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Disaster Day by Day: A detailed Flint crisis timeline

EDITOR’S NOTE: This timeline was updated on February 16, 2016 to include new entries related to the Genesee County Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak and additional entries concerning state and local reaction to the Flint lead crisis. These new entries are based on thousands of additional emails and other records released by Governor Rick Snyder’s office on February 12. 

This timeline was updated a second time on March 1, 2016 based on thousands of additional emails released by Governor Snyder's office. The most recent additions are highlighted in green. 

This portion of the timeline encompasses 2004 - 2014
To move ahead to Part 2 (January 2015 - June 2015), click here
To move ahead to Part 3 (July 2015 - present) click here


This timeline seeks to present as complete a picture of the Flint water disaster as can reasonably be provided at this time from information currently in the public sphere.

There are few completely new revelations here. The intended value here is to present concerned citizens and policymakers with the full weight, detail and step-by-step context of the Flint saga all in one place and in one narrative.  What transpired? Who said what? Who did what? What are the details? Answering those questions as completely as possible at this point in time requires the more than 30,000 words in this timeline.

We hope those who invest the time to read the entire timeline will find it useful in sorting fact from fiction and spin from credible analysis. We also hope this timeline helps counteract against the present and future risk of revisionist history in all directions.

In many places, Truth Squad adds clarifying commentary and questions below to help readers interpret events – and to ask additional questions themselves.

The Michigan Truth Squad is a project of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Michigan's Bridge Magazine. Center for Michigan President and CEO John Bebow compiled this timeline and authored the Truth Squad analyses herein. Bridge Editor David Zeman fact-checked and edited this report.

We compiled this timeline from approximately 1,000 pages of public documents and published reports, including: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Michigan Department of Health and Human Service email records first obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and published by Virginia Tech professor and water expert Marc Edwards; email records released by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder; other local, state and federal documents from the City of Flint, Michigan Department of Treasury, Michigan Auditor General, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; a peer-reviewed study published in a February 2016 medical journal; and, various media reports as cited below. State and federal government directories were accessed to identify titles for public employees referenced in this timeline.

Numerous state and federal investigations of the Flint crisis are ongoing. Therefore, a wide range of additional documents and revelations may eventually become public. We welcome readers’ feedback, debate, and additional submissions in the comments section below this document.


2004

February 2004: A technical assessment of the Flint River raises concerns about using the river for drinking water. Key points of the “Source Water Assessment Report for the City of Flint Water Supply – Flint River Emergency Intake” prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and Flint Water Utilities Department:

  • “(T)he emergency intake for the Flint Water Treatment Plant has a very high degree of sensitivity to potential contaminants. When the effects of agricultural and urban runoff in the Flint River watershed are considered, the Flint intake is categorized as very highly sensitive.”
  • “The source water area for the Flint emergency intake includes 96 potential contaminant sources.”
  • “The potential contaminant sources, in combination with the very highly sensitive intake, indicate that the Flint emergency intake source water is very highly susceptible to potential contamination.
  • “However, it is noted that when operating, the City of Flint Water Treatment Plant has effectively treated this source water to meet drinking water standards.”

(TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: For many years, the City of Flint bought water from the Detroit drinking water system. But the Flint Water Treatment plant retained access to the Flint River for emergency backup purposes. As this timeline fully outlines, Flint - with official approval from its state-appointed manager and State Treasurer Andy Dillon, but also with support of local officials – switched to the Flint River as its drinking water source in spring 2014. This was designed as a temporary move while awaiting the new Karegnondi Water Authority regional drinking water pipeline from Lake Huron to come online in late 2016.)


2011

July 2011: Report from Rowe Engineering titled “Analysis of the Flint River as a Permanent Water Supply for the City of Flint.” Prepared for the City of Flint. Key points:

  • “Preliminary analysis indicates that water from the river can be treated to meet current regulations’ however, additional treatment will be required than for Lake Huron water. This results in higher operating costs that the alternative of anew Lake Huron supply…. (A)esthetics of the finished water will be different than from Lake Huron. As an example, the temperature of water supplied to customers during the summer will be warmer than the present Lake Huron supply, because of the increased summer temperature in the relatively shallow river.”
  • “A detailed investigation of potential sources of contamination has not been completed.”

