DEQ official: Staffers earn raises for Flint work

Joel Kurth, Jonathan Oosting, Christine MacDonald, and Jim Lynch

A top Michigan Department of Environmental Quality official joked with employees that they deserved a raise for handling citizen complaints about lead contamination of the Flint water supply.

On Sept. 30, one week before Gov. Rick Snyder ordered Flint to stop using the Flint River for its water supply, DEQ official Richard Benzie sent an email to seven employees within the office praising their handling of the crisis.

“I want to thank you for the effort you have made to respond to this issue,” wrote Benzie, who is field operations chief of the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.

“It is noticed and appreciated. In recognition for your performance, I have arranged for you to receive a 2 percent merit increase starting tomorrow.”

There was a raise the next day but it was scheduled months in advance. It was a cost-of-living increase, and it was for all state employees.

The email, which described how workers should respond to complaints about Flint water, is one of thousands of communications from Michigan employees to federal, city of Flint and Genesee County from 2013 to late 2015 reviewed by The Detroit News that offer a glimpse about how employees handled the growing crisis.

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Among other things, the emails show that Benzie and others continued to insist Flint’s drinking water met federal standards a few days before Snyder acknowledged the contamination and ordered the switch on Oct. 8.

“Biggest firestorm I have experienced in almost 40 years. And to think it is about a water system that has never exceeded an Action Level,” Benzie wrote on Oct. 5.

Months earlier, Benzie raised concerns about the state government’s placement of water coolers in the Flint State Office Building. The water was ordered in January 2015 as state officials assured residents the municipal water was safe to drink.

Benzie argued that state employees deserve as much protection as the public.

“Why does ‘public traffic’ deserve a higher consideration than concern for state workers? How does that reasoning appear to state employees?” Benzie wrote.

“A visitor may take one drink of water from this site in their lifetime. State workers (like any employees) may get half the water they consume each day at their place of employment. Which group faces the greater health risk from drinking water in state occupied premises?”

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Other highlights include:

■EPA Michigan Program Manager Jennifer Crooks saying she’s “developing a thick skin” because of citizen complaints and using a smiley face while describing Flint water.

“Yep. Another complaint about our favorite water supply :)” Crooks wrote on Oct. 14, 2014, forwarding a complaint to DEQ officials.

“Let me tell you, this Flint situation is a nasty issue — I’ve had people call me 4 letter words over the phone, yell at me and call me a crook,” she wrote Feb. 9, 2015. “I’m developing a thick skin.”

Two days later, she wrote that resident complaints are “like ticking time bombs around here.”

■DEQ District Engineer Michael Prysby repeatedly telling residents that drinking water from the Flint River is safe and downplaying suggestions otherwise from reporters and other officials.

On Oct. 13, 2014, he emailed details of an interview with a reporter after General Motors Co. stopped using city water because it was corroding engine parts.

“I stressed the importance of not branding Flint’s water as ‘corrosive’ from a public health standpoint simply because it does not meet a manufacturing facility’s limit for production,” Prysby wrote.

On April 3, 2015, he responded to a question from a resident about how a sewage spill into the Flint River would affect the water.

“I will need to know the location of the spill and when it occurred,” he wrote.

The woman replied: “I refuse to believe you are unaware of this incident.”

She included a web link to a newspaper story about the discharge.

It was the day before.

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■State officials blaming others for inflaming the passions of Flint residents or not doing enough to assure them.

“The state is trying like mad to get the word out that we’re working on every aspect of the health safety of local water that we can manage and the system needs a lot of work ... but it’s been rough sledding with a steady parade of community groups keeping everyone hopped-up and misinformed,” Brad Wurfel, who was then the DEQ’s communications director, wrote on Aug. 27, 2015.

“I’m somewhat surprised that the leadership in Flint has not responded better to the community questions,” then-chief of staff Dennis Muchmore wrote July 29, 2015.

Both are no longer with the state. Wurfel resigned in late December. Muchmore left the administration on Jan. 20 to become a lobbyist.