Legionnaires’ fear led staffer to warn against calling water safe
Lansing — The communications director for the state Department of Environmental Quality didn’t want his boss calling Flint water “safe” in January 2015 because of a spike in deadly Legionnaires’ disease cases — an outbreak the public would be unaware of until Gov. Rick Snyder disclosed it nearly a year later.
Documents released this week by Snyder’s office show then-DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel alerted the governor’s deputy press secretary to the Legionnaires’ spike on Jan. 30, 2015, as they planned an event to announce $2 million in grant funding to help Flint upgrade its water system.
Wurfel, in an email to Snyder spokesman Dave Murray, said he didn’t want Director Dan Wyant “to say publicly that the water in Flint is safe until we get the results of some county health department traceback work on 42 cases of Legionnaires disease in Genesee County since last May.”
The email, which ended with an offer to provide additional explanation by phone or in person, is the earliest known date that anyone in Snyder’s office was aware of the Legionnaires’ outbreak, which would sicken 87 people and kill nine. The cases came in two waves: the first from June 2014 through March 2015, and the second from May 2015 through November 2015.
Wurfel would send additional Legionella bacteria emails to Snyder staffers in March 2015, including his wife, then-press secretary Sara Wurfel, and top aide Harvey Hollins. He also forwarded an email to communications director Jarrod Agen, who now serves as the governor’s chief of staff. Agen said Thursday he missed the email when it was sent.
“I never saw it, nor did I open it,” Agen said.
The governor told the public about the disease outbreak on Jan. 13, 2016, saying he had learned about it just two days prior. He was joined by state health officials, who said they could not draw a direct connection between Legionella bacteria and the city’s drinking water. To date, no such link has been confirmed.
Legionnaires’ is a respiratory disease caused in warmer months by a bacteria in warm fresh water that leads to pneumonia and sometimes death. The bacteria can be found in large plumbing systems, hot tubs, air-conditioning units and fountains.
Hundreds of administration emails shared this week with The News ahead of public release included just four messages about Legionnaires’. None of those emails was sent to or from Snyder, but Agen said the governor’s staff did him a “disservice” by not telling him sooner.
“I look at all this and say I’m mad there wasn’t urgency,” Agen told The News. “Personally, I’m mad I didn’t open up that Legionnaires’ email and do something about it. I’m mad that the communications shop didn’t do something about it.”
Snyder shook up his communications staff Thursday, reassigning Murray to the Department of Talent and Economic Development. Former House Republican spokesman Ari Adler will step in as the governor’s new communications director.
Two days after the initial Brad Wurfel email, Murray briefed Snyder on the pending press event in an email that made no mention of Legionella, telling the governor Wyant would “address ongoing efforts with his agency to test Flint water.”
The city had switched to Flint River water in April 2014, a change that prompted immediate complaints from residents about odor, taste and color, followed by a boil water advisory over E. coli and a violation notice over levels of trihalomethane, a disinfection byproduct.
Wurfel, who resigned alongside Wyant in late December, declined to elaborate on his email to Murray. His attorneys told The News it would be inappropriate because the matter is the subject of a class-action lawsuit by Flint residents who are suing the state and have named Wurfel among several defendants.
“As counsel, we can say, however, that Mr. Wurfel’s response was appropriate,” said attorney Michael J. Pattwell of the Clark Hill PLC firm. “He alerted the email recipient to the limited information in his possession at that time and advised against making any premature statements unsupported by epidemiological data and other scientific investigation outside of his expertise.”
Dennis Muchmore, Snyder’s former chief of staff, has defended the governor and maintains they both learned about the Legionnaires’ outbreak early in 2016. On Thursday, Muchmore downplayed the significance of Murray learning of the outbreak from Wurfel nearly a year earlier.
“They might have said that to Dave, but he’s no expert, he’s going to leave it Health and Human Services,” Muchmore told The News. “I know everyone’s looking for some smoking gun on the Legionnaires’ disease, but I don’t think people knew much about the Legionnaires’ disease.”
Muchmore insisted the information was never shared with him.
“If I had known anything about it, it would have been a pretty big issue to me,” Muchmore said. “I don’t remember people talking about this all, to be truthful with you.”
Agen, who replaced Muchmore last month, said he never opened a March 16, 2015, email from Wurfel that included an exchange between DEQ officials and Genesee County Health Director Jim Henry, who had warned that concerns over trihalomethanes in Flint water “pale in comparison” to the public health risks posed by Legionella.
Wurfel sent the same email three days earlier to Hollins and Wyant, arguing it was “beyond irresponsible” for Henry to link Legionella to Flint water because the county had “failed to do the necessary traceback work” he mentioned in the January email to Murray.
“At a January meeting with area hospitals, MDCH, DEQ and others, (health department Director) Nick Lyon reportedly directed the county health folks, in terms not uncertain, to get this done as a priority,” Wurfel said in a March 13, 2015, email. “As I’m sitting here today, it still is not done to my knowledge.”
Sara Wurfel, who left the governor’s office for a private sector job at the end of November, confirmed Thursday she received a March 13 email from her husband regarding Legionella. She said she did try to “flag” what she felt “could be a significant issue” but declined to elaborate.
A March 16 email from Sara Wurfel to Agen regarding an upcoming communications meeting with the governor shows she asked to add Flint water as a topic, saying it “continues to be a relatively big deal with Harvey working on several things that could be big deals. Might be good to bring up with him too.”
As The News reported Wednesday, none of the five government agencies aware of the outbreak ever tested the Flint water system for Legionella despite concerns raised as early as October 2014 by the county health department, which says it did not have the expertise to do so.
The state health department assisted the county with “epidemiological analysis” in January 2015, according to a department timeline shared with the governor’s office in December.
Health department spokeswoman Angela Minicuci said the state’s initial role was helping design a questionnaire for Legionnaires’ patients and then leading efforts to collect data from affected individuals.
That investigation was not yet complete in March 2015, when Wurfel complained the county had not gotten it done, Minicuci said. The initial analysis concluded with a June 4, 2015, executive summary declaring the outbreak “over,” a statement that was challenged by the county.
The department started a second investigation when additional cases began to pop up, Minicuci said.
Genesee County in February 2015 reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency, which then shared initial data with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC was ready to help but required a formal request from the state, but the state said it had the situation under control.
Henry maintains that the state “shut down” his communication with the federal government and various attempts to explore the connection between Flint water and the Legionnaires’ outbreak.
“I think if the CDC came, some of those 2015 deaths could have been avoided,” he said. “Absolutely.”
Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.