As criminal probes and lawsuits examine the Flint water crisis, some of the key decision makers have been reluctant to discuss their roles.
But their e-mails, released under the Freedom of Information Act, offer contemporaneous accounts of the crisis as it was happening. Here are some of the e-mails exchanges that have been recently released and what they show about a crisis that has drawn international attention.
From the first batch of e-mails released by Gov Rick Snyder in January to the latest e-mails from state agencies released under a Freedom of Information request this month, the Free Press selected 10 that demonstrate the frustrations of some water quality watchdogs and the questionable decisions by others related to ensuring safe drinking water for Flint residents.
“I do not anticipate giving the OK to begin sending water out any time 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.”
-Mike Glasgow, the city’s laboratory and water quality supervisor, said in an April 17, 2014, e-mail to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality official Mike Prysby.
Eight days before the Flint water treatment plant began pumping water from the Flint River for citizens to drink, Glasgow complained he was being rushed into starting up the plant too quickly. Despite Glasgow’s objections, city officials in an April 25, 2014, ceremony shut off the tap to the Lake Huron water they had been receiving from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and began drawing and treating water from the Flint River. They planned to use the river as an interim source while they awaited completion of a new pipeline to Lake Huron, the Karegnondi Water Authority. The plant was beset by problems almost immediately after starting up, with residents complaining about the taste, odor and appearance of the water.
“What she did share with me was interesting — that there have been numerous complaints about the Flint water, that the governor’s office had been involved, and that any announcement by public health about the quality of the water would certainly inflame the situation.”
-Susan Bohm, a disease specialist in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Oct. 17, 2014
Bohm wrote this e-mail to colleagues in DHHS, describing a conversation with Liane Shekter Smith, the state’s top drinking water officials, about the outbreak. Gov. Rick Snyder’s office staffers say they didn’t learn of the outbreak until March of 2015. The e-mail suggests they knew in October 2014, two weeks before the governor’s re-election.
DHHS spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner, told the Free Press this week that Bohm and Shekter Smith were discussing other problems with Fint water, like taste, odor and disinfection problems, not Legionnaires’ or lead. Last week, Snyder announced the firing of Shekter Smith, saying “Putting the well-being of Michiganders first needs to be the top priority for all state employees. Anything less than that is unacceptable.”
“Appears certain state departments are concerned with Flint’s WQ (water quality). I will return the call…”
-Prysby said in an e-mail.
Mike Prysby, a district engineer in DEQ’s drinking water division, responds after seeing forwarded e-mails from various state agencies asking about the safety of Flint’s water. The e-mail was sent to Stephen Busch, the district supervisor, who on Jan. 22 of this year was suspended without pay for his role in the drinking water catastrophe.
In January of 2015, when state officials were telling worried Flint residents their water was safe to drink, they also were arranging for coolers of purified water in Flint’s State Office Building so employees wouldn’t have to drink from the taps, according to state government e-mails released by the liberal group Progress Michigan.
A Jan. 7, 2015, notice from the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which oversees state office buildings, references a notice about a violation of drinking water standards that had recently been sent out by the City of Flint.
“The Genesee County Health Department has attempted to obtain specific information regarding the Flint water distribution system from your office since November 2014. Your office has not provided a return phone call or response to emails. A FOIA request was sent electronically and mailed to your office on January 27, 2015 in attempt to obtain information. The response from your office on February 4, 2015 did not include any of the information that was requested. I am still hopeful that we can work collaboratively to protect the health of the community and resolve any issues with the Flint water supply.”
-James Henry, a Genesee County environmental health supervisor, Feb. 5, 2015.
Henry, who was investigating a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Genesee, was writing to Howard Croft, then-director of Flint’s Department of Public Works, complaining about the difficulty getting information about Flint’s water distribution system.
“More than 40 cases reported since last April. That’s a significant uptick. More than all the cases reported in the last five years or more combined,”
-Former Department of Environmental Quality Communications Director Brad Wurfel sent the e-mail on March 13, 2015, to Harvey Hollins, who is Snyder’s director of urban initiatives. It was copied to Dan Wyant, who was DEQ director at the time.
Hollins was notified in March — more than nine months before Snyder said he learned of the problem — that there was an increase in Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County and a county health official attributed the change to drinking water taken from the Flint River, according to records first released by the liberal group Progress Michigan.
“I knew this was going to happen. Miguel is questioning that Flint is in compliance with optimal corrosion control… “Please read the below e-mail and let me know what you think. While it’s not a big hurry at this time since Miguel is out till next week, we eventually will have to respond to him,”
-the DEQ’s Patrick Cook wrote in a message to coworkers Stephen Busch and Mike Prysby.
Miguel in this e-mail is Miguel Del Toral, a federal environmental expert who knew that without corrosion-control chemicals, the Flint River water would begin to eat away at old, lead-laden pipes and household fixtures, potentially poisoning an entire city. But Del Toral, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation manager, was shut down in April 2015 when he began to challenge the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, this and other e-mails show.
“We are very concerned about this Legionnaires’ disease outbreak. It’s very large, one of the largest we know of in the past decade, and community-wide, and in our opinion and experience it needs a comprehensive investigation,”
–Laurel Garrison of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 27, 2015.
Garrison was writing to Genesee County health officials nine months before Snyder announced the outbreak last month. The e-mail shows government officials at the local, state and federal level were discussing the outbreak for months before the public became aware.
“Optimization for lead was addressed and discussed with the engineering firm and with the (Michigan) DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality)…It was determined that having more data was advisable prior to the commitment of a specific optimization method…Most chemicals used in this process are phosphate-based and phosphate can be a ‘food’ for bacteria. We have performed over 160 lead tests throughout the city since switching over to the Flint River and remain within the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) standards.”
-Howard Croft, then Flint’s public works director, Sept. 3, 2015.
Croft was writing to several local and state officials, including then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and Mike Prysby, a district engineer for the DEQ, explaining why the city held off on adding corrosion controlling chemicals to the city’s drinking water supply after switching water sources to the Flint River. It’s the first explanation made public thus far of why the chemicals weren’t added, a decision experts say allowed lead to leach into the water supply, poisoning an unknown number of Flint residents.
“I can’t figure out why the state is responsible except that (then-treasurer Andy) Dillon did make the ultimate decision so we’re not able to avoid the subject,”
-Snyder’s chief of staff Dennis Muchmore wrote to Snyder in a Sept. 25, 2015, e-mail.
Gov. Rick Snyder’s staffers worried in September that the issue of lead in Flint’s drinking water was being politicized and that the state’s responsibility for the crisis was being exaggerated.
“The real responsibility rests with the county, city and KWA,” referring to the Karegnondi Water Authority. “But since the issue here is the health of citizens and their children, we’re taking a proactive approach.”
-Muchmore’s follow-up e-mail came after a Hurley Medical Center pediatrician reported finding elevated blood lead levels in Flint children.
“MDEQ reminds me of a stubborn 2yr old child. Instead of doing what is right, they’ll willfully take another spanking just to be defiant.”
-James Henry, Nov. 6, 2015.
Henry writing to Genesee County Health Officer Mark Valacak expressing his frustration over dealing with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on water quality in Flint.