Emails Show Michigan Aides Worried About Flint’s Water a Year Before Acting – New York Times

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan addressing the media on Thursday in Flint.

A full year before the state took significant action, some top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan were alarmed at the quality of Flint’s water, with a lawyer for the governor calling the notion of drinking it “downright scary,” newly released emails show.

By the time state authorities did act to protect Flint’s residents in October, the water supply was so contaminated — and lead levels so high — that residents are still being advised not to drink from their taps.

The concerns of Mr. Snyder’s aides are evident in thousands of internal emails made public on Friday, adding to a volume of correspondence that Mr. Snyder, state agencies and others have released in the aftermath of the Flint crisis. The new emails offer the clearest sense yet of what those who work for Governor Snyder knew about Flint’s water crisis as it unfolded since the city switched water supplies in 2014, in part to save money.

They also raise new questions about why it took Mr. Snyder’s administration so long to act, despite a high level of alarm among officials — though no evidence that they passed their concerns onto the governor.

Also evident is the officials’ tendency to focus more on avoiding bad publicity over the issue than on mounting questions about the water itself.

In talking points that aides prepared for the governor in early 2015, Mr. Snyder was urged to “push back hard” if “asked about the accusations of racism” when it came to the water in Flint, a poor city where 56 percent of residents are black and where the state had sent an emergency manager to oversee city finances and operations.

Mr. Snyder has said that he was first briefed “on the potential scope and magnitude of the crisis” in late September 2015 — long after his advisers were voicing concerns to one another and while whistle blowers were warning of high levels of lead in children’s blood. Speaking to reporters on Friday after signing legislation for $30 million in water bill relief for Flint residents, Mr. Snyder said “there were various flags” raised, “but all the dots weren’t connected the way I wish they were.”

“I’m kicking myself every day,” Mr. Snyder said. “I wish I would have asked more questions. I wish I wouldn’t have accepted the answers.”

The governor’s spokeswoman said on Friday that Mr. Snyder’s top aides did not raise their concerns directly with the governor because their worries were assuaged by people with expertise in water issues who advised them.

The emails show that the concerns of some members of Mr. Snyder’s staff were clear.

Michael Gadola, a lawyer for the governor who had grown up in Flint, suggested in an email in October 2014 — some six months after Flint switched to the new water supply, the Flint River, and a full year before Mr. Snyder would warn residents not to drink the water — that the city should switch back. “They should try to get back on the Detroit system as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control,” he wrote.

Dennis Muchmore, Mr. Snyder’s chief of staff at the time, was among colleagues who received that note, and responded: “Can you guys step into this?”

Even last February, Mr. Muchmore, who has since retired, seemed to be weighing the possibility of removing the city from the water supply, as residents and pastors were urging.

“Since we’re in charge, we can hardly ignore the people of Flint,” he wrote at one point, noting that General Motors was refusing to use the water. A month later, Mr. Muchmore wrote, “If we procrastinate much longer in doing something direct we’ll have real trouble.”

Earlier, another aide, Ari Adler, a special projects manager in the governor’s office of strategic policy, noted a Detroit Free Press story raising questions about Flint’s water.

“This is a public relations crisis — because of a real or perceived problem is irrelevant — waiting to explode nationally,” Mr. Adler wrote to others in the governor’s office in January 2015. “If Flint had been hit with a natural disaster that affected its water system, the state would be stepping in to provide bottled water and other assistance. What can we do given the current circumstances?”

But for many, particularly those working in the state’s communications operations, the focus seemed largely on public perception.

Brad Wurfel, then a spokesman for the state department of environmental quality, shrugged off concerns from Flint residents that their water was tainted. Their worries, he said in an email, were “some the result of the city’s poor communication efforts, some (I suspect) the result of folks who want to stir the public fear pot for political leverage.”

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