November, 29, 2011: “Flint becomes the fourth city in the state brought under control of an emergency manager… after a review team shows accumulated deficits of $25.7 million.” (As reported by the Detroit Free Press, January 2016.)


2012

May 9, 2012: Letter from Flint Department of Public Works Director Howard Croft to MDEQ District Engineer Mike Prysby: “The Karegnondi Water Authority has the potential to be a major factor in our region’s economic development efforts. The City of Flint is pleased to be a partner in the process and we pledge to offer our assets to support the development. We appreciate your technical support as we develop our components of the project.”

June 2012: Flint emergency manager Mike Brown asks the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) for permission to blend Flint River water with DWSD water to save Flint between $2 million and $3 million annually. (As reported in the Michigan Department of Treasury Flint Water Timeline, September 2015.)

November 2012: A successor Flint emergency manager Ed Kurtz writes to state Treasurer Andy Dillon suggesting that the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) is the best long-term option for Flint water due to rising costs from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), projected at $23 million per year by the year 2020. (As reported in the Michigan Department of Treasury Flint Water Timeline, September 2015.) The KWA positions itself as an example of local government control for entities in Genesee, Lapeer, and Sanilac counties roughly an hour’s drive north of Detroit. As the KWA website currently states in February 2016, “By joining the group it will give you more control over the costs and the water. Currently, you purchase finished water from the (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) with no input as to the cost. As a member of the group, you will purchase raw water and treat it to your own standards. As a member, you will participate in establishing the cost and rates for the water.”


2013

January 23, 2013: Email from MDEQ’s Prysby to colleague Liane Shekter Smith and others about feasibility of Flint switching to the Flint River… “I agree that the city should have concerns of fully utilizing the Flint River (100%) for the following: the need to soften, the potential for more advanced treatment after next round of crypto monitoring, available capacity in Flint River at 100-year low flow, residuals management (disposal of lime sludge).”

February 2013: Engineering study ordered by state Treasury Department concludes KWA is the cheaper option for Flint water. (As reported in the Michigan Department of Treasury Flint Water Timeline, September 2015.)

March 2013: Flint City Council endorses joining the Karegnondi Water Authority. (As reported in the Michigan Department of Treasury Flint Water Timeline, September 2015.) MLive coverage, headlined “Flint City Council approves resolution to buy water from Karegnondi, state approval still needed,” documents considerable local support for the switch:

  • “We got there, that’s the important thing.” – Flint City Councilman Joshua Freeman.
  • “Going with Karegnondi is the best decision.” – Rebecca Fedewa, Flint River Watershed Coalition
  • “It’s a historic night for the city of Flint.” – Flint Mayor Dayne Walling.
  • The only dissenting vote was from Councilman Bryan Nolden. "I just feel like the Flint River is our best option,” he said.

(Truth Squad Note: The council's vote is symbolic; with the city under control of a state-appointed emergency manager, the council vote is not binding. Final decision to switch from DWSD to KWA was made by state treasurer Andy Dillon.

March 26, 2013: Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright, who is not party to the water contract, nevertheless writes a letter of support for the decision: “I have said from the beginning that this decision must be made by Flint’s City Council and Mayor. I appreciate the council voting the way they did, but even more than that, I am glad the residents of Flint were able to have their voices heard via their elected officials... There is a basic tenet of government is best when it has local control. We saw that with the council vote. Nobody, whether they live in Flint, Grand Blanc, Davison, Fenton, or anywhere in Genesee County, should have these types of decisions made by people who live outside their community.”

March 26, 2013: Email from Michael Alexander at MDEQ to colleagues Stephen Busch, Christine Alexander, and William Creal. Email titled “Flint River Intake Location.”

  • Based on the listing form Michigan’s 2012 Integrated Report, the Flint River from just upstream of the City of Flint to the upstream end of the Holloway Reservoir is not meeting its designated uses for:
    • Fish consumption due to PCB in fish tissue and water column
    • Total and partial body contact due to E. coli in water column
    • Other indigenous aquatic life due to nutrients and phosphorus in the water column.

These are just the major categories for the designated uses currently not being met within this subject stretch of the Flint River.”

