Two Flint employees signed off on using the corrosive Flint River as the city’s primary water source just before the state’s appointed emergency manager added his signature to the plan, documents released over the weekend by the Governor’s Office show.
That controversial decision — to use the river while work continued on a new regional authority connecting to Lake Huron — was a major contributor to the water quality issues, including high lead levels, Flint residents have now endured for nearly two years.
While who was ultimately the force behind the decision remains unclear, documents signed in June 2013 by city employees and the state-appointed emergency manager show clear intent to draw from the river nearly a year before the city moved off Detroit’s water system.
On June 26, 2013, two months after Flint agreed to join the Karegnondi Water Authority, then-Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz signed off on a resolution seemingly committing the city to using water from the river. That decision entered Flint into a $171,000 contract with a consulting firm to move in that direction.
“The City of Flint requires professional engineering services for assistance in placing the Flint Water Plant into operation using the Flint River as a primary drinking water source for approximately two years and then converting to KWA-delivered lake water when available. …,” the resolution reads.
His approval on the plan followed recommendations — dated more than a week earlier — for contract approval from two Flint employees: Infrastructure and Development Director Howard Croft and Utilities Administrator Daugherty Johnson III. Kurtz and Johnson could not be reached Sunday. Croft, who resigned in November, has declined comment to The News on Flint matters.
Other documents released by the Governor’s Office on Friday and Saturday, which totaled more than 16,600, include a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality timeline that references the resolution. For June 2013, it reads: “Flint notifies the (DEQ) of intent to operate Flint Water Treatment Plant fill time using Flint River for drinking water.”
Darnell Earley took over as Flint’s emergency manager a few months after the resolution was approved. In March 2014, when he officially rebuffed an offer from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to provide Flint with water until Karegnondi’s completion, Earley cited that decision from before his tenure.
“Following DWSD’s April 17, 2013 notice of termination of the water service contract … the City of Flint has actively pursued using the Flint River as a temporary water source while the KWA is completed,” he wrote to DWSD officials. “We expect that the Flint Water Treatment Plant will be fully operational and capable of treating Flint River water prior to the date of termination. In that case, there will be no need for Flint to continue purchasing water to serve.”
In recent months, as Flint’s water problems have persisted, Earley’s role in the decision to turn to the river as a water source has been questioned. As an indirect defense of his actions, he has pointed critics to the 2013 resolution approved by Kurtz.
And high-level officials in Gov. Rick Snyder’s office seemingly felt the criticism of Earley was unjustified.
“I know that no one is going to want to do this, but I don’t feel that it is unfair for Darnell to set the record straight,” wrote Dennis Muchmore, then-Snyder’s chief of staff, in an Oct. 20, 2015, email. “This should be a decision for the (governor), Jarrod (Agen) and Dan (Wyant), however, my guess is that Darnell is not going to quietly accept the abuse of the Flint people without having this voice heard.”
Wyant resigned as director of the Department of Environmental Quality in late December.
Documents also reveal efforts to cast blame for the river decision on others.
Spokesman Dave Murray appears to have begun the spin cycle on Sept. 25, 2015, after receiving an email from a Flint-area television reporter who asked about the “thought process or reasoning” behind the city’s switch from Detroit water to the Flint River in April 2014.
The question “might be the opening we are looking for,” Murray said in an email to Communications Director Jarrod Agen, who now works as the governor’s chief of staff.
Murray noted the governor’s no-blame mantra of relentless positive action but asked Agen if he should use the reporter’s question “as an opportunity to point out that the emergency manager took the action following an 8-1 vote of the Flint City Council and the recommendation from the mayor — and that the EM was following the wishes of the local leaders?”
Agen responded by saying it is “perfectly fair” to do so.
But the vote in question, which was actually 7-1 and took place in March 2013, had little to do with the Flint River. Instead, the local council approved a resolution to change permanent water sources from Detroit water to the Karegnondi Water Authority, which continues to build a new regional pipeline to Lake Huron.
