In the cacophony of bureaucratic voices aiming to minimize the Flint water crisis and shape its implications, Dennis Muchmore pretty much played it straight.
He understood the frustration of “everyday people” there “to listen to financial issues and water mumbo-jumbo when all they see is problems,” Gov. Rick Snyder’s former chief of staff writes in an email last March, one of nearly 1,600 pages of executive-branch documents reviewed this week by The Detroit News. “If we procrastinate much longer in doing something direct, we’ll have real trouble.”
A few minutes later, at 12:01 a.m. on March 3, Muchmore tells a top Lansing-based PR executive the state has “got to do something for the people of Flint because it’s right to do more .... We’ve got to work on getting them water they can trust, but there is no easy solution.”
The governor’s right-hand man invokes the theme repeatedly in correspondence showing him trying (or at least appearing to try) to move a bureaucracy more concerned with managing optics, controlling damage and hewing to inane process — none of which helps long-suffering Flint residents cope with noxious brown water tainted with lead.
He mostly failed, raising a critical question: Where was the boss? How can a chief of staff, so obviously the conduit of heightening concern over Flint’s water fiasco, appear not to be briefing the governor regularly on a worsening situation in the state’s second-largest minority-majority city? Is the governor’s bias toward delegating responsibility and trusting his staff sufficient explanation for his administration’s initially slow response?
And does anyone inside the administration have the responsibility to connect the proverbial dots possibly linking the Flint Water Crisis to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease that sickened 87 people and killed nine; to understand what state departments are doing — or not doing; to grasp how all of it could imperil average folks, their children and their property values, or how lacking such vision creates a gaping credibility gap for the state?
“Since we’re in charge, we can hardly ignore the people of Flint,” Muchmore writes on Feb. 5, 2015, a month earlier. “After all, if” General Motors Co. “refuses to use the water in their plants and our own agencies are wanting people not to drink it ... and the differential between what we now collect and what we would pay” the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department “is not significant, we look pretty stupid hiding behind some financial statement.”
Yup, pretty much. The “real trouble” prophesied by Muchmore is metastasizing into an epic failure of multiple layers of government, none more so than a state government led by Snyder and an administration then quarterbacked by Muchmore. A continuing stream of documents, released in answer to demands for transparency, shows state bureaucrats too often minimizing the concerns of Flint residents and maximizing overly technical considerations-turned-butt covering.
Four months later, in identical emails sent one minute apart to the heads of the state departments of community health and environmental quality, Muchmore says he’s “frustrated by the water issue in Flint. I really don’t think the people are getting the benefit of the doubt. These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts .... As a state, we’re just not sympathizing with their plight.”
He was right, as emails and related documents examined by The News amply illustrate, repeatedly. The lack of empathy for a community hammered by economic hardship and continuing anxiety over its water supply is stunning in its callousness and bureaucratic remove.
Two days after Muchmore expressed his frustrations over Flint, emails traded within the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, serve to make his point. At 12:09 p.m. on July 24, 2015, the Communications Director Brad Wurfel shoots an email to two colleagues and copies the department director, Dan Wyant:
“Guys, the Flint ministers met with the governor’s office again last week. They also brought along some folks from the community — a college prof and a GM engineer — who imparted that 80 water tests in Flint have shown high lead levels.”
At 3:46 p.m., the MDEQ’s Lansing district coordinator, Stephen Busch, says that because the city of Flint’s water system serves more than 50,000 people, the city’s water treatment system is “required to have Fully Optimized Corrosion Control” to prevent corrosive Flint River water from disrupting the bio-films lining Flint water lines and protecting residents from leaching lead and other contaminants.
But the city did not institute those controls, and Busch blames the leaching lead not on the failure to treat the water. He blames “lead service lines into homes and ... plumbing materials and fixtures within the private property of the households.”
At 4:18 Wurfel responds: “By the tenants (sic) of the federal statute, the city is in compliance for lead and copper. That aside, they have not optimized their water treatment. In terms of near-future issues, the bottom line is that residents of Flint do not need to worry about lead in their water supply, and DEQ’s recent sampling does not indicate an eminent (sic) threat from lead or copper.”
The residents of Flint had ample reason to worry — and documents show ranking members of the Snyder administration, including Muchmore, had long known it. In an exchange of notes in October 2014, the governor’s then-legal counsel, Mike Gadola, called the prospect of pulling drinking water from the Flint River “downright scary.”
A Flint native, he also urged that the state move to get Flint back on the Detroit water system “as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control.” Good advice, counselor. It only took a year for the client, gripped by inertia and an intervening re-election campaign, to heed it.
As recently as last September, emails show, Muchmore agreed that it “makes no sense ... at all” to reconnect Flint to the Detroit water system, adding: “... just can’t wait to put this behind me.”
A month later, on Oct. 13 — three days before Flint reconnects to the Detroit system — Muchmore sounds introspective in a note to two state Treasury Department officials: “Of course, I have a lot of complaints about myself and this Flint thing. If I had acted more quickly ... we would at least have had a more robust discussion.”
His successor as chief of staff, Jarrod Agen, is more pointed: “This angers me. When you look at this put together you have a picture of what was going on, but at the time no one was putting together what was going on,” he told The News in an interview. “And that absolutely needs to change.”
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.