By last January, people in Flint, Michigan, knew something was wrong with their water. It smelled and tasted bad. It was the color of rust. And they'd already been told it was contaminated with chemicals that can cause cancer.
Publicly, the state insisted all this was nothing to worry about. Privately, they made sure their own employees wouldn't have to drink Flint's water.
After a notice went out informing Flint residents that their water had unacceptable levels of total trihalomethanes — a chlorine byproduct that can cause cancer — the Flint office of the Department of Technology, Management, and Budget installed water coolers, according to an email obtained by Progress Michigan.
"While the City of Flint states that corrective actions are not necessary, [the department] 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," the department's facilities team wrote on January 7, 2015.
But the Department of Environmental Quality, which was notified about the budget department's decision to buy bottled water (and noted that "certain departments" seemed concerned about the water quality notice), was still insisting that the contaminated water was perfectly safe to drink.
"It's not like an eminent [sic] threat to public health," a briefing the department sent to Gov. Rick Snyder on February 1, 2015, reads in part. The DEQ went on to suggest that city officials were exaggerating the threat so they could get more money out of the state for infrastructure improvements.
It would take eight more months for the state to admit that the water in Flint really was unsafe. The budget department might have had clean drinking water provided by the state, but ordinary people in Flint did not.