The resolution made no mention of using the Flint River as an interim drinking water source, although it did call for eventually blending a small amount of river water with the Lake Huron supply.
Snyder aide Harvey Hollins made this point clear in an Oct. 7 email to Agen and then-chief of staff Dennis Muchmore.
“It is important to note that council did not take a vote to use Flint river,” Hollins wrote. “DWSD terminated the contract in April 2013 after the March 2013 vote which gave Flint one year left to use DWSD. The decision to use Flint river was made April 2014 instead of paying the cost to continue on DWSD until KWA was online.”
Nonetheless, the Snyder administration continued to point to the council vote when fielding questions on the Flint River. Snyder, in his January 2016 State of the State address, apologized and acknowledged failures at all levels of government but said “the crisis began” with the local vote to join the Karegnondi Water Authority.
The council’s involvement, requested as a condition of Flint’s participation in the project by Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright, who is CEO of Karegnondi, was somewhat ceremonial because elected officials had no power in the city at that time. Then-state Treasurer Andy Dillon ultimately signed off on the switch to Karegnondi and recommended Kurtz sign the resolution. Dillon gave Kurtz permission to reject a final offer from Detroit, which then told the city it would terminate its service contract in April 2014.
The switch to Flint River water was proposed by the city after the termination letter and “pitched primarily as a money saver,” according to February 2015 background notes prepared by the Department of Environmental Quality and shared with Snyder in a Feb. 1, 2015, briefing. The document did not specify whether “city” referred to elected officials or the state-appointed emergency manager who ran Flint.
The DEQ “approved the use of the river as a source, based on the treatment plant’s past performance as a standby facility and the improvements we outlined prior to a switch over,” according to the briefing.
An October 2015 email thread shows the state Treasury Department was researching the Flint River switch question for the governor’s communications team at that time but was not able to come to a clear conclusion over the role of emergency managers.
“From our search there does not appear to be any council action or EM order/resolution regarding the city using the river as a water source,” Treasury official Robert Widigan wrote in an email that was forwarded to then-Snyder press secretary Sara Wurfel. “It seems like it was just decided and they went with it.”
While question remain over who gave final approval to make the switch, records show that local officials did embrace the interim use. Then-Mayor Dayne Walling, in his March 2014 State of the State address, noted the pending switch to the Flint River and touted the “excellent” track record of the Flint Water Treatment Plant.
“So later this spring, we will all be drinking Pure Flint Michigan Natural Mineral Water,” said Walling, according to the prepared version of his speech, noting the different mineral density in the river source.
“…The new water will be properly treated, lightly fluoridated, and will taste different than the water from Lake Huron that came from Detroit. Pure Flint Michigan Natural Mineral Water.”
The eventual switch to Flint River water prompted quick complaints from residents about the taste, discoloration and rotten-egg odor and discoloration. It also lacked corrosion treatment to prevent aging pipes from leaching lead into the drinking water.
Walling, too, changed his tune, sending to Snyder in mid-January 2015 a plan to address his city’s water problems and inviting the governor to visit the city. His plan included amnesty for residents facing water shutoff notices and accelerated capital improvements.
Walling’s plan was met with internal resistance by Snyder’s press team. Murray, in a Jan. 26, 2015, email to Agen, suggested the mayor “is trying to drag us into this fight.”
The next day, Wurfel flagged Flint’s water problems in an email to Hollins, director of the governor’s Office of Urban Initiatives.
“We need to touch base and get all facts on this situation ASAP,” Wurfel wrote. “Turning into unfortunate and unnecessary PR issue that we’re trying to work with Treasury and DEQ to be on top of, stem, find resolution, etc.”
State Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, who was on the City Council in 2013 and voted for the Karegnondi resolution, has continually blamed the Flint River decision on state-appointed emergency managers, a claim that the administration has fought.
“Remember this isn’t just a policy issue but a political one and the Democrats will use this for as long as they can,” Snyder senior adviser Dick Posthumus said in an internal email about Neeley. “(All) we can do is use (relentless positive action) to do the right thing and hopefully people will see through their partisan rhetoric.”