March 26, 2013: Email from Stephen Busch (MDEQ) to MDEQ Director Dan Wyant with Liane Shekter Smith and other MDEQ staff copied. Key points – warnings about Flint River water quality. The memo is written “in preparation for a call” same day with the office of State Treasurer Andy Dillon:

  • “All contract options with DWSD that are considered semi-competitive with the KWA contract do not fully supply the City of Flint, and would require the City of Flint to meet a significant, if not majority, of its water demands by treating water from the Flint River. Continuous use of the Flint River at such demand rates would:
  • Pose an increased microbial risk to public health (Flint River vs. Lake Huron source water)
  • Pose an increased risk of disinfection by-product (carcinogen) exposure to public health (Flint River vs. Lake Huron source water)
  • Trigger additional regulatory requirements under the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.”

March 27, 2013: Email from Jim Sygo (MDEQ) to colleague Steven Busch regarding possible Flint water switches:

  • “As you might guess we are in a situation with Emergency Financial Managers so it’s entirely possible that they will be making decisions relative to cost. The concern in either situation is that a compliant supply of source water and drinking water can be supplied.”

March 28, 2013: Email from State Treasurer Andy Dillon to Governor Rick Snyder, with copies to numerous other Treasury officials and MDEQ Director Dan Wyant:

  • “Governor, based upon today’s presentations to the DEQ by the City of Flint, KWA and the engineering firm (Tucker Young) Treasury hired to vet the options as to whether Flint should stay with DWSD or join KWA, I am recommending we support the City of Flint’s decision to join KWA. The City’s Emergency Manager, Mayor, and City Council all support this decision. Dan Wyant likewise concurs and will confirm via email.”
  • “We have a briefing call tomorrow morning with Dennis and John to provide more background as to why we reached this conclusion. Flint’s Emergency Manager wants to sign the resolution asap as the project is moving forward with or without them and their participation affects the design and the construction season is upon them. I assume DWSD will make a last ditch effort to save the customer but I will not advise them of my recommendation until we brief Dennis and John.”

April 1, 2013: The DWSD “responds to Flint’s decision, issuing a statement that Flint’s plans will not save money. The statement also says Flint has ‘launched the greatest water war in Michigan history’ and that it will result in higher prices for the department’s other customers.” (As reported by the Detroit Free Press, January 2016.)

April 2013: State Treasurer Andy Dillon gives state emergency manager Ed Kurtz permission to notify the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that it would be terminating service in the future and contracting with the KWA. (As reported in the Michigan Department of Treasury Flint Water Timeline, September 2015.)

April 15, 2013: “The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department provides a best and final offer to the City of Flint. Analyses by Flint Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz, the Department of Environmental Quality and Treasury’s Office of Fiscal Responsibility independently conclude that the Karegnondi Water Authority option is cheaper for the City of Flint.” (As reported in the Michigan Department of Treasury Flint Water Timeline, September 2015.)

April 16, 2013: “Flint Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz informs the State Treasurer that the city will join KWA. This decision was officially announced May 1, 2013.” (As reported in the Michigan Department of Treasury Flint Water Timeline, September 2015 and in a December 2015 Michigan Auditor General investigation report.)

April 17, 2013: DWSD transmits letter to Flint emergency manager Kurtz terminating service to the City of Flint, effective exactly one year later, April 17, 2014. (As reported in the Michigan Department of Treasury Flint Water Timeline, September 2015.)

June 2013: KWA breaks ground, completion expected in late 2016. (From October 2014 MDEQ briefing to the Snyder Administration.)

June 21 2013: Emergency Manager Kurtz signs contract with engineering company to prepare the Flint water treatment plant to begin using the Flint River as primary source of water. Here’s the contract.

June 29, 2013: All-day meeting of Flint, Genesee County Drain Commissioner and MDEQ officials where they discuss feasibility of using Flint River until KWA is ready. (As reported by the Detroit Free Press, January 2016) 

August 2013: Rowe Professional Services completes an engineering proposal for improvements that would allow Flint to draw water continuously from the Flint River in lieu of DWSD service. (From October 2014 MDEQ briefing to the Snyder Administration.)


2014

March 7, 2014: Another Flint Emergency Manager, Darnell Earley, sends letter to DWSD saying Flint will switch to the Flint River as primary source of water, and disconnect from DWSD. Here's the letter.

