91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Amid reassurances that Flint’s water was safe, water coolers provided for state employees

Darwin Bell
Creative Commons

In January 2015, at the same time state officials were downplaying risks to Flint residents over their water, state employees in offices in downtown Flint were supplied with water coolers.

Progress Michigan released emails showing the state began providing state employees in Flint with alternative drinking water in January 2015.

Progress Michigan’s Hugh Madden says it shows a double standard.

“It’s definitely a different reaction to water quality complaints,” Madden said. “You’re telling residents who are concerned about water that it’s safe to drink, but at the same time you don’t think as an employer it’s safe enough for your employees to drink.”

Madden says the group got a set of emails from a third party, who received them through a Freedom of Information Act request. He would not disclose who that third party is.

The emails show Michigan’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget sent an email to state employees who work out of a state-owned building in downtown Flint on January 7, 2015.

The email explains that Flint had recently violated federal drinking water standards for trihalomethane, a by-product of water treatment disinfectant. The violation notice, which was sent to all water customers in Flint that month, was attached.

“While the City of Flint states that corrective actions are not necessary, DTMB is in the process of providing a water cooler on each occupied floor, positioned near the water fountain, so you can choose which water to drink.”

Emails show DTMB asked officials at Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality how soon they might know what the trihalomethane levels were.

The email gets forwarded to DEQ District Engineer Mike Prysby, who writes to his boss, DEQ’s (now suspended) District Supervisor Stephen Busch, “Appears certain state departments are concerned with Flint’s WQ (water quality). I will return the call…”

That same week, Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody wrote that officials at city hall were also trying to calm residents’ fears over trihalomethane levels.

“The city water is safe to drink. My family and I drink it and use it every day,” Flint Mayor Dayne Walling told reporters at a news conference at the city’s water treatment plant. “It’s not safe to drink … bottom line,” says Claire McClinton. McClinton is with the Flint Democracy Defense League. The league has been pushing for months for changes in the city’s water department. McClinton is upset that city officials are saying the water is safe to drink, while at the same time advising families with infants, elderly members and people with immune deficiencies should check with the doctors before drinking Flint’s water.

Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget, says the department is like a “landlord” for all state-owned buildings.

He says the department decided to provide the water coolers as an option for state employees in Flint in January 2015, until trihalomethane levels were back in compliance. He said there were no concerns about lead levels at that time.

Buhs says the water coolers were available through last August, when trihalomethane levels declined. Then they were available again beginning in October.

Trihalomethane levels returned to safe levels in Flint over the summer.

*This post has been updated after Caleb Buhs clarified when the water was available for workers in Flint.

Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s investigative reporter. She previously served as Michigan Radio’s Morning News Editor and West Michigan Reporter.
Related Content