Among the most damaging government documents released on the Flint water crisis in recent months were emails showing that aides in Gov. Rick Snyder’s office had serious concerns about Flint water well before the state took emergency action to protect residents.
This past weekend, the state released over 10,000 additional pages of internal communications, including emails involving others within the governor’s inner circle. Much of the conversation focuses on the ill-fated decision to switch the city’s drinking supply to the Flint River in 2014 after decades of receiving water from Detroit.
Here are highlights from the latest email release, including the time period when the aides were given notice of emerging problems with Flint’s water:
Valerie Brader, Snyder’s deputy legal counsel and senior policy adviser (October 2014)
Brader emails Snyder Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore, Communications Director Jarrod Agen, Legal Counsel Michael Gadola, and Deputy Chief of Staff Beth Clement. She urges them to ask the Flint emergency manager to consider moving Flint off the Flint River and back to the Detroit drinking water system “as an interim solution to both the quality, and now the financial, problems that the current solution is causing.”
At the time, Flint residents had been complaining about the water for months. A day earlier, General Motors announced it would stop using Flint River water because it interfered with the manufacturing process. Flint had issued boil water advisories. And there were growing concerns about the amount of chemicals Flint needed to use to treat the river water.
“I see this as an urgent matter to fix,” Brader wrote.
Michael Gadola, Snyder’s chief legal counsel (October 2014)
Gadola responds 12 minutes later to everyone on Valerie Brader’s original email string.
“… (T)o anyone who grew up in Flint as I did, the notion that I would be getting my drinking water from the Flint River is downright scary. Too bad the (emergency manager) didn’t ask me what I thought, though I’m sure he heard it from plenty of others. My Mom is a City resident. Nice to know she’s drinking water with elevated chlorine levels and fecal coliform. I agree with Valerie. They should try to get back on the Detroit system as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control.”
Dennis Muchmore, chief of staff (October 2014 through summer 2015)
“Can you guys step into this?” Muchmore, Snyder’s chief of staff, asks state Treasury Department officials the same day Brader and Gadola raise their concerns.
And so begins months of high-anxiety meetings and on again, off again brainstorming by the governor’s chief of staff. But a wicked mix of financial, public perception, communication, policy and political problems vex Muchmore and those around him at every turn.
This latest batch of emails builds on communications involving Muchmore that were released weeks ago. In the earlier releases, the Snyder aide at times expresses empathy for frustrated Flint residents and at other times shows bewilderment that activists and public officials would even blame the state for the unfolding water crisis.
At one point in the newly released emails, Muchmore explores a reconnection to Detroit drinking water. Treasury officials and Flint’s emergency manager’s office warn it would be very expensive, and raise Flint’s already sky-high water rates by 30 percent. And city residents keep drinking Flint River water.
Muchmore explores interim bottled water and water filter distribution ideas and makes only limited progress. But the city of Flint and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality continue to insist the Flint drinking water meets safety standards.
He chides state agency heads in summer 2015 by saying, “I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint. I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt.” Bureaucrats scurry into action but report back that the drinking water still meets standards and there’s no evidence connecting Flint drinking water to elevated blood levels in children.
Not until independent water quality and health experts refute state-agency deflections in fall 2015 does the Snyder Administration begin to take emergency action to stop lead in Flint’s drinking water.
Jarrod Agen, Snyder communications director (March 2015)
Agen, who replaced Muchmore as Snyder’s chief of staff in January 2016, receives an email last March about a brewing Legionnaires’ disease crisis in Flint – and questions about whether the outbreak is linked to Flint drinking water. (Agen told reporters on Friday that he never opened that email).
On March 16, 2015, MDEQ Communications Director Brad Wurfel copies Agen on a three-day old message Wurfel originally wrote to Snyder’s urban affairs aide Harvey Hollins and MDEQ Director Dan Wyant.
“In December, our staff became peripherally aware that hospitals in Genesee were seeing an uptick in Legionnaires cases,” Wurfel wrote.
Much controversy ensues in coming months as local, state and federal agencies debate the seriousness and extent of Legionnaires scare – and question without resolution whether Flint drinking water is linked to the outbreak.
Nine months later, in January 2016, Snyder publicly announces the Legionnaires’ outbreak and tells the public nine people have died from it. The governor also says that he hadn’t personally heard about the problem until just days before.
Sara Wurfel, Snyder press secretary, and Dave Murray, deputy press secretary (January-March 2015)
Brad Wurfel began emailing some colleagues on the governor’s communications team about Legionnaires’ as early as January 2015. On March, 13, Brad Wurfel once again clues in the governor’s top two spokespeople to the Legionnaires’ issue and urges action:
“Political flank cover out of the City of Flint today regarding the spike in Legionnaires cases. See enclosed. Also, area ministers put a shot over the bow last night... with a call for Snyder to declare state of emergency there and somehow ‘fix’ the water situation. It may be very advantageous to get Treasury, Gov’s office, DCH, DEQ, and Flint EM around a table Monday to do the following:
Update on what the city is doing.
Update on what County Health Department is working on.
Discussion of what we might all do next.
Coordination of communication/messages.
Did not want to reach out to Dennis without your approval/support. Please advise.”
Again, the Legionnaires’ issue doesn’t become public until the governor announces it nine months later.
Ari Adler, special projects manager (January 2015)
“This is a public relations crisis – because of a real or perceived problem is irrelevant – waiting to explode nationally,” Adler emails Agen.
“If Flint had been hit with a natural disaster that affected its water system, the state would be stepping in to provide bottled water or other assistance. What can we do given the current circumstances?”
Adler may very well spend most of the rest of his tenure with the Snyder administration answering that and related questions about the Flint water crisis. As of last Friday, he is the governor’s new communications director.