March 26, 2014: Email from Steven Busch to Liane Shekter Smith and Richard Benzie, MDEQ chief of field operations for the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance: “One of the things we didn’t get to today that I would like to make sure everyone is on the same page on is what Flint will be required to do in order to start using their plant full time. Because the plant is setup for emergency use, they could startup at any time, but starting up for continuous operation will carry significant changes in regulatory requirements so there is a very gray area as to what we consider for startup.”

April 16, 2014: Warning from Michael Glasgow, a water treatment plant operator for the City of Flint, to Adam Rosenthal at MDEQ:

  • “I am expecting changes to our Water Quality Monitoring parameters, and possibly our DBP on lead & copper monitoring plan… Any information would be appreciated, because it looks as if we will be starting the plant up tomorrow and are being pushed to start distributing water as soon as possible… I would like to make sure we are monitoring, reporting and meeting requirements before I give the OK to start distributing water.”

April 17, 2014: Warning from Flint Water Treatment Plant’s Michael Glasgow to Adam Rosenthal, Mike Prysby, and Stephen Busch at MDEQ:

  • “I assumed there would be dramatic changes to our monitoring. I have people above me making plans to distribute water ASAP. I was reluctant before, but after looking at the monitoring schedule and our current staffing, I do not anticipate giving the OK to begin sending water our anytime soon. If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple of weeks, it will be against my direction. I need time to adequately train additional staff and to update our monitoring plans before I will feel we are ready. I will reiterate this to management above me, but they seem to have their own agenda.”

April 23, 2014: Email from Steve Busch to MDEQ colleague Brad Wurfel discussing talking points for a public meeting in Flint regarding drinking water. Busch raises this talking point… “While the Department is satisfied with the City’s ability to treat water from the Flint River, the Department looks forward to the long term solution of continued operation of the City of Flint Water Treatment Plant using water from the KWA as a more consistent and higher quality source water.”

April 24: 2014: Email from Daugherty Johnson, City of Flint Utilities Administrator, to Flint colleague Howard Croft, and Mike Prysby and Stephen Busch at MDEQ:

  • “As you are aware, the City has undergone extensive upgrades to our Water Treatment Plant and its associated facilities. Our intentions and efforts have been to operate our facility as the primary drinking water source for the City of Flint. Through consultation with your office and our engineering firm we’ve developed a system of redundant electrical systems, treatment processes and adequate finished water storage to negate the need for a signed backup agreement with DWSD due to their termination of our contract. Upon inspection of these facilities would you convey your concurrence that there is no regulatory requirement for us to sign up a back up agreement with DWSD.”

April 25, 2014: Flint officially begins using Flint River as temporary primary water source. City press release touts that “officials from the City of Flint, the Genesee County Drain Commission, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality were all on hand to witness the historic event.” The press release notes that the city used the Flint River as a temporary source of drinking water at numerous points in the past and said, “Each temporary stint on local water proved three things to city employees and residents alike: That a transition to local river water could be done seamlessly, and that it was both sensible and safe for us to use our own water as a primary water source in Flint.” Flint DPW Director Howard Croft states in the press release, “The test results have shown that our water is not only safe, but of the high quality that Flint customers have come to expect. We are proud of that end result.” Flint Mayor Dayne Walling states. “It’s regular, good, pure drinking water, and it’s right in our backyard. This is the first step in the right direction for Flint, as we take this monumental step forward in controlling the future of our community’s most precious resource.”

May 15, 2014: Email from Jennifer Crooks (EPA) to colleagues Mindy Eisenberg, Thomas Poy and Tinka Hyde:

“A Mr. Lathan Jefferson has talked with Tinka, and also with me just now about his drinking water quality. Flint has just switched from Detroit water (from Lake Huron) to Flint River water within the past couple of weeks. Flint River quality is not great, but there is a surface water treatment plan producing water that is currently meeting SDWA standards, according to the MI DEQ district engineer, Mike Prysby. The water has more hardness, and pH and alkalinity may be different from Detroit water…. Mr. Jefferson said he and many people have rashes from the new water. He said his doctor says the rash is from the new drinking water, and I told him to have his doctor document this and he can bring to the attention of the MI DEQ, since lab analyses to date show that the drinking water is meeting all health-based standards. He has no interest in speaking with Mike Prysby; he doesn’t trust anyone in MI government. He asked me for free drinking water lab analyses, which I was unable to provide. He only wants to speak with someone from EPA headquarters.”

