Michigan governor's lawyer called Flint water 'scary' a year before state acted
Gov. Rick Snyder speaks after attending a Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee meeting, in Flint, Mich., on Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
David Eggert, The Associated Press
Published Friday, February 26, 2016 6:08PM EST
LANSING, Mich. -- Gov. Rick Snyder's newest release of state emails and documents related to Flint's water disaster appears to indicate that his aides' reluctance to brief him, his own mismanagement -- or both -- led to delays in addressing the public health threat.
A full year before his administration helped the city reconnect to Lake Huron water after lead contamination was exposed, two top advisers were already advocating the move, citing E. coli and a General Motors plant's rusting parts. Snyder's chief legal counsel even told the chief of staff that using Flint River water was "downright scary."
Yet the Republican governor insists those specific warnings -- weeks before his re-election -- were never given directly to him, and state officials decided then that it would cost too much to rejoin Detroit's system.
With documents revealing such discussions in Snyder's inner circle, even the governor's allies acknowledge how badly the issue seems to have been handled.
"The right people were raising the right issues, they were sounding the alarms," said John Truscott, a public relations strategist who was the spokesman for former GOP Gov. John Engler. "Why wasn't it followed through on?"
Snyder has apologized but refused to resign over his administration's role in the water crisis. The tainted water has left children with elevated lead levels, which have been linked to learning disabilities and other problems. He has also reassigned top spokespeople and fired regulators that a task force concluded were responsible for not deploying corrosion controls after the April 2014 switch, which let lead leach from aging pipes into some homes.
"We didn't connect all the dots that I wish we would have," Snyder said Friday in Flint, where he signed into law $30 million in state aid to partially cover the water bills of residents and businesses going back about two years. "That's where I'm kicking myself every day."
The newly released emails, which the governor was not required to make public but did so under pressure from the media, detail how Snyder failed to get a handle on the crisis over the course of a year.
In October 2014, deputy legal counsel Valerie Brader emailed other top Snyder officials asking to request that Flint's state-appointed emergency manger return to buying water from Detroit's water system. She alluded to problems with a carcinogenic disinfectant byproduct, known as trihalomethane -- 2 1/2 months before the public was notified.
Chief legal counsel Mike Gadola quickly responded, telling chief of staff Dennis Muchmore and others that using Flint River water was "downright scary" and noting that his mother lived in the city. "Nice to know she's drinking water with elevated chlorine levels and fecal coliform," he said, adding, "They should try to get back on the Detroit system as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control."
Snyder's new spokesman, Ari Adler, said Muchmore, who now works for a law firm, told him the potential of returning to the Detroit system was discussed with the governor but ultimately not pursued.
In January 2015, Adler, who had just joined Snyder's office, emailed communications director Jarrod Agen -- who is now chief of staff -- reacting to a Detroit Free Press story headlined "Who wants to drink Flint's water?"
"This is a public relations crisis -- because of a real or perceived problem is irrelevant -- waiting to explode nationally. 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?"
Snyder denied that his staffers were hesitant to alert him to problems.
"In many cases, they went back to the people that were responsible for those areas to say, 'Do you see a problem, do you see an issue?"' he said referring to officials in the Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services. "They kept on reaffirming there was no problem."
After Snyder lawyers recommended that Flint switch back to Detroit's system, Agen said, the governor's office had "a lot of back and forth" with Treasury officials and relented to their financial concerns -- similar to how the office repeatedly accepted DEQ experts' "pushback" that the water was fine.
"It wasn't the governor's office driving decisions. Instead we were trusting advice we were getting back. It should have been the other way around," Agen told The Associated Press.
Snyder said he wishes he asked more questions and had not just accepted answers.
Democrats, though, accused the governor of prioritizing cost-cutting measures over people's health and safety.
"A crime was committed against the children and families of Flint, and the unheeded warnings expressed to this governor, by his own inner circle, are as close to a smoking gun as you can get," state Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon said in a statement.
Associated Press writers Mike Householder in Flint, Tammy Webber in Fenton, John Flesher in Traverse City and Roger Schneider in Detroit contributed to this report.