap water violated the legal limit.
TTHM, a byproduct of treating the river water’s organic matter with chlorine, “is a chronic health threat,” reads the DEQ document.
“Over the long term (measured in decades), continued exposure can contribute to some unknown health problems,” which is why the EPA calls for quarterly testing and requires that a public notice be issued only if “the standard for [TTHM] is exceeded over several consecutive quarters of testing,” as it did in Flint's case.
While this means that “people who use the system are exposed to TTHM for several months before the public notice is required,” the DEQ explained, “it’s not like an eminent threat to public health.”
The DEQ also offered a number of benign explanations for the Flint water’s unusual color, taste, and smell, noting that The Safe Drinking Water act, “and the program here in Michigan, work to ensure that water is safe to drink. The act does not regulate the aesthetic values of water. **include screenshot of explanations for water discoloration.”
Assurances of the Flint river water’s safety continued until September 25, after which a series of emails between Snyder, Wyant, Muchmore and other officials show progressive recognition of the state’s role in the escalating crisis.
“Simply said, our staff believe they were constrained by two consecutive six-month tests. We followed and defended that protocol,” Wyant wrote in an email to Snyder on October 18. “I believe now we made a mistake...optimized corrosion control should have been required from the beginning.”