Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder was advised in late September that the state bore responsibility for Flint’s water problems because former state Treasurer Andy Dillon made “the ultimate decision” to let the city leave the Detroit system, according to emails released Wednesday.
The city later turned to corrosive Flint River water that caused aging pipes to release lead into the drinking water.
The emails, detailed in 274 pages released by Snyder on Wednesday, offered a rare peek into the internal deliberations of the governor’s office, which is typically shielded from requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
They shed new light on Dillon’s role in approving a request in April 2013 by Flint officials to join other Genesee County communities as customers of the Karegnondi Water Authority after a half-century of buying drinking water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.
In late September, then-Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore offered a contrarian view at times about whether the state was on the hook for costs associated with switching Flint back to Detroit’s water.
“I can’t figure out why the state is responsible except that Dillon did make the ultimate decision so we’re not able to avoid the subject,” Muchmore wrote in a Sept. 25 email to Snyder, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and top gubernatorial aides.
The messages detail a realization over three weeks that Dillon was not the administration’s only tie to the crisis: On Oct. 2 the state acknowledged that its test results failed to identify increasing lead levels in children; on Oct. 18 the Department of Environmental Quality chief told Snyder the agency mistakenly failed to require corrosion controls on Flint River water.
Dillon told The Detroit News on Wednesday he originally opposed letting Flint join the KWA and “assumed it wouldn’t save Flint money” and would only serve to weaken the financially struggling Detroit system because Flint represented about 5 percent of DWSD’s revenues.
“After briefing, I was satisfied there was no construction risk to Flint and learned after input from (the DEQ) that KWA water would in fact be cheaper for Flint residents,” Dillon wrote in an email to The News.
As state treasurer, Dillon supervised Flint’s emergency manager at the time, Ed Kurtz, and had to sign off on all contracts that exceeded $50,000.
The emails don’t suggest Dillon played a role in the eventual use of the Flint River as a temporary drinking water source. He said Wednesday the issue never came to his desk after Flint and DWSD could not agree to terms of a new contract. A short-term deal would have provided Detroit water until the new Flint system was operational.
“I don’t recall that decision coming to me; it may have occurred after I left Treasury,” said Dillon, who stepped down as treasurer in October 2013.
In an interview Wednesday, Muchmore said comments about Dillon’s involvement referred to the decision to let Flint join KWA, not the temporary use of Flint water while the new pipeline to Lake Huron is constructed.
“I think the Flint River was always part of the KWA plan as far as I know, but that wasn’t what Dillon was signing off on,” Muchmore told The News.
In the Sept. 25 email to the governor, Muchmore also warned Snyder about the consequences of not holding a meeting with U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township.
“That’s tricky because he’s sure to use it publicly, but if you don’t talk with him it will just fan the narrative that the state is ducking responsibility,” Muchmore advised.
The next day, on Sept. 26, Muchmore sent Snyder and several aides another email commenting on the anxiety building in Flint, saying Kildee was engaging “in his normal press hound routine.”
“Of course, some of the Flint people respond by looking for someone to blame instead of working to reduce anxiety,” Muchmore wrote. “We can’t tolerate increased lead levels in any event, but it’s really the city’s water system that needs to deal with it.
“We’re throwing as much assistance as possible at the lead problem as regardless of what the levels, explanations or proposed solutions, the residents and particularly the poor need help to deal with it.”
Muchmore ended the lengthy email by adding: “The residents are caught in a swirl of misinformation and long term distrust of local government unlikely to be resolved.”
In the days immediately following, emails show interest in reconnecting Flint to the Detroit water system picking up steam. A Sept. 28 letter to Snyder’s office arrived from Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, calling for the “swift transfer to a safe source of water until the Karegnondi Water Authority is complete next year.”
On Oct. 1, Muchmore updated Snyder on DWSD’s terms for reconnection — terms that included no reconnection fees and a fixed monthly rate of $662,100. A day later, he wrote again with a summary of the situation.
