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Flint e-mails: 274 pages... 7 replies from Gov. Snyder

Rick Snyder

As promised, Governor Rick Snyder released a huge batch of emails “in the spirit of transparency and accountability” late this afternoon. 

Included are emails to and from Snyder, related to Flint, from 2014 and 2015. No emails from 2013, when the option to switch to the Flint River for a two-year period was first floated, were included.

While there is plenty of information to soak in, there were no obvious bombshells. 

Emails show a press release from the city of Flint was forwarded to Snyder in April 2014, when the switch to the Flint River occurred.

The next correspondence about the water is in October 2014.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality sends the governor’s office a four-page “briefing paper” on Flint’s “drinking water situation.” It discusses the string of boil water advisories, the city’s lack of investment in water infrastructure, and a significant number of water main breaks.

The next correspondence is from January 2015. That’s shortly after Flint residents got a notice in the mail that the drinking water had elevated levels of trihalomethane, a by-product of the disinfectant chlorine. But the email doesn’t specifically reference the issue.

In February 2015, the DEQ provides a more in-depth analysis of the trihalomethane issue.

“It's not ‘nothing,” DEQ staff write, “But it's not like an eminent (sic) threat to public health.” Staff note that the real health risks are chronic, long-term exposure.

“It's clear the nature of the threat was communicated poorly. It's also clear that folks in Flint are concerned about other aspects of their water – taste, smell and color being among the top complaints,” the memo says.

Credit Rick Snyder / michigan.gov

“The key to the conversation is that TTHM (trihalomethane) is not a top health concern. That's key because residents need to understand TTHM in context, and it is key because it appears the mayor 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.”

Though Snyder told the National Journal this week he first learned of lead concerns sometime last summer, the next correspondence in the batch of released emails doesn’t take place until September 5, 2015.

A member of his staff emails Snyder to let him know that 1,500 kitchen water filters that an anonymous donor provided went fast.

“The Concerned Pastors exhausted the donated supply in 4 hours with 200 people still waiting to get a filter,” Harvey Hollins wrote.

Credit Rick Snyder / michigan.gov

The governor’s involvement in the donations came to light a few weeks later, when The Flint Journal/MLive.com wrote, “Gov. Rick Snyder quietly helped deliver 1,500 water filters to Flint last month – even as state officials gave assurances that the city's tap water was safe and meeting all regulatory standards.”

On September 25, Snyder’s then-chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, wrote to Snyder that “the issue of Flint water and its quality continues to be a challenging topic.”

“The DEQ and DCH 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.

“I can't figure out why the state is responsible except that (then-state treasurer Andy) Dillon did make the ultimate decision so we're not able to avoid the subject,” Muchmore wrote.

“The real responsibility rests with the county, city and KWA, but since the issue here is the health of citizens and their children we're taking a pro-active approach putting DHHS out there as an educator. I'm not sure how much background you need on all this so I don't want to flood you with stuff,” he concludes.

Credit Rick Snyder / michigan.gov

Snyder doesn’t respond directly, but emails indicate a call is scheduled because Snyder wants to “get the latest and greatest info on this topic.”

The next day, a Saturday, Muchmore writes again.

“We can't tolerate increased lead levels in any event, but it's really the city's water system that needs to deal with it. We're throwing as much assistance as possible at the lead problem as regardless of what the levels, explanations or proposed solutions, the residents and particularly the poor need help to deal with it."

Muchmore says home filters seem to be the best solution. 

“The residents are caught in a swirl of misinformation and long-term distrust of local government unlikely to be resolved,” he wrote.

He attaches reports from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that downplay data released by local pediatricians, which showed a spike in elevated blood lead levels. There is no reply from Snyder.

On October 6, Snyder wrote to his staff that he wants daily reports about the situation in Flint “until our recommendations are fully implemented.” Emails show reports from departments come more frequently for that next week, but not daily.  

On October 18, the day former MDEQ Director Dan Wyant admits the department made mistakes when implementing the federal Lead and Copper Rule in Flint, he writes Snyder to inform him that he’s about to share this information with the press. There is no response from Snyder.

In December, the governor’s staff sends him information about the latest blood tests on Flint’s children. They also send him a summary and a link to a blog post written by Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards, shortly after he gets a batch of emails from Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services under a Freedom of Information Act request. There is no response from Snyder.

Later that month, former director of the DEQ, Dan Wyant, sends Snyder a report from the auditor general, which he says is consistent with the department’s internal findings. There is no response from Snyder.

Lastly, Snyder’s now chief of state Jarrod Agen wrote to Snyder on December 28, 2015 in response to the Flint Water Task Force’s letter that places major blame for the Flint water crisis with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

“If this is the path that the Task Force is on, it is best to make changes at DEQ sooner rather than later,” Agen wrote. “That likely means accepting Dan's resignation. It also means moving up the termination of the 3 DEQ personal (sic) previously planned for Jan 4 to tomorrow.”

Wyant resigned the next day. Department spokesman Brad Wurfel sent an email the same day, saying he was resigning as well.

It’s not clear if anyone else was fired at the DEQ. Requests to the DEQ and the governor’s spokesman for clarification were not immediately returned.

*The headline for this post was changed to reflect the number of replies from Gov. Snyder.

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