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EPA email: "I'm not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for"

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.

As it became public that the water in Flint, Michigan, was contaminated with lead, the federal official overseeing water quality in the city argued that the city shouldn't be allowed to use federal money to buy water filters for residents' homes.

The problem, the official argued, was that Flint had struggled financially and so couldn't be trusted to use the money wisely.

"I'm not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for," Debbie Baltazar, the water division branch chief for the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 5, which includes Michigan, wrote in an email released Tuesday by the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "At least without a better understanding of where all that money went."

This was a common theme in the Flint water crisis. Top aides to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder argued that the city was exaggerating its water quality problems in order to get more help from the state. It turns out that the EPA was making similar arguments.

Flint had wanted to use money from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which makes federal funding available for water quality, to buy water filters for residents. Michigan usually uses the money to stop water wells in the state from becoming contaminated.

The EPA was skeptical, arguing that the fund hadn't been used this way before, that Flint should focus on managing its water and sewer fees wisely, and that if it granted Flint's request, other towns would jump on the bandwagon.

The fund ended up being a source of major help for Flint after an $80 million infusion of federal aid in January, including for water filters.

The EPA's emails were sent September 24. By then, it should have been clear that what was happening in Flint was unusual. Three days earlier, local pediatricians had told city officials and the EPA that the level of lead in kids' blood was spiking. The same day, the EPA had reassured Flint that it was complying with federal regulations.

The state of Michigan, which was running Flint when it changed its water source — a switch that ultimately caused the corrosion leading to lead poisoning in the water — bears most of the blame for what happened in the city. But the emails show that the EPA was hardly quick to treat the city's water problems as a crisis.