“It appears on the surface (without the deep dive we’ll definitely do on it) that for $11M we can reconnect to DWSD system for the intervening time before KWA comes on line. That may well be the only way to bring any confidence back to the community,” Muchmore wrote in an email.
Snyder responded the same day: “We should help get all of the facts on the consequences of changing back vs. staying and then determine what financing mechanisms we have available. If we can provide the financing, then we should let Flint make the decision.”
Six days later, Snyder announced his support for $6 million in state funding to pay for reconnecting Flint to the Detroit water system, which draws its water from Lake Huron. The Mott Foundation donated $4 million to the effort and the city of Flint was required to pay $2 million toward the cost.
Muchmore has said he became aware of growing concerns over the safety of Flint’s water in July 2015. The governor’s office quietly helped distribute 1,500 kitchen faucet water filters to Flint residents through a group of Flint pastors. Harvey Hollins III, director of Snyder’s Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives, coordinated the distribution.
Snyder’s office redacted the name of the corporation that donated the filters in a Sept. 2 email Hollins sent Snyder updating him on the previous day’s distribution.
“How did it go over with the residents?” Snyder asked in a Sept. 5 response.
Hollins replied: “Governor, it went extremely well with the residents. There is demand for more.”
Snyder used Tuesday’s State of the State address to announce that he would release his emails in effort to regain the trust of Flint residents.
The release also details events preceding the resignation of DEQ Director Dan Wyant late last month. An Oct. 18 email shows Wyant preparing to respond to questions submitted by The News that raised questions about the state’s actions and public comments. In that email, he admits to Snyder that the DEQ mistakenly failed to apply the correct EPA standards to protecting Flint’s water system.
“Attached is our response to the Detroit News for a story that they are preparing for tomorrow,” Wyant wrote. “Part of that story looks at whether the DEQ staff followed appropriate federal protocols in light of Flint’s population size. My responses, enclosed here, are an effort to acknowledge something that has come out in the past week through internal review... I believe now we made a mistake.”
On Wednesday, Snyder clarified he would only release emails he wrote or received related to Flint over the past two years, but not those his staff authored or received. The Legislature also is exempt from FOIA.
During an interview with Scott Pelley for the “CBS Evening News” that aired Wednesday evening, Snyder again took responsibility for the water crisis and said the state DEQ did not use enough common sense.
“They were too technical,” Snyder said. “They followed literally the rules. They didn’t use enough common sense to say in situation like this there should be more measures. There should be more concern. And it has led to this terrible tragedy that I’m sorry for, but I’m going to fix. I have to take responsibility for the state’s role in this. These folks work for me. That was a failure.”
Snyder said that extensive testing of the water is ongoing. When asked for current water testing data, he said he did not have those figures at the top of his head.
“I don’t actually want to get into the issue by ZIP code or street,” he said.
Snyder said that while testing has shown some improvement, he warned that Flint residents should not believe their water is yet safe to drink.
“We want people to assume they should be using filters and bottled water,” he said.
Snyder said it is likely that the pipes throughout the city can be recoated so that they can be safely used.
A Snyder spokesman described the governor’s willingness to release the emails as rare.
“That’s probably never happened in Michigan before — emails sent to him and everything he sent,” Snyder’s press secretary Dave Murray said. “This is unprecedented.”
The governor’s administration has been under increasing pressure for long-running water contamination problems in Flint — many of which critics say were directly caused by poor government decision-making. The DEQ has drawn particular criticism for allowing Flint to draw drinking water from its river without using corrosion controls to prevent lead contamination.
In August, a research team headed by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards established the presence of dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water. Soon after, Hurley Medical Center’s Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha discovered high levels of lead in the blood of Flint children.
Lead can cause irreversible brain and developmental damage in children and infants who ingest it through water or lead-based paint. Health officials said its impacts can take years to manifest and require heightened monitoring to identify.
Staff Writers Christine MacDonald, Jonathan Oosting, Holly Fournier, Candice Williams and Joel Kurth contributed.