Snyder aides considered Flint water filters in March

Jonathan Oosting and Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder began exploring the use of faucet filters to address water complaints from Flint residents in early March, nearly six months before the governor’s office quietly helped distribute 1,500 filters on Sept. 1, according to state emails obtained by The Detroit News.

“If this idea begins to get legs, I’d suggest testing some different models on the local water at the customer level to see if they work,” Brad Wurfel, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, wrote in a March 5 email to top Snyder aides Rich Baird and Harvey Hollins, current chief of staff Jarrod Agen and department Director Dan Wyant.

“I’d also suggest the idea be focused on tap-mounted models to promote clean, appealing drinking water.”

Wurfel, who would resign in late December along with Wyant, indicated recipients had discussed the filter idea on a conference call earlier that same week. He made no mention of the lead contamination crisis that at the time had not been publicly exposed by independent researchers. Instead, the discussion focused on improving the taste and quality of tap water, which residents had complained about since the city began drawing from the Flint River in April of 2014.

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“While the state has provided residents in some communities with bottled water in the past, it always has to do with their water somehow being contaminated — as in, some kind of chemical plume that impaired drinking water sources,” Wurfel wrote. “This would be the first time the state took steps to deal with what is an aesthetic issue on a system where the water is meeting state drinking water standards.”

Other emails reviewed by The Detroit News indicate the Snyder administration was exploring options to address water color and odor complaints from Flint residents. State and city officials gathered March 9 at The Sterling Corp. consulting firm in Lansing to hear a pitch from a Novi company that specializes in ozone water disinfectant technology.

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The initial discussions did not spur immediate action. Instead, Hollins would spend several months exploring distribution and vendor options. The Snyder administration eventually worked with two undisclosed companies that donated 1,500 water filters, which a group called Concerned Pastors for Social Action handed out on Sept. 1.

Agen told The News Thursday the delay between initial discussions and distribution was caused, in part, by an incorrect shipment of filters in July. The pastors’ group received the correct shipment in early August and scheduled the giveaway event.

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“Unfortunately, there was not the level of urgency necessary because this was all during a time when DEQ was advocating that the water was safe to drink,” Agen said.

Less than a month after the filter giveway, with fears over water contamination escalating and state health officials confirming elevated lead levels in the blood of some children, Snyder announced an “action plan” that included free water filters for all residents.

Flint residents continue to rely on filters and bottled water. As of Wednesday, the state said it had distributed more than 104,500 filters and 211,200 replacement cartridges.