Lansing — Two top advisers to Gov. Rick Snyder urged switching Flint back to Detroit’s water system in October 2014 after General Motors Co. said the city’s heavily chlorinated river water was rusting engine parts, according to governor’s office emails examined by The Detroit News.
Valerie Brader, then Snyder’s environmental policy adviser, requested that the governor’s office ask Flint’s emergency manager to return to Detroit’s system on Oct. 14, 2014, three weeks before Snyder’s re-election.
Mike Gadola, then the governor’s chief legal counsel, agreed Flint should be switched back to Detroit water nearly a year before state officials relented to public pressure and independent research showing elevated levels of lead in the water and bloodstreams of Flint residents.
“To anyone who grew up in Flint as I did, the notion that I would be getting my drinking water from the Flint River is downright scary,” Gadola wrote. “Too bad the (emergency manager) didn’t ask me what I thought, though I’m sure he heard it from plenty of others.”
Gadola said his mother remains a resident of Flint, adding a personal alarm to his message that was received by Snyder’s Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore, Deputy Chief of Staff Beth Clement and then-Communications Director Jarrod Agen and Brader.
“Nice to know she’s drinking water with elevated chlorine levels and fecal coliform,” Gadola said. “I agree with Valerie (Brader). 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 office released this week to The Detroit News nearly 1,600 pages of emails related to Flint’s 2014 switch to river water blamed on causing the leaching of lead into the city’s drinking water supply. The governor’s office is exempt from the state’s public records law, but Snyder said Monday he wanted to make the records open in the interest of transparency.The string of emails is the earliest indication that some of Snyder’s closest advisers were privately worried that Flint’s water troubles could mushroom into the crisis that now consumes the administration 16 months later.
The emails make clear that the governor’s aides discussed poor water quality in Flint as early as the fall of 2014 after the city issued limited boil-water advisories because of an outbreak of E. coli and total coliform bacteria in the water supply.
Concerns about chlorine
Brader’s email alludes to festering concerns about how the chlorine used to kill the bacteria outbreak was causing the formation of a harmful disinfection byproduct known as trihalomethane, a carcinogen that can increase the risk of cancer, liver, kidney and central nervous system problems.
“Specifically, there has been a boil water order due to bacterial contamination,” Brader wrote. “What is not yet broadly known is that attempts to fix that have led to some levels of chlorine-related chemicals that can cause long-term damage if not remedied (though we believe they will remedy them before any damage would occur in the population).”
Two months later, the Department of Environmental Quality issued a Safe Drinking Water Act violation to Flint for the high levels of trihalomethanes in the water. Flint violated the law twice more until coming into compliance on Sept. 2, 2015, state records show.
Despite the staff concerns about the city’s brownish water quality, Snyder’s staff never took a recommendation to him that Flint be switched back to Detroit water until the following October.
“I certainly was never in a meeting with him (Snyder), nor did I raise what I wrote in that email,” said Brader, who is now handling Flint water legal matters for the governor. “And to my knowledge, neither did Mike Gadola.”
Agen, who is now chief of staff, acknowledged Thursday “there’s a series of dots that weren’t connected” related to Flint’s water problems.
“This angers me when I look at all of this — there’s all these bits and pieces and it’s all not getting put together,” Agen told The Detroit News.
Switchback costs an issue
Muchmore said Thursday that Gadola and Brader’s advocacy for Flint switching back to Detroit water until the new Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline could be completed was the prevailing thought in Snyder’s office at the time.
“A lot of us felt like ‘I don’t care what it costs’ and ‘we have to go back’ because people didn’t have any faith in the water system at the time,” Muchmore said in an interview Thursday.
But Treasury Department officials concluded the cost to reconnect Flint to Detroit water — an extra $1 million per month — was deemed more than the cash-strapped city of Flint could afford, Muchmore said.
“The assessment was you couldn’t do it because it was a cost that should have borne by the system,” Muchmore said.
In a Feb. 5 email, Muchmore advocated using a $2 million grant the state had given Flint to upgrade its troubled water plant toward reconnecting to the Detroit water system.
“Since we’re in charge, we can hardly ignore the people of Flint,” Muchmore wrote to communications officials in the governor’s office, DEQ and Treasury Department. “After all, if GM refuses to use the water in their plant and our own agencies are warning people not to drink it ... we look pretty stupid hiding behind some financial statement.”
When asked why he didn’t ask the Senate and House appropriations chairmen last winter for a supplemental spending bill to reconnect Flint to Detroit’s system, the former chief of staff said it would have been dead on arrival.
Gadola declines comment
Two months after Gadola raised alarms about Flint’s water, Snyder appointed him to a seat on the Michigan Court of Appeals. On Thursday, the judge declined to answer questions about internal Snyder administration discussions over Flint’s water before he departed.
“I just don’t think it would be appropriate for me to be commenting on something involving my time in the governor’s office,” Gadola told The Detroit News.
The emails show Brader learned of GM’s switch to Detroit water on Oct. 14 from an aide in the office of Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat. Brader sent a note that afternoon to other top Snyder aides saying Flint’s water was “an urgent matter to fix,” records show.
In August and September 2014, the city of Flint issued boil water advisories to residents after water tests revealed an outbreak of E. coli and total coliform in some parts of the city. To treat the outbreak, the city increased the amount of chloride added to the drinking water at the Flint water treatment plant.
GM cited the chlorine when it disconnected from Flint’s water system and used nearby Flint Township’s water, which came from Detroit’s Lake Huron pipeline.
On Oct. 16, 2014, the city of Flint said the automaker’s exit from the city’s water system “ensures that Flint residents will continue to have safe quality drinking water but minimizes the impact on GM’s machining work.”
Before deciding in April 2013 to leave Detroit’s water system and join a new regional water authority, Flint officials weighed using a blend of water from the Flint River and Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to save money.
Ultimately, then-Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz decided to use river water after negotiations over a short-term water purchasing contract with Detroit officials broke down, state records show.
Brader also sent a separate email on Oct. 14 to DEQ Director Dan Wyant and two top aides, forwarding a news article about GM leaving Flint’s system.
“This underscores the need for the folks from DEQ to talk to the EM in Flint and to make sure a blended water solution is being explored,” she wrote. “I know Dan’s team was working on getting that set up.”
In her email to the other gubernatorial aides, Brader indicated she sent a separate email to DEQ officials so the exchange could not be obtained through the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
“I have not copied DEQ on this message for FOIA purposes,” she said.