Documents released Thursday by the watchdog group Progress Michigan have revealed that as early as January 2015, the administration of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) was stocking clean water for state employees, even as officials continued to assure Flint residents it was safe to drink the lead-contaminated water coming out of their taps.
The leaked documents consist of an email chain between several government employees, as well as a January 7 “Facility Notification” issued by the Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) in response to reports of Flint’s deteriorating water quality following a switch in the city’s water supply in April 2014.
Referencing concerns over possible violations of drinking water standards, the memo notes, “While the City of Flint states that corrective actions are not necessary, DTMB is in the process of providing a water cooler on each occupied floor [of the Flint State Office Building], positioned near the water fountain, so you can choose which water to drink.”
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At the same time that the government was providing its employees access to safe drinking water, residents in the impoverished city of 100,000 people were protesting the foul smell, discoloration, and health impacts of their own household water after Flint, under the authority of a state-appointed emergency manager, began to use the Flint River in a bid to cut down on costs.
Prior to April 2014, the city had sourced its water from Lake Huron, via the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD). After the switch, water from the highly corrosive Flint River ate away at old pipes, leaching lead into the water supply. The U.S. government has since recognized the situation as a federal emergency, but for well over a year city and state officials concealed both the magnitude of the crisis as well as their own knowledge of it from residents and the media.
Just weeks after the DTMB issued its January 2015 notice to government workers in the Flint State Office Building, including members of the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the Detroit Free Press ran a story featuring residents holding up bottles of red, brown, and yellow tap water and complaining of strange symptoms—vomiting, hair loss, and rashes. Health experts have since confirmed that these are symptoms of lead poisoning, which can also cause permanent brain damage in children.
According to the newspaper, residents had come out to protest authorities’ dismissal of their concerns, most recently at a city hall meeting on January 21, 2015, during which DEQ representatives and a microbiologist from Michigan State University vowed the water was safe to consume and cook with, adding that the discoloration was likely due to “iron and calcium” flowing through Flint’s ancient pipes.
Earlier this month, under mounting pressure, Gov. Snyder released over 270 pages of redacted emails relating to the crisis. These communiqués make clear that while massive quantities of lead—in some households as much as 13,000 parts per billion, nearly three times the lead-to-water ratio classified as toxic waste—were quietly poisoning an entire city, officials appeared more interested in deflecting liability away from their respective departments than working to safeguard Flint residents.
One such memo dated September 25, 2015, and penned by Snyder’s then-top aide Dennis Muchmore, laid the blame for the crisis squarely upon the county, the City of Flint, and the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), which took over water distribution after the city terminated its contract with the DSWD. Acknowledging that water quality had become a “challenging topic,” Muchmore nonetheless said he “can’t figure out how the state is responsible” for the crisis.
In other emails to health department officials, Muchmore wrote he was “frustrated by the water issue in Flint” and said residents were “basically getting blown off by us”—suggesting that complaints about poisoned water were falling on deaf ears.
But despite his apparent concern for residents, rights groups who have been following the crisis closely say that Muchmore himself is complicit in the disaster, given that he had Snyder’s ear for several months before the governor eventually announced a state of emergency on January 5—over 20 months after the poisoning had begun.
In an interview with Rewire, Progress Michigan Deputy Communications Director Sam Inglot said, “The fact of the matter is, Muchmore was Gov. Snyder’s chief of staff, and had already met with residents of Flint over their concerns. So either the governor’s top aide was meeting with residents about exposure to irreversible neurotoxins and not informing him [about it], or else he was blatantly disregarding their concerns—either way, it doesn’t look good for the administration.”
“In a situation where the city is being controlled by an emergency manager, the only elected official in that equation who has any power is Rick Snyder,” Inglot added. “So his administration must be held accountable.”
This past Wednesday, the same day that a group of residents and civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against city and state officials alleging they had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act, Progress Michigan wrote a blog post criticizing the Michigan State Senate for reportedly presenting Muchmore with an award for his work.
“By honoring Dennis Muchmore and slapping a medal on one of the people who failed Flint before doing anything to help the people of Flint, Senate Republicans have shown that their priorities are completely out of touch with Michiganders who need real leaders to solve this problem,” the January 27 post said.
According to Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, trucking in water coolers for state employees mirrors a pattern of officials all along the chain of command attempting to duck responsibility.
“The only response was to protect the Snyder administration from future liability and not to protect the children of Flint,” Scott said, reported the Detroit Free Press. “While residents were being told to relax and not worry about the water, the Snyder administration was taking steps to limit exposure in its own building.”
Asked what the latest leaked document reveals about the ongoing crisis, Inglot said, “This reflects what the people of Flint have been saying all along—that their voices have been completely ignored by the Snyder administration.”