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Flint's water crisis: newly released emails show Michigan officials' long indifference to residents' concerns

A sign in Flint, Michigan, where the water is contaminated with lead.
A sign in Flint, Michigan, where the water is contaminated with lead.
(Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The biggest scandal in the emails Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder released Wednesday about his handling of the Flint water crisis isn't just about lead poisoning.

It's that it took the threat of lifelong damage to children to get state officials to pay attention to what residents and politicians had been saying for a year: Flint's water was unsafe and undrinkable.

Snyder, in his State of the State address on Tuesday night, announced he would release emails from his office related to the Flint crisis in the interest of transparency.

The emails — many of them prepared statements, briefings, and press releases rather than conversations — show how disturbingly slow officials were to take the crisis seriously.

A top aide to the governor referred to the concerns as "political football."

The state agencies responsible for health and environmental quality continued to emphasize that discolored, smelly, occasionally bacteria-ridden or chemically contaminated water was nothing serious. As the first reports of lead poisoning began to emerge, they hurried to discount them.

They insinuated that Flint's elected officials were fearmongering, playing up their problems so that the nearly bankrupt city could squeeze more money out of the state legislature to repair its water system.

"On the verge of civil unrest"

Flint's water problems started long before the news of lead poisoning broke. First there was bacterial contamination; then the city issued a warning because the water had too much trihalomethane, a byproduct of chlorine that can cause cancer and birth defects.

State Rep. Sheldon Neeley, who represents Flint, sent Snyder a letter in January 2015 pleading with the governor for help. Flint "stands on the precipice of civil unrest" because its residents cannot trust the water, he wrote, asking the state to forgive a $21 million debt it owed to a state fund meant to help improve water safety.

But a briefing from the state Department of Environmental Quality sent to Snyder on February 1 plays down the Flint water safety problems. And it suggests the city was ginning up panic in order to get access to state funds.

The federal government doesn't regulate "the aesthetic values of water," it notes, and suggests that the trihalomethane risk wasn't a big deal:

It's not "nothing." State and federal law requires quarterly testing for TTHM and that the public be informed of it when the annual average of four quarters' worth of consecutive testing shows TTHM levels exceeding 80 parts per billion. Flint's results managed to exceed the annual average in three quarters, and they must develop a plan to address it.

But it's not like an eminent [sic] threat to public health. Unlike an e. Coli or even total coliform bacteria maximum contaminant level, which require immediate public notification and response and are part of daily / hourly testing of public water supplies, TTHMs pose a public health concern with chronic, longterm exposure…

The key to the conversation is that TTHM 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.

The state's position on TTHM is factually accurate; long-term exposure is the biggest concern. But it also sent another message: Safe drinking water in a Michigan city isn't the Michigan government's problem.

"I can't figure out why the state is responsible"

That narrative — that the water problem was Flint's, not Michigan's — would continue for months, even though Flint was controlled by a state-appointed emergency manager. And the denial continued after research revealed that children's blood lead levels were increasing.

In September 2015, physicians at Hurley Medical Center in Flint warned that the amount of lead in children's blood had skyrocketed after the switch to river water. But the state continued to pooh-pooh those concerns.

And that's the message that Snyder's staff continued to pass on to him, even while admitting that the state-appointed emergency manager had signed off on the switch to Flint River water in the first place.

Dennis Muchmore, Snyder's chief of staff, wrote in an email September 25:

The DEQ and [health department] 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.

We have put an incredible amount of time and effort into this issue because of the impacted neighbors and their children, and the KWA/DWSD controversy and Dillon's involvement in the final decision. [Congressman Dan] 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.

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.

And the state Department of Health and Human Services played down the Hurley study as hard as it could, even putting "data" in scare quotes:

[Michigan Department of Health and Human Services] epidemiologists continue to review the "data" provided by a Hurley hospital physician that showed an increase in lead activity following the change in water supply. 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. Hurley used two partial years of data, MDHHS looked at five comprehensive years and saw no increase outside the normal seasonal increases. The Hurley review was also a much smaller sample than MDHHS data as ours includes all hospital systems in Flint as well as outside laboratories.

A week later, the state would reverse itself and say the Hurley data was accurate — but not before officials got in a few more dismissive remarks about the Flint city government and the activists who forced them to admit they had a problem.

"The anti-everything group"

Muchmore emphasized on September 26 that lead poisoning was a serious problem. But he suggested again that it's really Flint's problem, and the result of an "anti-everything group" looking for something to raise a fuss about:

The water certainly has occasional less than savory aspects like color because of the apparently more corrosive aspects of the hard water coming from the river, but that has died down with the additional main filters. Taste and smell have been problems also and substantial money has been extended to work on those issues.

Now we have the anti-everything group turning to the lead content which is a concern for everyone, but DEQ and DHHS and EPA can't find evidence of a major change per Geralyn's memo below.

Of course, some of the Flint people respond by looking for someone to blame instead of working to reduce anxiety. 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.

There's no smoking gun in the emails — but that doesn't mean they're exculpatory

Snyder's emails don't show evidence of a government cover-up. (If they had, he probably wouldn't have released them.) They barely even show the governor weighing in himself, except for an email on October 6, five days after the state confirmed the Hurley study of children's lead poisoning was accurate, when he demands daily updates on the situation in Flint.

But they do show that the state was far too slow to admit that Flint might have a problem, and that city officials weren't just creating a political outcry in order to get more assistance from the state.

Over and over, the emails show the state chose not to believe the worst, and not to take responsibility, until finally it didn't have a choice.