(TRUTH SQUAD NOTE: Eisenberg was a high-ranking official at EPA in Washington, D.C.)

June 2014: Complaints are now coming in regarding Flint drinking water quality.  Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley continuee to tell residents the water is safe. “It’s a quality, safe product,” Walling tells MLive.com. “I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water.”

July 2014: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality begins first six-month testing and monitoring of Flint water under the department’s interpretation of the federal Lead and Copper rule.

(TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: A wide range of documents, including a January 2016 order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will eventually determine the City of Flint and MDEQ did not anticipate or provide for corrosion control. As a result, the highly corrosive Flint River water in city water lines would cause hazardous lead to leach into city drinking water supplies and into the homes of Flint residents.)

August 15, 2014: Flint issues boil water advisory after fecal coliform bacteria is discovered in the water. The city adds chlorine to treatment.

September 5, 2014: Second boil-water advisory issued by Flint because of coliform bacteria.

October 13, 2014: “General Motors said it will no longer use the river water at its engine plant because of fears it will cause corrosion” due to high chloride levels. GM instead buys Lake Huron water from Flint Township. (As reported by MLive.com.)

October 13, 2014: Email from Mike Prysby to Busch, Shekter Smith and others at MDEQ… Inquiry from Ron Fonger at Flint Journal concerning GM getting off Flint water. Prysby notes that Flint water is elevated for chlorides but downplays the issue… “although not optimal” he said, it’s “satisfactory…” “I stressed the importance of not branding Flint’s water as ‘corrosive’ from a public health standpoint simply because it does not meet a manufacturing facility’s limit for production.”

October 14, 2014: In the final weeks of Governor Rick Snyder’s re-election campaign, two key Snyder aides raise alarm bells about Flint water. Snyder deputy legal counsel Valerie Brader stressed the need for urgent action on Flint’s water supply in 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.

The governor’s chief legal counsel, Michael 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.”

“Can you guys step into this?” Muchmore, Snyder’s chief of staff, asks state Treasury Department officials the same day.

October 2014: Snyder requests and receives a briefing paper from MDEQ. The paper blames September 2014 boil water advisories due toecoli bacteria in Flint drinking water on a variety of factors, most notably decrepit, 75-year-old cast iron water pipes subject to corrosion and bacteria. No mention of lead issues in Flint water at this time.

October 21, 2014: Susan Bohm of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services alerted officials in Genesee County in an e-mail that there were concerns that Flint’s water would be linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a pneumonia that can be caused by inhaling water vapors, according to emails obtained by the Detroit Free Press. In 2014, Liane Shekter Smith, the head of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance for the state Department of Environmental Quality, had contacted state health officials “a couple of times” to discuss the outbreak, the emails show. “She was concerned that an announcement was going to be made soon about the water as the source of the infection; I told her the Flint water was at this point just a hypothesis,” Bohm wrote in an email.

October 21, 2014: Susan Bohm of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services alerts officials in Genesee County in an e-mail that there are concerns that Flint’s water would be linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a pneumonia that can be caused by inhaling water vapors, according to emails obtained by the Detroit Free Press . In 2014, Liane Shekter Smith, the head of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance for the state Department of Environmental Quality, had contacted state health officials “a couple of times” to discuss the outbreak, the emails show. “She was concerned that an announcement was going to be made soon about the water as the source of the infection; I told her the Flint water was at this point just a hypothesis,” Bohm writes.

November 2014: Dick Posthumus, senior advisor to the governor, asks Snyder in an email if he wants to support a bill to allow Flint to boost its income tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent (a rate some other cities have). There is no clear response from Snyder in publicly released emails, but other emails show the idea has momentum in the administration. December 2014 email from Snyder's Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs Sally Durfee to Executive Director to the Governor Allison Scott and Posthumus says such a bill would raise $6.5 million per year, has the support of the Flint emergency manager and the state Treasury Department. But, according to the email, State Rep. Jeff Farrington (R-Utica) said, “he would take up this bill over his dead body.”


To move ahead to Part 2 (January 2015 - June 2015), click here
To move ahead to Part 3 (July 2015 - present), click here

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