Doctor: Info ‘being withheld’ from Flint task force

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Some unidentified state agencies are resisting requests for information from a task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to investigate the Flint water contamination crisis, task force member Dr. Lawrence Reynolds said Friday.

“Unfortunately, first on the list is the legionella issue,” said Reynolds of Mott Children’s Health Center, referencing spikes in the fatal Legionnaires’ disease after the city began using Flint River water in April 2014.

“Some agencies have been very forthcoming, other agencies it’s like pulling teeth to get information, and it can get real frustrating and doesn’t facilitate good communication,” he said.

Reynolds, who serves on the task force, raised his concern during a meeting of the Flint Interagency Coordinating Committee attended by Snyder and top aide Rich Baird, who vowed to help Reynolds push through any bureaucratic resistance.

“I am at your disposal to help with any agencies in the state and also to try to help with agencies outside of the state department agencies,” Baird said.

State officials have said they cannot prove a clear link between the Flint water switch and the Legionnaires’ outbreak, which included 87 identified cases and at least nine deaths between June 2014 and November 2015.

Emails released Thursday by liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan show health officials and Snyder aide Harvey Hollins, who was also present for Reynolds’ comments, were alerted to the Legionnaires’ issue more than 10 months before the governor held a press conference to inform the public in January.

The Detroit News first reported Jan. 23 that an expert on Legionnaires’ disease for McLaren Regional Medical Center said Flint’s contaminated water likely contributed to the Legionnaires’ outbreak in Genesee County, where the bacteria was found in a hospital’s water supply.

The Flint task force has been working to wrap up its investigation this month, but Reynolds said members may need to reinterview some officials because of recent developments.

“If we don’t ask the question, we don’t get the answer,” he said. “But there’s clearly information that’s being withheld.”

Task force spokesman Chris DeWitt said he couldn’t elaborate on Reynolds’ comments, and Reynolds did not immediately return a call requesting further comment.

Reynolds is also a member of the interagency coordinating committee that met Friday for the second time. The committee is charged with, among other things, creating an incident action plan to help ensure safe drinking water and addressing the consequences of elevated lead levels.

Other panel members present Friday included Hollins, Department of Environmental Quality Director Keith Creagh, Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, who first exposed elevated lead levels in children following the switch to Flint River water.

Reynolds told members that “there seems to be significant tension” between the state health department and the Genesee County Health Department, suggesting some people are refusing to talk to each other and have had to use Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain information.

“There’s some crude terms I could use to describe what’s going on right now,” he said, “but that needs to cease and desist.

Lyon, seated next to the governor, told Reynolds that his chief deputy director Tim Becker was set to meet with Genesee Health Officer Mark Valacak later Friday afternoon.

“They’re going to start addressing those issues,” Lyon said.

Snyder created the interagency committee by executive order on Jan. 11 to “facilitate the collaboration and communication” between the state, local governments and independent experts on response and recovery efforts in Flint.

The committee is not a public body and Friday’s meeting was not open to the public, but it was streamed online “because of the great public interest in the committee's work, and in the spirit of transparency,” said Snyder spokesman Dave Murray.

“The situation Dr. Reynolds described is exactly the frustration Gov. Snyder has spoken about regarding the culture in some state departments that was a problem and needed to be changed,” Murray said. “The governor is actively taking steps to rectify the situation and ensure that authorities get the information they need when they need it.

“We are glad that Dr. Reynolds raised the issue directly with us today. We will not tolerate any departments withholding information from the task force.”

The governor addressed the committee in brief remarks at the beginning and end of Friday’s meeting, noting recent approvals of supplemental state funding requests to address the Flint crisis.

“We have limited resources and we want to make them count the most, and the more we can coordinate, the better off we are,” he said.